While prosecution of animal cruelty cases is generally considered the exclusive purview of law enforcement, veterinarians who routinely examine and treat sick and injured animals occupy a unique role in the legal process of identifying cruelty and bringing its perpetrators to justice.
Determining the cause, severity and duration of an animal’s injuries (or death)—as well as the extent to which the animal suffered or experienced pain—are important legal elements of a cruelty case. Yet these elements cannot be established without the expertise of the veterinarian who has examined or treated the animal in question. For the veterinarian, this unanticipated status as a critical resource (and often witness) in animal cruelty investigations and prosecutions brings both rewards and frustrations.
This article seeks to help veterinarians better understand the laws that govern animal cruelty as well as veterinarians’ integral role in the identification, reporting, and prosecution of these cases.
What is Animal Cruelty?
There is no simple answer to this question, since the definition of “animal cruelty” differs from state to state. Adding to the confusion, “cruelty” is often used as a catchall for offenses against animals generally, including abuse, neglect, animal fighting, abandonment, and practicing veterinary medicine without a license. The meaning of these offenses also differs from one jurisdiction to the next.
Here, we will speak in more general terms, focusing on elements common to many state cruelty laws.
Defining “Animal” in Cruelty Statutes
Animal cruelty generally means causing unjustified injury or death to an animal. Many state cruelty laws cover just about any animal, particularly in their provisions defining lesser cruelty offenses (misdemeanors). For example, New York law covers “every living creature except a human being,” while California law covers “every dumb creature.”
Some states are more specific in the application of their misdemeanor cruelty laws. For example, in Arizona Criminal Code, “animal” includes mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. In Alaska criminal law, “animal” means vertebrates, but not fish.
Among the 43 states that have felony animal cruelty statutes, some make the felony offense applicable to any animal, much the same as the misdemeanor provisions. New York limits its “aggravated cruelty” law to companion animals. In New York, “companion” animals include all dogs and cats and other domesticated animals normally kept in or near the household of the owner or custodian.
Other states apply their felony provisions to dogs and cats, livestock, and animals acting in certain official capacities, such as law enforcement and service animals, search and rescue dogs, or dogs used by peace officers.
Defining Intentional Cruelty
States also differ as to the level of culpability, or mental state required to establish a misdemeanor or felony offense. While many states require only a knowing or neglectful mental state to prove misdemeanor cruelty, most require a heightened level of culpability, or more egregious circumstances (intent, maliciousness, depravity), to make out the more serious felony offense.
Many states also reserve the more serious, felony level punishments for situations where serious injury or death is the result, or when the behavior constitutes “torture.” Torture is a concept that is sometimes defined within the cruelty law and sometimes not. Typical definitions include any behavior that causes unjustifiable pain or suffering.
What we think of as neglectful behavior generally involves a failure to provide an animal with adequate food, drink, veterinary care, shelter. The neglectful behavior either endangers the animal’s health or causes physical injury or death. These behaviors the basis for the majority of cruelty complaints in many parts of the country - are usually covered in state misdemeanor cruelty laws and are often found in the company of archaic language. Statutes may include wording such as “overdriving” an animal or “depriving of necessary sustenance,” or “failure to provide proper food.”
What precisely constitutes “necessary” or “proper” food, drink, shelter, and veterinary care goes largely undefined in these statutes. This often makes proof of these elements dependent on the expert skill and educated opinion of the veterinarian.
Exceptions to Cruelty
Some states expressly exempt certain practices from the coverage of the animal cruelty laws. For example, customary agricultural practices, pest control, lawful hunting, fishing, trapping, animal experimentation, as well as cosmetic veterinary procedures (tail docking, ear cropping, declawing) may be expressly exempted from the cruelty provisions.
Whether or not these procedures are expressly exempted from a cruelty provision, questions often arise as to whether they can nonetheless constitute animal cruelty. The answer is not an easy one nor is it the same in every case.
Procedures such as ear cropping, tail docking, declawing and even euthanasia can be considered cruelty if not performed by a licensed veterinarian, without appropriate pain management, or otherwise in violation of accepted veterinary practices:
Some states have begun considering laws to ban ear cropping and tail docking when done solely for cosmetic purposes, even when these procedures are performed by licensed veterinarians.
Procedures such as declawing, tail docking and ear cropping, when done by someone other than a licensed veterinarian, may also constitute practicing veterinary medicine without a license, which is a serious crime in many states.
How Do Veterinarians Get Involved in Cruelty Cases?
1) Just Doing their Jobs
First, and perhaps most commonly, veterinarians become involved as a routine function of their everyday practice; that is, while treating their patients. Veterinarians discover evidence of abuse, neglect, and animal fighting while examining and administering to the needs of their animal charges.
While the most overt and heinous cases, such as those involving severe beating, burning, shooting or stabbing, may be less common, potentially “neglectful” situations may present themselves more routinely in veterinary offices.
Each day, veterinarians examine and treat patients who are malnourished, underweight, flea or worm infested, dehydrated, suffering from severe ear or eye infections, heartworm, upper respiratory ailments, mange. These and hosts of other conditions may be curable with appropriate treatment.
Whether the illness or injury was either caused by, or prolonged unnecessarily by, the action (or inaction) of the animal’s owner or custodian is a judgment peculiarly within the reasoned professional expertise of the treating veterinarian.
2) At the request of law enforcement or through court order
Veterinarians are sometimes asked to accompany the police or cruelty investigators to the scene of suspected animal cruelty or neglect to conduct an examination of the animals. Similarly, veterinarians often examine, treat and perform necropsies on animals seized for cruelty, neglect and animal fighting at the behest of law enforcement.
Veterinarians can also be ordered by the court (through a subpoena) to turn over records or other information concerning animal clients they have treated. A subpoena may also be used to compel the testimony of a veterinarian concerning his or her clients and their condition and treatment.
These situations should not implicate the same liability issues as enumerated in 1) above since here the veterinarian is either working for law enforcement (and not for the owner or caretaker of the animal) or the veterinarian is being ordered by the court to disclose information. Note, however, that some states have nonetheless expressly included testifying in court in their “veterinary immunity” statutes.
When Veterinarians Report Cruelty
Still, these situations create a dilemma for veterinarians in deciding when it is appropriate to report their suspicions to law enforcement or other animal welfare authorities. Veterinary licensing agencies in some states advise veterinarians not to disclose client information and confidences. (There is often an express exception to this caveat when there is reasonable suspicion that an animal or the public safety is in danger, but this does not always deter the oversight agency from cautioning against disclosure.)
Several states require a licensed veterinarian to report instances of animal abuse/cruelty in either statute or regulation. As of 2007 these include:
Laws differ as to when the veterinarian is required to report. Some states require that the veterinarian has direct knowledge of the abuse or neglect while others require only a “reasonable suspicion. “
California Arizona, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin mandate reporting when there is a reasonable belief that a dog was injured or killed as a result of its participation in a staged animal fight.
Suspicion of abuse creates conflict for veterinarians who wish to protect their patients from further harm, but who do not want to subject themselves to license revocation, civil or criminal liability. Many states have responded to this problem by passing laws that grant veterinarians immunity from civil and criminal liability if they act in good faith in reporting animal cruelty to the appropriate authorities.
States that expressly provide civil lawsuit immunity for good faith reporting, unless otherwise specified, include:
Why is the Veterinarian So Vital to a Cruelty Case?
To successfully prosecute an animal cruelty case, the state must commonly show:
Speaking for the Victim
As in many child abuse cases, the animal victim cannot speak for itself and therefore cannot describe the severity or duration of pain it has experienced. This lack of a victim who can also serve as a prosecution witness creates a potentially fatal failure of proof. The degree of injury and attendant suffering caused are, even in misdemeanor cruelty cases, elements of the crime that must be proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.
Moreover, proof of severe injury, suffering, or confirmation that a body part was impaired or disfigured are often necessary to elevate a misdemeanor to a felony offense.
The veterinarian who treated the animal (or who examined the animal at the behest of law enforcement) has the professional expertise to establish the nature, duration, and severity of the animal’s injury. And, he or she alone can draw a reasoned conclusion concerning the likely cause of the bruised kidney suffered by the golden retriever, the multiple broken bones of the cat found dead in an alley, the scarring covering the head and ears of the pit-bull, or the severe emaciation and rain rot discovered in a horse left standing in a field with no shelter. Because of this expertise, the veterinarian is an integral part of the prosecution team.
Working closely with the prosecutor, the veterinarian should visually document (through high quality photos and/or video) the animal’s injuries and condition as close in time to the incident as possible and continuing throughout all stages of healing and recuperation.
Careful documentation of the recuperation process is also important, including mention of any signs of pain, suffering, loss of bodily function, and any other complications such as weight loss, fever, restlessness, anxiety, etc.
The veterinarian may also be called upon to review records that document the animal’s condition prior to the alleged abuse or neglect, as well as medical records for other animals residing in the same home or business.
The veterinarian should also be prepared to present his or her findings to the judge or jury in the form of testimony. Though it may seem daunting, effective testimony really just means stating what you know for a fact in a simple, coherent fashion that can be understood by those without your medical training.
Too often, witnesses believe they should think like lawyers. This tends to get everyone in trouble. The veterinarian’s value to a cruelty case lies in his or her medical expertise. Leaving the legal mumbo-jumbo to the attorneys is always for the best. (Lawyers themselves tend to prefer it this way since their livelihoods can depend heavily on the use of language nobody else can understand).
Veterinarians are among the most trusted professionals whose expert testimony can carry enormous weight when telling the story of an animal that may have suffered or died as the result of an act of cruelty or neglect.
By understanding their role in identifying and reporting cases of suspected animal cruelty, and by using their expertise to assist the police and prosecution in the investigation and prosecution of the case, veterinarians play a critical role in preventing further acts of animal neglect and abuse. They not only protect their own animal patients, they help make their community a safer and more humane place to live for both its human and animal inhabitants.
The following websites contain helpful and useful information about veterinarians’ reporting of animal abuse:
Stacy Wolf, Esq., is ASPCA Vice President & Chief Legal Counsel, Humane Law Enforcement.