When You Suspect Animal Abuse: What to Do

Ellyce Rothrock

Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT, of Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota and CEO and founder of VETgirl, treated a dog paralyzed after being hit by a car. The owners’ indifference toward the dog’s prognosis was a huge red flag, she says.

“They took their dog home against medical advice, and after multiple follow-up phone calls, I discovered they never sought veterinary care afterward despite recommendations,” says Dr. Lee, who reported the case to the local humane society.

At some point during their careers, veterinary professionals are likely to encounter forms of animal abuse ranging from minor neglect to malicious harm, according to the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). No matter the type of abuse, veterinarians and staff should be prepared to contact authorities and report the findings. Here’s what to know about recognizing signs and protecting pets.

Legal Landscape

Animal cruelty and abuse laws vary across the U.S. Some states mandate veterinarians and/or technicians to report suspected abuse, cruelty, or neglect. Others have immunity laws that protect good-faith reporters from liability. Arizona requires veterinarians to report suspected dog fighting. Oregon requires veterinarians to report aggravated animal abuse. Kansas requires veterinarians to report cruel or inhumane treatment—failure to do so could result in disciplinary action. In Kentucky, on the other hand, veterinarians are prohibited from reporting suspected animal cruelty.

Despite the lack of consistent mandatory reporting and immunity laws, veterinary professionals should know how to recognize abuse and be familiar with their state’s animal cruelty laws, and their practice’s protocol for handling such situations.

Identifying Abuse

Abuse can be obvious or subtle, possibly characterized as behavior issues. Here are some types of abuse and what to watch for:

–Dog fighting participants: Characteristic bite and scar patterns on the head, neck, and legs, and may be missing an ear or all or part of the tail. Owners may try to treat injuries themselves or be reluctant to explain how the animal was hurt.

–Hoarding situations: Trauma or preventable contagious and parasitic diseases. The owner may visit several clinics so as to not raise suspicion. Phone calls to other local or regional practitioners can help determine whether a single person is bringing in multiple patients.

–Intentional injury: Injuries inconsistent with the animal’s history or injuries too severe to support the client’s story. The animal may display abnormal behaviors such as relaxing when the owner leaves the room or shying away from the client.

–Neglect: Poor body condition or severely matted fur or signs of being left unattended and continually chained. Signs may be seen not only in the pet but also in the owner’s behavior. The client might seem unconcerned about the animal’s welfare; refuse treatment, workups, or grooming; or decline euthanasia.

Taking Action

Have an animal cruelty plan in place. Your team should be fully trained on standard operating procedures.

Know local and state laws.

Know whether to contact local law enforcement or animal control.

Establish clinic policy that details questions to ask, samples to obtain, and reporting forms to complete. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty and Neglect” includes sample reporting forms and protocols.


Gather as much information as possible by asking such questions as “How and when did this happen?” and “Who was involved?”

Approach suspected cruelty carefully, as incorrect assumptions could offend the owner, says Thomas Skadron, DVM, owner of Skadron Animal Hospital in West St. Paul, Minnesota, and a Veterinary Hospitals Association board member. He recommends the following steps:

Reviewing the patient’s history, determining whether injuries match the story, and documenting and taking samples during assessment.

Consider the client’s behavior. Does the owner seem indifferent or concerned? Pursue medical treatment or decline? How does the pet respond to the owner? Document all possible clues.

While veterinarians are not permitted to hold animals or perform treatment without owner consent, there are workarounds, Dr. Skadron says. He believes his team members should do anything they can in these situations to help the pet—even if it means donating hospital resources and rehoming the animal.

Once the exam is complete and treatment is administered, veterinarians can choose to educate or report. In many cases, veterinarians worry about preserving client relationships. There is also an ever-present fear that their suspicions are wrong.

“My best avenue and approach is to contact the local humane society and escalate the situation to an appropriate agent who can check on the pet’s welfare,” Lee says. “Likewise, one can call the police if they believe the situation is severe enough. We must advocate for animals who don’t have a voice.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.