In veterinary medicine, cases of animal neglect, cruelty, or abandonment can be an unfortunate part of our careers. However, it is inevitable that these cases will cross our paths.
Forensic investigation of animal cruelty cases involves collecting evidence for law enforcement. These cases are part medical and part legal. The veterinary medical forensic investigation is separate and independent of the law enforcement investigation.
The information we collect should remain unbiased and should be systematically obtained for investigation by local law enforcement. It is up to law enforcement to determine if animal abuse, neglect, or abandonment has occurred, however we must recognize the signs associated with each. It is the veterinarian’s responsibility to make an accurate and truthful determination of the animal’s health.
Most animal cruelty cases are prosecuted under state animal cruelty statues, which can vary from state to state. The forensic medical investigation may or may not support a finding of abuse, however it is up to veterinarians to present the evidence to law enforcement if there are concern for neglect, cruelty or abandonment.
The following will include information on some steps to collecting forensic evidence for cases, additional tools for casework, resources for reference and other information, however this is not all inclusive. While most cases present to the hospital with owners, sometimes veterinarians can be called to give opinions about outside cases as well. It is important to identify examination findings that could indicate animal cruelty, to then present the evidence to law enforcement for investigation.
- Consistent approach to every case. Standard protocol, evidence collection.
- Be complete and thorough. Don’t make assumptions about what your investigation will uncover.
- The animal is evidence that changes with time, in some cases serial documentation is needed.
- Independent and unbiased medical investigation. Document the facts of the case.
- You must make a definitive diagnosis.
- Is the animal injured, or has its health been impaired? Is the animal in pain?
- Emaciation does not equal starvation; Be aware of the clinical signs of emaciation and starvation. Ruling out systemic illness may be indicated.
- For hair matting to be criminal neglect it must have compromised the animal’s health (it is not just cosmetic).
- Make and commit to a pain assessment.
When presented with a case of suspected abuse or neglect, there are some obvious signs that concern us, and some others that can be more elusive.
Signs to look for
- History inconsistent with the injury; unexplained injury
- Discrepant history (varies with person telling it)
- Client/patient behavior (owner unconcerned about injuries, animal is extremely fearful)
- Fractures: skull, limb, rib fractures; multiple fractures
- Multiple fractures in different stages of healing are a cardinal sign of non-accidental injury (NAI).
- Bruising- most frequently over thorax, abdomen, head/neck; linear bruising
- Repetitive injuries- old injuries or untreated wounds, fractures as above. Check previous medical history for repeated visits to the hospital, or similar injury presentation.
- Burns and scalds: cigarette burns, burns of pads of 4 feet, caustic or chemical burns. There may be odor associated with use of an accelerant (oil or chemicals). Scalds from pouring are likely to be over animal’s back or top of head.
- Eye injuries- subconjunctival/scleral hemorrhages can indicate choke or strangulation injury.
- Internal thoracic and abdominal injuries- to diaphragm, liver, spleen, kidney or bladder; result of kicking or punching; may be severe or fatal
- Administration of drugs or poisons- stupor or bizarre behavioral signs.
- Drowning- necropsy may show little besides animal being wet; body may show signs of forcible restraint during submersion.
- Asphyxiation- crushing injury of trachea; edema of laryngeal region, lips, tongue and eyelids.
- Misc: Dislocation of the tail near the sacrum from swinging a cat by its tail; separation of scapula from underlying tissues if the animal has been swung by the forelimb(s); stab wounds or gunshot wounds.
Accidental injury/motor vehicle accidents vs Non-accidental injury (NAI) journal review results
- Motor vehicle accidents (MVA) were pelvic fractures, pneumothorax, pulmonary contusions, abrasions, and degloving wounds.
- NAI were fractures of the skull, teeth, vertebrae, and ribs, scleral hemorrhage, damage to claws, and evidence of older fractures.
- NAI cases were found to be smaller, younger, and more often sexually intact when compared to MVA cases.
- MVA rib fractures tended to be in discrete clusters on one side of the body, with cranial ribs more likely to fracture.
- NAI cases, rib fractures tended to be on both sides of the body with no cranial-caudal pattern.
5 fracture features that should raise suspicion of NAI
- The presence of multiple fractures
- Fractures occurring on >1 region of the body
- Transverse fractures
- Fractures presenting with radiographic evidence of healing
- Multiple fractures at different stages of healing
- Rifling at end of barrel for identification (creates pattern on missile)
- Round shot, not copper coated (BBs)
- Should not handle with metal for removal as this can damage rifling pattern
- Use plastic forceps, or can cover ends of hemostats/forceps with rubber tubing
- Rinse blood off with tap water
- Blood is corrosive and will destroy rifling over time
- Place in plastic bag, roll down and tape. Can use rubber glove finger as well.
- Then in rigid container, to evidence bag
Bodies found in water can be analyzed to determine drowning versus submersion postmortem
- Prove suffering based on concern for drowning
- Diatom analysis
- Diatoms are algae, unicellular
- Found in all water types, except household supplies
- Water will flow passively after death, so can be found in GI tract.
- To attempt to prove circulation was active when exposed to water, looking for diatoms in body organs
- Submit whole kidney, uncut and compare to water supply
- Part of the liver; upper lobe of either lung; whole femur, with ends still enclosed (for advanced decomposition)
- Forensic Entomologist, contact to discuss
- Pupae, larva
- Use blunt forceps and transfer to specimen holders with damp tissue, evidence packaging
- Can transport back from scene in a cool box
- Use boiling water to kill instantly
- Transfer to 80% ethanol
- Sometimes ½ will be saved to grow to adult stages to assess species
- Can help to determine approximate timing of death
DNA and Biology
- Blood and touch DNA
- Forensic Biologist- body fluid and blood analysis
- Can perform DNA testing on samples
- Wet and dry sampling for Touch DNA
- Contact lab for procedure, PPE
Concern for animal neglect or abandonment pose additional challenges for cases. If an animal is suspected to be left without food, water, adequate shelter, or necessary medical care, there are additional determinations to make for their cases.
Five Freedoms, Animal Welfare
- Freedom from hunger and thirst.
- Freedom from discomfort.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease.
- Freedom to express normal behavior.
- Freedom from fear and distress.
- While pain equals suffering, suffering does not always equal pain.
- Suffering is broader than pain.
- Suffering can be physical or mental, and it can be associated with a range of potential causations.
- Physical or mental suffering, or related expressions
- Suffer: to submit to or be forced to endure; to put up with, especially as inevitable or unavoidable; to endure death, pain, or distress; to sustain loss or damage; to be subject to disability or handicap
- In practice, what constitutes actual suffering is a question of fact to be determined by the Court
- Duration and intensity
- Suffering can be of any duration and at any level
- Duration and level of suffering can be used to determine “intent.” How long did the animal have the problem?
- Necessary versus unnecessary suffering- necessary suffering would be considered suffering with relation to recovery/healing post operatively to cure an illness
- Animals that are dead or unconscious cannot suffer
Suffering and Seizure
- Make determination about suffering as apart of physical exam
- Animal Legal and Historic Center has several cases for review
- Underweight animals, determine:
- Emaciated- abnormally thin or weak
- Cachexia- weakness and wasting of the body
- Starvation- underweight due to lack of nutrition
- Stereotypical Behavior- pacing, repetitive behavior, self trauma.
- Lack of space, absence of natural surroundings, inability to escape or roam, boredom due to lack of intellectual stimulation
- If additional animals in household
- Medical treatment necessary
Weather information can be helpful for cases of suspected weather related injuries/exposure, or pets left outside/abandoned.
The Tufts Animal Condition and Care (TACC) scale is a numeric scale that evaluates body condition, risk from exposure to temperature extremes, and sanitation and grooming as indicators of adequate animal husbandry. The TACC scores are similar to childcare rating scales developed for social workers who are assessing infants as risk of neglect.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- National Weather Service
Click on area you want
Observed Weather Report
If Euthanasia is a consideration for a case due to patient suffering
- When an owner does not want/refuses to euthanize
- If owner is not present
- Consult with another veterinarian
- Contact Animal Law enforcement, Animal Control, or other agency
- If animal is a part of an active investigation, you must get the approval of the lead agent
- AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals
- If inappropriate to wait, always err on the side of the animal and alleviate suffering
- You can give advice on euthanasia by owners, law enforcement if they cannot bring a patient to you and there is concern for suffering
- Usually with firearm
- AVMA and MSU Animal Law Center has recommendations
- Necropsy should be considered in all cases if possible
In Hospital Cases
- Presenting complaints, injuries
- Owner stories, make sense?
- Review previous records if possible
- Contact Animal Law Enforcement for the city of where the owner lives, they will be in charge of case investigation. In some cases, you will have to talk to a few people as there are different levels of understand for investigating these cases and who will be assigned to the case. Often Animal Control Officer will be starting contact.
- Documentation, Diagrams, Photographs, Video
- Necropsy- can refer to University Hospital if not comfortable performing in house
- Proof of guilt? Not up to veterinarians to determine who is the perpetrator, however if information is received during history, certainly forward to investigator. It is up to law enforcement to determine case.
- Determine suffering and document with pain level scores, photos, video, vocalizing, etc. Sometimes in stoic cases, after pain medication, changes to patient can help with suffering and pain level assessment.
- What human action or inaction may have caused the animal’s illness or death?
- Initial assessment and triage
- Assign patient number
- Evidence Receipt Form if a case from law enforcement
- Police ID if available
- Animal Exam Form- forms available on AVMA website
- Dog/cat Diagram Form- can use diagram for sketching of injuries
- Photos*, video
- Scan for microchip, document number for case file- MC information can link a case to length of ownership and if injuries sustained during time of ownership, or can be helpful in cases of abandonment
- Record- sight, smell, pain level, etc.
Photography- use dedicated camera and not cellphone
- Important to do prior to any alterations to the pet, including IVC placement, ideally, but not if detrimental for patient
- Include ID card with name, patient number and date, including year
- Take all angles of pet, ideally top and bottom as well, and standing position
- The camera lens should be parallel to the forensic scale/ruler
- Start large and focus down to an area of concern
- Include any lesions, overgrown nails, injuries
- Save photos and upload to chart
- Video can be important as well to document vocalizations, neurological status, etc.
- As pet changes, take additional photographs
- I am instructed to consider whether the injuries sustained by X were caused by non-accidental means.
- I am further instructed to determine if the accounts provided by owner are consistent with the injuries sustained. In addition, I have been asked to consider whether the animals suffered unnecessarily.
- I am further instructed to consider whether owner took reasonable steps to protect X from further pain, suffering or injury.
Cases can be complex with how to house and care for these patients. Some jurisdictions will help cover costs for medical care, contact them first for authorization. There are some rescue groups that will help with foster care if needed. The AVMF (American Veterinary Medical Foundation) has some funding for cases of animal abuse.
Animal abuse has been linking to spousal, child and elder abuse. It is important to help to address this issue in order to aid society as a whole. Below are some resources in cases of household abuse.
- National Link Coalition
- Click on NY- list of organizations to help
- National Domestic Violence Hotline
- Pets and Domestic Violence Fact Sheet
- Munro and Thrusfield “The Battered Pet”
- Journal of Small Animal Practice, 2001
- American Humane Association 303-792-9900
- National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE
- National Child Abuse Hotline 800-4-A-CHILD
- National Sexual Assault Hotline 800-656-HOPE
- https://www.animallaw.info/article/domestic-violence-and-pets-list-states-include-pets-protection-orders Pets included in protective orders
- Ascione, F.R., Weber, C.V., and Wood, D.S., (2007). The abuse of animals and domestic violence: A national survey of shelters for women who are battered. Society and Animals, 5(3), pp.205-218
- Ascione, F.R., Weber, C.V., Thompson, T.M., Heath, J., Maruyama, M. and Hayashi, K., (2007). Battered pets and domestic violence: Animal abuse reported by women experiencing intimate violence and by non-abused women. Violence Against Women, 13(4), pp.354-373.
- Munro, H.M.C. and Thrusfield, M.V., (2001). Battered pets: non‐accidental physical injuries found in dogs and cats. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 42(6), pp.279-290.
- Munro, H.M.C. and Thrusfield, M.V., (2001). Battered pets: features that raise suspicion of non-accidental injury. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 42(5), pp.218- 26.
- Munro, H.M.C. and Thrusfield, M.V., (2001). Battered pets: sexual abuse. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 42(7), pp.333-337.
- Munro, H.M.C. and Thrusfield, M.V., (2001). Battered pets: Munchausen syndrome by proxy (factitious illness by proxy). Journal of Small Animal Practice, 42(8), pp.385-389.
- Merck, M., (2013). Veterinary Forensics: Animal Cruelty Investigations. John Wiley & Sons.
- Munro, R. & Munro, H., (2008). Animal Abuse and Unlawful Killing: Forensic Veterinary Pathology. Elsevier Health Sciences.
- National Sheriffs’ Association, Pets and Domestic Violence (guidance document), available from: https://www.sheriffs.org/publications/NCADV-Pets-DV.pdf
- NATO Phonetic Alphabet: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_150391.htm
- AAHA Animal Abuse Reporting Position Statement: https://www.aaha.org/about-aaha/aahaposition-statements/animal-abuse-reporting/
- AVMA Medical Ethics: https://www.avma.org/policies/principles-veterinary-medical-ethicsavma
- NAVTA Mission Statement: https://www.navta.net/page/about
- UK Forensic Codes of Practice: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/forensic-scienceproviders-codes-of-practice-and-conduct
- USA Forensic Policy: https://www.justice.gov/olp/forensic-science
- AAHA Infection Control Guideline
- Animal Legal and Historical Center: https://www.animallaw.info/
- Association of Shelter Veterinarians https://www.sheltervet.org/five-freedoms
- AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines: https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/avmaguidelines-euthanasia-animals
- UK Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, Schedule 1: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1986/14/schedule/1
- UK Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1986/14/contents
- Forensic Access Digital Forensics: https://www.forensic-access.co.uk/forensic-services/digitaland-facial-image-comparison/
- Forensic Access Document Analysis: https://www.forensic-access.co.uk/forensicservices/documents/
- AVMA Opioid Epidemic policy: https://www.avma.org/policies/veterinary-professions-roleaddressing-opioid-epidemic
- Forensic Access Services: https://www.forensic-access.co.uk/forensic-services/
- NIST Crime Scene Guide: https://www.nist.gov/news-events/news/2013/09/updated-andexpanded-crime-scene-investigation-guide-law-enforcement-now
- American Board of Forensic Entomology: https://forensicentomologist.org/
- The Links Group (UK): http://thelinksgroup.org.uk/
- Safe Havens Mapping project: https://awionline.org/content/safe-havens-mapping-project-petsdomestic-violence-victims
- Animal Safety Net: https://spcala.com/programs-services/asn/asn-information-manual/
- Safety Planning: https://awionline.org/content/safety-planning-pets-domestic-violence-victims
- How to Report Abuse by State: http://nationallinkcoalition.org/how-do-i-report-suspected-abuse
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: https://www.thehotline.org/