Veterinary Medicine and The Link

Quick Facts: Why is The Link important for… Veterinary Medicine?

Veterinarians and their staffs encounter family violence.

  • In one early study of families under investigation for child abuse, co-incidence of animal abuse ranged from 60% to 88%. These families utilized veterinary services at rates similar to non-abusive households. (Deviney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983).
  • One survey of veterinarians estimated that practitioners will see 5.6 cases of animal abuse per 1,000 patients. (Sharpe, 1999)
  • In a survey of all North American veterinary schools, 97% of school administrators reported that they believe that practitioners will encounter serious animal abuse during their careers. (Sharpe, 1999).
  • The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association reported that 100% of veterinarians believe that non-accidental injury (NAI) occurs in animals, and 2/3 of them had seen cases of NAI in their practices. (American Humane Association 2003). A similar study in the U.K. reported that 91% of veterinarians acknowledged NAI and 48% had seen or suspected NAI in their practices. (Munro & Thrusfield, 2001)
  • A Canadian study reported that 50% of practitioners had seen cases of unintentional maltreatment, and 46% had seen cases of intentional maltreatment, in the past year. (Kovacs, Adams & Carioto, 2004)
  • The public is more likely to report suspected animal abuse to their veterinarian than to the humane society or law enforcement agency. (Enns, 2006)
  • An Australian study reported that in 23% of cases where veterinarians suspected animal abuse, other forms of family violence were either known or suspected. (Gullone & Clarke, 2005).
  • The Tufts University College of Veterinary Medicine reported that 78.9% of practitioners had observed at least one case of animal abuse, and 16.4% had observed more than five cases of animal abuse. Over 93% of respondents believed they had an ethical responsibility to report suspected animal abuse, and 44.5% believed this responsibility should be mandated by law. (Donley, Patronek & Luke, 1999)
  • Females are the primary caregivers in 72.8% of pet-owning households: over 64% of households with children under age six, and 72% of households with children over age six, have pets. (American Veterinary Medical Association 2002). Thus, three of the prime populations for being at risk of family violence – women, children and animals – are the primary clientele for practitioners.
  • Veterinarians, dentists and hairdressers have been identified as the three professions most likely to encounter abused women. (Paterson, 2015)

Veterinarians are the best-trained individuals to recognize and respond to improper animal welfare.

  • “Veterinarians are ideally placed as sentinels to identify and deal with animal abuse, and where this is severe or not able to be dealt with effectively, to report it to respective authorities.”  — Mark Lawrie, Chief Veterinarian, Royal SPCA of New South Wales, Australia  (Lawrie, 2002)
  • A growing body of literature is now available to describe clinical conditions that should lead to adding cruelty, abuse, neglect, and animal sexual abuse to the index of suspicion.   (Leonard, 2004; Patronek, 2004; Reisman, 2004; Sinclair & Lockwood, 2005; Sinclair, Merck & Lockwood, 2005; Cooper & Cooper, 2007; Munro & Munro, 2008; Merck, 2013; Lockwood & Touroo, 2016; Lockwood & Arkow, 2016; Tong, 2014, 2016). Additional training in veterinary forensic sciences is available from the University of Florida and the International Veterinary Forensic Sciences Association.

Animal abuse is a public health issue within the veterinary One Health purview.

  • Child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse and animal cruelty and neglect are widely recognized as public health problems as well as crimes. (Patronek, 2004)
  • Incidence of dog bites in homes with physical child abuse have been reported to be 11 times greater than in non-violent households. (Deviney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983)
  • 21% of dogs that killed humans in dog bite attacks had been victims of animal abuse. (Patronek, Sacks, Delise et al., 2013)
  • Responding to animal abuse in parallel with physicians’ imperative to prevent child abuse unites human and veterinary medicine in a One Health common concern for people, animals and the environment. (Arkow, 2015)
  • C. Everett Koop, M.D. former Surgeon General of the U.S., and George D. Lundberg, M.D., former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, wrote, “Regarding violence in our society as purely a sociologic matter, or one of law enforcement, has led to unmitigated failure. It is time to test whether violence can be amenable to medical/public health solutions.” (Koop & Lundberg, 1992)

Reporting suspected abuse is now strongly encouraged by laws and professional standards.

  • Guides to professional conduct, policy and position statements, and veterinary oaths from AVMA, AAHA, and national veterinary associations in Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand mandate and/or support veterinarians who report suspected animal abuse, and encourage reporting other forms of family violence.
  • Practice management guidelines are available from AVMA and the Canadian, British and New Zealand Veterinary Medical Associations to help practitioners resolve contentious issues and respond to confrontational clients.
  • 37 states mandate or permit veterinary professionals to report suspected animal abuse without violating patient-client-confidentiality standards. Veterinary professionals are further mandated reporters of child or elder abuse in 23 states.

What Can You Do?

  • Consider the possibility that an injured or malnourished animal may have been abused or neglected in the differential diagnosis. Be skeptical and do not take the client’s word regarding non-accidental injury (NAI).
  • If there are discrepancies among family members’ accounts of an injury, or if a client utilizes several veterinary facilities to evade detection, be suspicious of possible animal abuse. Practitioners have not had much experience in dealing with client histories that are deliberately misleading.
  • Be alert to warning signs of NAI: multiple fractures of varying ages; injuries to multiple animals in the home; repetitive histories of accidents; and incidence of family violence.
  • Do not be afraid to ask difficult and probing questions. These topics may be uncomfortable, but they are legitimate and important to protect patients and other animals in the household.
  • Attempt to resolve cases through client education, but where this fails or may exacerbate the risk to the animal and/or others, report the case to the SPCA, humane society, animal control or law enforcement agency, or county child protective services agency. Our National Directory of Abuse Investigation Agencies identifies who to call in your specific community. You do not have to “know” that neglect or violence occurred: you are a medical expert, not a legal one, and trained investigators and the courts will make that determination. Your responsibility is to serve as the animals’ first line of defense, to document and submit your findings, and to present them in a court of law if necessary. Laws widely give you immunity from civil and criminal liability for making a report in good faith.
  • Take reports of animal cruelty seriously. Animal abuse is a crime and often just the tip of one form of violence occurring in the home. Other animals in the home may be at risk as well.
  • Invite officials from animal protection, child protection, adult protective services, and domestic violence agencies to train your staff on how to recognize and report all forms of family violence.
  • Establish a protocol for responding to suspected animal abuse. The National Link Coalition has several of these available online.
  • Establish lines of communication in advance with these agencies so when your work uncovers family violence you are prepared to make a report or referral as needed.
  • Serve on community coalitions against family violence.
  • Sponsor a workshop to educate your colleagues about The Link. The National Link Coalition has a speakers’ bureau to provide these presentations.


  • Guidances have been published for veterinarians in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Oklahoma on recognition and response to suspected animal abuse and protocols for addressing clients in these challenging situations
  • See the extensive collection of “Tools for Veterinarians” on our Resources page.


References cited above will be found in the National Link Coalition’s Bibliography.