Research demonstrates that animal abuse is linked with various forms of interpersonal violence and that veterinarians themselves are concerned about this link. However, Australian veterinarians are not currently mandated to report cases of suspected animal abuse (AA), a position outlined by the Australian Veterinary Association under their “Animal Welfare principles and philosophy–Animal Abuse” section. A range of barriers to reporting suspected abuse cases have been identified. Barriers specifically mentioned in the AVA statement regarding the non-mandatory reporting stance were presented to a community sample of 209 participants. While 161 (77%) indicated they were aware that certain professionals were mandated to report animal abuse, notably 76% of these (n=123) indicated (incorrectly) that veterinary professionals in Australia were so mandated. Over half of the participants (n=117, 58%) indicated that “Concerns about the continued welfare of the animal victim” was, in their opinion, the most significant barrier to introducing mandatory reporting for the veterinary profession in Australia. The implications of community opinion regarding veterinarians and mandated reporting, along with acknowledgement of barriers and potential consequences of mandated reporting, are discussed.The authors state
Veterinarians are health professionals and their unique role in caring for the health and welfare of the nonhuman population potentially means they have a role to play in the identification and possible prevention of interpersonal violence directed at both nonhuman animals and humans (McHendrix 2009). While important for animal welfare alone, the positive identification by veterinarians of non-accidental animal mistreatment may also herald other forms of mistreatment within human relationships including domestic violence (DV) and child abuse (Gallagher, Allen and Jones 2008; Williams et al. 2008).
As outlined by the Australian Veterinary Association’s (AVA) statement under “Animal welfare principles and philosophy–Animal abuse” (AVA 2013, Policy 1.2), veterinarians in Australia are not currently mandated to report suspected cases of animal abuse (AA) or child abuse (which in some Australian states includes mandated reporting of suspected exposure to domestic violence, CFCA Fact Sheet 2014). Although the AVA recommends the reporting of suspected AA to the relevant authorities, members are under no legal obligation to do so. The primary—and understandable—justification for this stance is the concern that members of the public will be reluctant to bring ill or injured animals to the attention of veterinarians for fear of being reported, thus placing abused animals at further risk (AVA 2013, Policy 1.2). This echoes the concerns raised by the American Medical Association when mandated reporting of suspected child abuse was implemented in 1966 (Vulliamy and Sullivan 2000). Two studies, one based in the US (Ascione and Barnard 1998) and the other in Australia (Green and Gullone 2005), have investigated potential barriers to mandated reporting of AA as perceived by veterinarians. Both studies identified three significant barriers: 1) inadequate training in recognizing and definitively identifying AA or neglect, 2) ethical and legal obligations in the context of client/patient confidentiality, and 3) lack of knowledge regarding relevant community-based support agencies for all concerned parties (i.e., services for perpetrators and/or possible victims of family violence). Potential loss of income was also noted as a possible factor behind not reporting suspected AA both in Australia and New Zealand (Green and Gullone 2005; Robertson 2010).
Identification of AA can be challenging for a number of reasons including the often covert/solitary nature of the abuse, controlling behaviors of the abuser, embarrassment/shame on behalf of the witnessing owner/caregiver, as well as the aforementioned definitional issues regarding what constitutes AA (Ascione 2005; McPhedran 2009). However, members of society in close proximity to the perpetrator (e.g., parents, family members, neighbors, teachers; Dadds, Turner and McAloon 2002) as well as community health professionals who may come into contact with the family are in a unique position to identify AA (Flynn 2000a; Balkin, Janssen and Merck 2013). Various community professions have been identified as important stake- holders (Lawrie 2008) vital to the identification and prevention of AA, namely, law enforcement agencies (particularly police), animal protection officers, teachers, social workers, animal management officers (e.g., dog control), environmental health workers (in Indigenous communities), and veterinarians. Lawrie argues that these community professionals have the potential to be in a prime position to witness first-hand the confirmation and potential consequences of animal/human abuse—perhaps without even recognizing the relationship between non- accidental injury of animals and other forms of family violence.
The repercussions of AA, whist initially presenting as personal and private, have the potential to negatively impact the community (Flynn 2000a; Baldry 2003; Wright and Hensley 2003). Australian researchers, Fawcett and Gullone (2002), suggest that patterns of AA mirror those of DV, in that animals are just as likely as human victims of DV to experience physical or sexual abuse, neglect, and/or psychological abuse. Human victims of DV, overwhelmingly women and children, may be further traumatized through the actual mistreatment and/or threatened mistreatment of their pets. This has implications for the management of animals in violent situations as well as for the relationship between family members and their animals, which may well be strengthened due to their joint experiences of abuse (Flynn 2000a; 2000b; 2012). Conversely, those experiencing family violence may take out their frustrations and anger on the animal, a behavior more commonly seen in children of families who experience DV (Fawcett and Gullone 2002). Fawcett and Gullone (2002) argue that the recognition of the relationship between AA and forms of interpersonal/familial violence by community welfare organizations (specifically, animal welfare agencies, child welfare groups, DV experts, and law enforcement organizations) is needed, concluding that there is a need to promote cooperation, cross-reporting, and cross-training between community welfare agencies and public health professionals (both human and nonhuman focused).
The importance of cross-reporting within domestic (or family) violence situations has been highlighted by a number of researchers. For example, Volant et al. (2008) interviewed 102 women currently accessing DV services in Victoria, Australia and 102 matched “community” women without a history of DV in their presenting relationship; all women in the study had a pet. Similar to previous (American) studies (e.g., Ascione et al. 2007) they found there was a significantly higher prevalence of threatened and/or actual AA in the women accessing DV services. The children of these women were also more likely to have observed and/or engaged in AA than those children from the community group. Importantly, the study also reinforced previous findings that women often delay leaving DV situations based on concerns for their animal’s continued welfare, with the attendant possibility of an escalation in violence (e.g., Ascione, Weber and Wood 1997; Taylor, Signal and Stark 2006). Volant et al. concluded that the positive identification of “at risk” members of the community (both human and animal) by community professionals (i.e., veterinarians, animal welfare agents, police, child welfare agents, counselors) may enable the negative consequences of AA and the potential for interpersonal violence to be addressed more effectively.
However, when Tiplady, Walsh and Phillips (2012) interviewed 26 women with experience of DV to examine the effects of intimate partner violence (IPV) on the welfare of companion animals, only two participants (8%) reported specifically mentioning AA to the veterinarian treating their animal despite a number of animals reportedly being euthanized due to injuries suffered. The remaining 24 women (92%) stated that they would be hesitant about discussing AA with a veterinarian. Several reasons were given for this reluctance: 1) general shame regarding the abuse, 2) a fear of being judged by the veterinarian, sometimes combined with a fear the veterinarian would not believe them, 3) a fear of the consequences if the abuser found out they had spoken to a veterinarian, and 4) some women simply did not feel as though they could talk with their veterinarian about AA. Thus, it is clear that there are numerous barriers for those experiencing interconnected AA and familial violence in approaching veterinarians and/or reporting the AA. However, research also demonstrates that support from the human services addressing family violence is often limited in regards to AA (e.g., Taylor, Signal and Stark 2006). This can leave vulnerable women and children who have companion animals with few, or no, options when seeking to leave violent situations. Consequently, it is important to look at multiple ways that this might be addressed. One such way is through veterinary reporting schemes. However, this is not without its own set of problems. As well as reluctance to approach veterinarians by women ex- periencing linked animal abuse and family violence, there are barriers from the veterinarian’s point of view and these are often exacerbated when considering mandatory reporting. As Gullone and Clark (2008) point out, most studies into the feasibility of mandatory (cross) reporting of animal and human directed abuse between various human and animal welfare organizations have occurred in the US, Canada, and the UK. These studies have resulted in the promotion of legislative changes surrounding AA, and consequentially policies regulating the (cross) reporting of AA in conjunction with DV and child abuse have been initiated. These policies govern child protective service providers, social welfare groups, and animal health professionals (e.g., AVMA 2014). According to the AVMA (2014), there are now eleven states of the US with mandatory reporting of suspected AA by veterinarians.
In contrast, the stance of the Canadian Veterinarian Medical Association (CVMA 2013) is that while there is a moral duty to report AA, there is no “legal obligation” (p. 3) to do so. Despite this, it is now mandatory for veterinarians to report suspected cases of AA in three provinces of Canada (Nova Scotia, Ontario, and Manitoba). The British Veterinary Association (BVA) also acknowledges the relationship between AA and other forms of interpersonal vio- lence, further suggesting that veterinarians can play a significant role in identifying this cycle (BVA 2013). The Code of Professional Conduct of the Veterinarian Council of New Zealand (VCNZ n.d.) states that New Zealand veterinarians have a legal and professional obligation to act swiftly if they become aware that an animal is being mistreated.
In one of the few studies examining perceptions of Australian veterinarians on this topic, Green and Gullone (2005) surveyed 185 veterinarians regarding their knowledge of AA, atti-tude toward reporting it, and opinions regarding the possible role of veterinarians in addressing the AA/human violence link. Participants were mainly from small animal practices (arguably the most likely to “see” AA) located in suburban areas. Approximately 40% indicated seeing AA cases 1–3 times a year and only 8% indicated never seeing/diagnosing them. Barriers to mandatory reporting mentioned by participants included: concerns about client confidentiality, uncertainty whether the case would be handled effectively, inadequate training in recognizing definitive abuse (animal and/or human), and loss of income through reducing their client base. These results reflect similar conclusions reached in previous US and NZ studies (Ascione and Barnard 1998; Williams et al. 2008). Green and Gullone (2005) concluded that, in order for Australian veterinarians to better assist the animal victim and possibly the human victim, they should be better equipped through increased knowledge-based education and improved awareness of community resources for all participants.
While each State and Territory in Australia has its own veterinary registration board which enforces policy and standards, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) is the professional organization that represents veterinarians across Australia. As noted earlier in regards to AA, AVA policy states that it is not mandatory for veterinarians to report suspected cases of AA in Australia; however, it is recommended that such cases are reported to the relevant authority. The stated reason for not mandating reporting is that “ ... members of the community may be reluctant to bring in sick or injured animals for treatment for fear of being reported” (AVA 2013). Although the motivation behind the policy is laudable, there appears to have been no assessment of whether this is actually the case for members of the community, that is, that they will stop taking their animals to veterinarians. Arkow (1994), for example, found that members of the general population regard members of the veterinary profession as playing a key role in animal protection. Indeed, recent commentary in New Zealand asks whether, given increasing attention paid to issues of animal welfare, non-reporting of suspected animal abuse puts veterinarians at risk of both “public criticism and adverse legal accountability” (Robertson 2010, p. 114). One of the side effects of the current AVA stance (i.e., encouraging but not mandating reporting) is that veterinarians who do report are not provided legislative immunity. As Robertson (2010) points out, although a veterinarian may make an anonymous report to the RSPCA or animal welfare enforcement agency (including police), any subsequent investigation is likely to involve assessment of previous veterinary treatment and thus lead back to the veterinarian concerned. Anonymity is therefore exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to preserve for the veterinarian. With mandatory reporting (and attendant legal immunity in case of un-substantiated reports), one advantage is that veterinarians would be protected from liability. As it currently stands in Australia, veterinarians may be in the unenviable position of meeting community expectations to report suspected cases of AA as a key stakeholder in animal welfare/animal protection but on the other hand not being (legally) supported if they do report suspected AA.
Given the complex nature of the problem, it is timely, and helpful to the debate, to assess the opinions of members of the general (Australian) community regarding mandatory report- ing by veterinarians. In particular, it is helpful to investigate the problems and benefits they identify in implementing mandatory reporting and what demographic characteristics (e.g., gen- der, awareness/endorsement of the link between animal and human violence) might affect these attitudes