An Introduction

This weeks webinar is an interesting look into a situation that we all hope to never find ourselves in. How do we know that an animal is in a dangerous situation, and what steps do we need to take (what steps can we take?) to help our patient. Caroline Allen MA VetMB CertSAM MRCVS, the RSCPA Chief Veterinary Officer, walks us through the main points of this journey. From understanding the Animal Welfare Act and how it affects us, to how the RSPCA works and what our role in the legal battle is.

What do you hear?

Does the story match the picture?

If you believe an animal is suffering or likely to suffer if its circumstance do not change, then the law sets out what can be done.

Like we all know, our clients can be our best way to ensure animal welfare. It’s easy to get wrapped up in feelings of upset and frustration when we see a neglected animal but as Caroline Allen (MA VetMB CertSAM MRCVS) puts so gracefully in this webinar, “education and understanding is always preferred over punishment”. Take your time to remind the client that you’re there to help the animal, not to punish them.

Our speaker presents some factors to consider:

Is there an animal still suffering?
Is further support required from other agencies?
Could the law have been broken?
Could other animals or people be at risk?

Once these questions are answered, consider what agency is the most appropriate to contact, and whether you need consent.

An important note is that it’s our responsibility to (internally) question the history that we’re given. We’ve found over the years that history from the owner is crucial to many – if not most – cases. So what happens when the story doesn’t match up with what’s on the consult table in front of you?

What do you see?

What to look for in potential cases of animal abuse.

Is there a delay in the history? A dog with a callused break that just ‘fell off the couch yesterday’. Does the story fit? My middle-aged cat fell down the stairs. When is the last time you met a cat that fell down stairs in the absence of any neuro signs?

Repetitive injury is something that we want to keep an eye for – for example rib breaks in varying stages of healing when you do a thoracic radiography. Alternatively there could be multiple pets in a household and a client that seems to come in every week with a different injured animal.

There’s been a link between animal and human abuse – there are resources at www.thelinksgroup.org.uk – so have a think about the humans in the situation as well.

The RSPCA’s role

Hopefully, the most that we’ll need from the RSPCA is advice, guidance, and signposting. In the case that you believe that an animal is unsafe in the owners care, the RSPCA can assist the police in seeing an animal but they cannot seize them themselves. The SSPCA is different in this regard – where the inspector have powers but cannot prosecute themselves.

The ‘guidebook’, per se, that the RSPCA works from to determine if there is harm to the animal is the AWA. The Animal Welfare Act 2006 is a key piece of legislation and section 4 and 9 are critical. The webinar does a great job of covering the important bits and areas that you should be aware of, and I won’t spoil all the fun in this blog but here’s a screenshot for a sneak peek:

The RSPCA also helps handle the legal side of things if the case does progress, but as the vet you’re relied on to communicate to the jury why this animal is in danger and how it’s already affected the animal.

Your role in the veterinary clinic

What information can I share?

Client confidentiality and GDPR are forefront in our minds – with social media and case sharing becoming more prevalent we’re also tightening up what information we can share with others. How does the play into sharing case information with the court or with animal welfare officers?

The RCVS code allows breaches in confidentiality in certain circumstances – the exact quote in the code is as follows…

“Client confidentiality may be breached and appropriate information reported to the relevant authorities. Some examples may include situations where an animal shows signs of abuse (…)”

This also applies to veterinary nurses, although they should discuss the issues with a senior veterinary surgeon in the practice before breaching client confidentiality.

Your obligation is to the court, not to the RSPCA.

How to know what to share.

What notes do I take?

In the consult, remember to write good notes. We’re all a little bit guilty of writing a sparse note entry when we’re hectic and overwhelmed but when your exact words can later be used in court then don’t just say “Thoracic auscultation: Within normal limits”. Work through each part – is there any upper or lower respiratory sounds? What lung quadrants did you check? Did you percuss as well? How about the heart, are there murmurs, arrhythmias (even sinus arrhythmia!), what’s the heart rate? This is all university new-graduate level things that we can fall out of habit with.

For any tests that you take, send them away to a lab that is reputable for that species, label your tubes well, and let the lab know that it’s a prosecution case. There are some more tips in regards to treatment, records, and photographs that are mentioned in the webinar as well!

The role of the veterinary surgeon is critical as any legal action will rely upon veterinary evidence.

You later will likely have to write a ‘veterinary certificate’. What this entails is described in the webinar, and in the case that your client is desperate to go home (or is already at home) and it’s not an acute or serious situation then the RSPCA has supplied a veterinary line in the webinar which gives you straight access to their consultants.

The webinar does a great job of delineating what your role may be as a veterinary surgeon in court and in the case. The justice system is often scary when looking from the outside, but the Chief Veterinary Officer gives us a great book into the Veterinarians role in the justice system and a glimpse of what to expect.

Your role in the legal process

In most cases, the vet is not called to the court. Having a good, thorough report minimises the chances. You’re likely not going to be thoroughly cross-examined but remember to stick to the facts. This is not the time to have spacey thoughts, this is not the time to write rambling and confusing notes either. When you write a good report that is thorough then you minimise the chances of someone questioning it and questioning you.

When you’re writing your veterinary report, try not to use technical words. Even words that we consider ‘simple’ are often not understandable to the layperson. Tachycardia or tachypnoea, even anorexia or pyrexia are important to explain. You can refer to the codes of practice to determine whether the animals needs were being met to the extent required.

In Summary

The webinar went live on the 22nd of October in 2020, but this information will be pertinent for years to come. It’s something to keep in the back of your mind when you start getting suspicious or even when an EMS student asks a particularly off-the-wall question. “I think this animal has been a victim of cruelty, what next?” was a webinar that helps vets all around the world. It’s free to attend and re-watch for Unlimited Members or for £40+VAT, you can get access to rewatch at your leisure.