The Veterinarian's Legal Role in Animal Cruelty Cases
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.
What is Animal Cruelty?
There is no simple answer to this question, since the definition 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.
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.
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.
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.
How Veterinarians Get Involved in Cruelty Cases
First, and perhaps most commonly, veterinarians become involved as a routine function of their everyday practice 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.
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.
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 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.
When Veterinarians Report Cruelty
Situations may 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.)
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."
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.
Why a Veterinarian is Vital to a Cruelty Case
To successfully prosecute an animal cruelty case, the state must commonly show:
The nature, severity and duration of the animal's injury
The cause of that injury (or death)
In some cases, the degree to which the animal suffered or experienced pain as a result of its injuries
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.
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.
The following websites contain helpful and useful information about veterinarians' reporting of animal abuse:
Prosecuting Animal Cruelty Webinar Series
The National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse (NCPAA), a program of the National District Attorneys Association, teamed up with the ASPCA and Animal Legal Defense Fund to present a series of webinars to address the needs of professionals – especially prosecutors, veterinarians, and law enforcement – who pursue animal abusers. Explore the webinar recordings.