Information for Veterinarians

What is the veterinarian’s role in animal abuse cases?

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) recognizes that veterinarians are in a position to observe occasions of animal abuse and have a moral obligation to report suspected cases. That obligation has increased with the recognized link between abuse in animals and abuse in people. In return, society has an obligation to support those veterinarians who report in good faith, using their professional judgement.

CVMA recognizes that moral obligation is not legal obligation. Any legal obligation to report abuse, or provision of immunity from prosecution for veterinarians, is the jurisdiction of the provinces.

Veterinarians are often the first professionals to see an abused animal. More than the animal may be at risk as studies have documented the connection between abuse of animals and abuse of people, especially vulnerable family members. Veterinarians may be able to play an important role in breaking the cycle of family violence by reporting suspected animal abuse.

Can – or must – I report animal abuse?

Through provincial animal protection legislation, some provinces (e.g., Ontario, Manitoba and Nova Scotia) have made the reporting of suspected animal abuse mandatory for veterinarians. These provincial acts also provide veterinarians immunity from prosecution when reports to humane authorities are made in good faith. Other provinces, such as Alberta, allow veterinarians to report abuse (i.e. it is not considered a breach of confidentiality).

Some cases of animal abuse, particularly neglect, may be resolved through client education. When education fails, or intentional abuse is suspected, you should notify the appropriate authorities for investigation. It’s important to promptly and meticulously document any injuries found, as well as explanations provided by person(s) accompanying the animal. Evidence includes medical records, x-rays, good quality photographs, clinical pathology and necropsy reports, etc.

You may be called upon to give evidence in court if the case goes to prosecution. Veterinarians may also be asked to give testimony as expert witnesses in cases of animal abuse.

Signs of possible physical abuse or non-accidental injury (NAI)

        The history doesn’t correspond with the injuries presented.

        The owner shows lack of concern for injuries.

        There is a delay in seeking veterinary treatment.

        There are behavioural signs, e.g. extreme fear in presence of owner, depression, failure to thrive.

        There are clinical signs, e.g. old healed or untreated wounds, multiple fractures in different bones in various stages of healing, bruising*.

*Note: due to the animal’s hair coat, bruises are usually more easily detected at necropsy.

None of the above signs is diagnostic of NAI, nor does the absence of some signs rule out the possibility of abuse.

– taken from CVMA: Animal Abuse – What Veterinarians Can Do

What is the veterinarian’s role in Alberta?

Veterinarians’ professional obligations to society are highlighted in the Veterinary Oath. In summary, this includes a commitment to:

        use scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society;

        promote animal health and welfare;

        relieve animal suffering;

        protect the health of the public and environment;

        advance comparative medical knowledge.

What does Alberta law say about veterinarians reporting animal abuse?

Veterinarians in Alberta are regulated provincially by the Veterinary Profession Act and Veterinary Profession General Regulation. Part 3 of the Regulation contains the legislated Code of Ethics for veterinarians. In regards to this discussion, a veterinarian must:

        be dedicated to the benefit of society, the conservation of animal resources and the relief of the suffering of animals

        hold in strict confidence all information acquired in the course of professional relationships with clients, and should not divulge that information unless:

o   expressly or implicitly authorized by the client or required to do so by law, or

o   it is information respecting inhumane or negligent treatment of an animal.

The latter exception – which came into force in 2012 – allows a registered veterinarian, technologist, permit holder or student to report the information to a peace officer as defined in the Animal Protection Act.