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Professional Version

Veterinary Forensics in Shelter Medicine


Martha Smith-Blackmore

, DVM, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

Animal shelters may incidentally receive animals that are subsequently recognized as potential victims of abuse, or they may serve as a resource that local law enforcement investigators can turn to for documentation of an animal victim’s condition in cases of animal neglect or cruelty. Animal shelter veterinarians may play a role in managing evidence and housing surviving animals while criminal proceedings are pending. Veterinarians working in any setting should be aware of local animal cruelty law, the typical injuries and conditions that constitute animal abuse, reporting requirements, and principles of basic evidence management.

Typical cases of animal abuse include acts of commission (abuse), where someone does something to harm an animal (eg, blunt or sharp trauma, drowning, electrocution); acts of omission (neglect), where someone fails to provide an animal with necessary care (eg, failure to provide adequate nutrition, shelter, or veterinary care); and crimes of perversion (eg, organized or staged animal fighting, animal sexual abuse). Veterinarians should familiarize themselves with local animal cruelty law, where to report suspected cases, and typical court processes in their jurisdiction.

All veterinarians have the necessary skills to perform adequate forensic examinations and document their findings. The presumption may be that someone else or another agency is better suited to perform the exam, but the receiving veterinarian has a duty to document the condition of the animal at initial presentation. In cases of illegal animal maltreatment, the animal itself, as well as anything within or derived from the animal or its environment, may be considered evidence.

There is a growing awareness of the link between animal cruelty and violent crimes against people, and local law enforcement departments are increasingly investigating allegations of animal maltreatment. Shelter veterinarians are uniquely positioned to be a community resource for documenting cases of suspected animal abuse on behalf of local law enforcement.

When veterinary care is provided to alleviate pain and suffering, it is appropriate to document any steps taken to treat the animal and preserve evidence of its condition during the treatment period. When there is a simultaneous need to document evidence and treat pain and suffering, the welfare of the animal should be the veterinarian's primary consideration. However, in most cases of animal abuse, and especially in most cases of neglect, the initial steps of documentation can be performed without altering the evidence.

Depending on local criminal justice structure, suspected animal abuse may be most appropriately reported to the sheriff’s office, the police department, animal control, or a humane agency. In general, veterinarians are considered experts in a court of law because of their knowledge, skill, experience, training, and education, and therefore they may testify in the form of an opinion.

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