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Why are some veterinarians reluctant to report suspected animal abuse?

Nov 8, 2019

Credit freeimages.com/Alex Ringer

Veterinarian Melinda Merck was surprised by the number of abused animals who came through her private practice for cats in Atlanta in the 1990s and at a shelter she worked with.

"For some reason there are more heinous things done to cats over dogs, it seems," she said. "There seems to be some anti-cat sentiment that results in their death."

Merck was drawn to the field of veterinary forensics because she wanted to help investigators solve animal crimes and prosecute the people who are responsible for them.

Merck is the keynote speaker at Lollypop Farm, the Humane Society of Greater Rochester's third annual animal crimes conference at Monroe Golf Club in Pittsford from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Saturday, November 9.

Investigating animal abuse, she explained, is somewhat similar to uncovering child abuse. A big clue is when a pet's history doesn't fit the findings of a physical exam.

"So if we know it's an indoor only cat, or it's a dog that only goes on leash walks, we know we're limiting their ability to be exposed to somebody doing something bad to them, or accidental causes," she explained. "Just like they report in children, there's a certain pattern of injury that we can see in animals that support animal abuse versus accidental causes."

But there's a problem. Veterinarians, according to Merck, are wary of reporting suspected abuse.

"I think, across the board veterinarians are reluctant to make that call," she said.

Part of this, Merck believes, is that they fear retribution when they're wrong, or if abuse can't be proven. There are laws that provide immunity from civil or criminal liability for veterinarians who act in good faith, but Merck says there is a lack of understanding, training, and education.  Clarifying that is one of her main messages for the conference.

"I think the veterinarians can struggle in thinking they have to make the entire case and prove animal cruelty before they report," Merck noted, "and not understanding that all they have to do is report suspected abuse. We, as veterinarians, cannot prove an entire case."

Reno DiDomenico, Lollypop Farm's humane law enforcement officer, knows how critical it is for veterinarians to speak up when they suspect animal cruelty.

"Coming from a law enforcement world where I was able to talk to my victims, it's very difficult to try to talk to a dog or cat and find out if they're being abused," he said. "That's why it's so important that we have veterinarians out there who are able to do examinations on the animals that are being abused so they can actually speak for the animals."

He said studies linking animal cruelty to human violence 20 or 30 years ago changed the way law enforcement looks at crimes against animals.

The U.S. House and Senate just passed, and President Trump is expected to sign, a measure to make severe animal cruelty and torture a federal crime.

Many of the cases DiDomenico investigates involve animal neglect. Usually that means animals aren't getting proper food, water, or shelter.

"Some people still have those older beliefs that, 'It doesn't matter if my animal starves to death, because I've got to feed myself,' " he said. "They don't understand that there are laws now that protect animals, which means if you have an animal that you can't afford anymore, you need to call an animal shelter or us here at Lollypop Farm."

While vets are on the front lines of discovering and reporting animal abuse, DiDomenico and Merck say they need the public's help, too.

"So if you see something, say something," Merck stressed. "If you suspect something, report it, because you don't know what's going on behind closed doors."