Veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians (collectively referred to as “veterinary professionals”) are often the first line of defense for victims of animal cruelty. Animal cruelty includes intentional acts of abuse as well as neglect (which is most commonly failure to provide necessary food, water, shelter, or veterinary care.)
The training and day-to-day work of veterinary professionals can place them in the unique position of observing and assessing the signs of cruelty, and their professional oaths require them to benefit society through the relief of animal suffering. For these reasons, the ASPCA, along with other humane and veterinary organizations, believes that veterinary professionals have an ethical responsibility to report suspected cases of animal cruelty, particularly where providing educational guidance to a client will not adequately protect the animal’s health and welfare.
While veterinary professionals play a critical role in protecting victims of animal cruelty, they are not law enforcement officers, and they must also balance multiple roles and obligations relating to clients, animals, and confidentiality. Assessing whether an animal’s physical condition is the result of cruelty and deciding which course of action is best for the animal in the particular circumstances (e.g., educating a client vs. reporting suspected cruelty to law enforcement), are rarely clear-cut determinations. Complicating the matter further, laws governing when and how suspected cruelty may or must be reported are not always easy to understand and may not afford sufficient legal protection to those professionals reporting their suspicions. In order to provide these professionals with the confidence needed to fulfill their vital role in protecting animals in their care, laws, regulations, and policies should include the following:
- a guarantee that good-faith reporters will have immunity from civil and criminal liability and from professional sanctions,
- clarity about exceptions to confidentiality of patient records, and
- coverage for reports concerning all species of animals.
Veterinary professionals should gain comfort in identifying and reporting suspected cruelty. Beyond directly reporting, veterinary professionals should encourage and actively support broader access to veterinary care in their communities whenever possible, since many instances of neglect are due to owners’ lack of resources. Finally, training and continuing education for these professionals should include how to identify and report cruelty as well as provide skills that assist with client communication so that animals’ needs are surfaced and addressed before unnecessary pain or suffering results.
Immunity from civil and criminal liability and professional sanctions
Veterinary professionals may feel that they are placed in a difficult position when concern for an animal in their care and their desire to report their suspicions to the authorities appear to conflict with laws or regulations in their jurisdiction that govern the confidentiality of their client interactions or the medical records they create for their patients. It is therefore essential for these laws and regulations to provide veterinary professionals with immunity from civil liability, criminal prosecution, and professional discipline for making good faith reports of suspected cruelty to the appropriate authorities. Such immunity provides the confidence to report by ensuring protection from civil actions brought by the owners of allegedly cruelly treated animals, retaliatory prosecutions, and professional discipline or loss of licensure in response to the report.
In most instances, unauthorized disclosure of medical records or notes would constitute a breach of veterinarian-client confidentiality. However, meaningful reporting of suspected cruelty may require veterinary professionals to provide law enforcement with relevant medical records or notes, which can constitute valuable evidence in any subsequent investigation or prosecution. The timing of disclosure of these records can be important as well. While law enforcement may be able to obtain records via court order once charges have been brought, the information contained in medical records can be important much earlier in the case and may even be needed to determine whether an investigation should be conducted at all. Therefore, veterinary professionals making good faith reports of suspected cruelty should be permitted by law to disclose relevant medical records as a part of their report.
To protect the rights of animal owners, any records disclosed should be exempt from release under state public records laws. Further, during the investigatory phase, the identity of the reporting veterinary professional should be kept confidential by law enforcement, except as required by court order or pursuant to applicable discovery laws.
Protection for reporting concerning all species
While some state laws only protect reports of suspected cruelty to companion animals, the ASPCA believes that this protection should extend to reports concerning suspected cruelty to all species, including farm and working animals, and animals in research facilities. The professions’ oaths are not limited by species, and failure to extend such protection to reports concerning all species may place veterinary professionals caring for these animals in an untenable position, where the cost of reporting even the most wanton act of cruelty could cost them their licenses or livelihood.
Mandatory or Permissive Reporting
While the majority of states with laws governing veterinary reporting permit good faith reports, at least 20 require veterinarians to report suspected cruelty to law enforcement authorities, and several states also require or permit reporting by veterinary technicians. Whether reporting is mandatory or permissive, states, veterinary and technician schools, and veterinary medical and technician associations must ensure that training is provided to enable these professionals to (1) understand their specific reporting requirements and/or permissions and (2) recognize when they are observing conditions that may constitute a violation of that state’s animal cruelty laws. Furthermore, veterinary practices should implement:
- policies that encourage their veterinary professionals to report suspected cruelty, consistent with their obligations and/or permissions under state law,
- cruelty response protocols that are clearly understood by all staff, and
- a specific prohibition against retaliation in the workplace for those making good faith reports.
Whether reporting is permitted or required, it is not the duty of the veterinary professional to investigate, prove a case of animal cruelty, or determine guilt or innocence. Rather, veterinary professionals’ role is to assist law enforcement by reporting suspicions, along with the medical basis for their belief that they have observed a potential case of animal cruelty.
A great deal of animal suffering is not the result of intentional abuse; instead, it is the result of neglect, which is itself often the result of a lack of access to resources or information. It is therefore important for veterinary professionals to understand how accessible veterinary services can lead to the prevention of cruelty. Toward this end, veterinary professionals should actively support programs that provide free or low-cost services to animal owners in their communities. Veterinary practices should also consider offering a “spectrum of care” for clients, which means providing a range of diagnostic and treatment options from less costly and complex to more expensive and resource intensive, since such options can increase access to veterinary services. As with all approaches to care, veterinarians should always comply with the standards of care required of them by law or applicable professional guidelines.
Where reporting is permitted but not required, providing information or education to the client may be the appropriate first course of action when it will correct the welfare concerns in a reasonably short time and prevent future repetition of the problem(s). However, when education is inappropriate (e.g., suspicions of physical or sexual abuse of animals, animal fighting, or unwillingness/inability to make the needed correction), has failed, or will not in a reasonable time rectify animal pain or suffering, reporting may be the best course of action.
Additionally, education and reporting are not mutually exclusive. In some instances, education can accompany reporting, particularly if it could help mitigate immediate animal suffering. Finally, veterinary professionals (and organizations that provide training for them) should recognize the importance of building client communication skills, including developing comfort in effectively addressing sensitive issues with their clients (such as owner challenges in complying with grooming, routine hygiene, and other animal care needs). Veterinary professionals who can effectively communicate, build trust, and problem-solve with their clients in a nonjudgmental way are in a better position to gather important information and, where appropriate, engage the client in being part of the solution—in turn increasing the likelihood that the animal will receive the veterinary care that he or she needs.
 Other professionals working in veterinary practice settings may also be considered “veterinary professionals,” and they too play important roles in preventing and responding to animal cruelty. For purposes of this document, we focus on licensed professionals (veterinarians and licensed/registered veterinary technicians) since the policy considerations outlined here apply chiefly to professions regulated by law.