A Veterinarian’s Responsibility in Horse Abuse Cases

Equine veterinarians play a critical part in mitigating animal neglect and abuse.
Credit: Thinkstock One way veterinarians can help is by making recommendations about horse recovery and care.

Many veterinarians are hesitant or even unwilling to get involved with law enforcement on equine cruelty cases. Many times this hesitation stems from a lack of knowledge about the process and the laws or a fear of negative publicity. While it can be a daunting task, responding to animal abuse not only helps individual animals that might be suffering, but also fulfills the veterinary oath to use our skills for the betterment of society.

According to Dr. Ron DeHaven, the CEO of the AVMA, “Every veterinarian has an obligation to protect the health and welfare of animals. Therefore, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of every veterinarian to report animal abuse to appropriate authorities, even when such reporting is not mandated by law or local ordinance. Such reporting is for the benefit of the animals, but there are often implications for people, as well.”1

Historical Background

The Animal Welfare Act was signed into federal law in 1966, and the current law incorporates seven subsequent amendments. It is the only federal law in the United States that regulates the treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport and by dealers. Other laws, policies and guidelines might include additional species coverage or specifications for animal care and use, but all refer to the Animal Welfare Act as the minimum acceptable standard.2 It can be referenced online from the aphid.usda.gov website.

Since the first welfare laws were enacted, veterinarians have collaborated with animal welfare investigators and law enforcement authorities to help abused and neglected animals. Sociocultural changes in the United States have led to an increased interest in the humane treatment of animals. As a consequence, animal cruelty cases are being treated with more respect than at any time in the past. This increase in public concern for animals has resulted in stronger scientific support for the links between animal abuse and human violence, and for the therapeutic benefits of animals. More research into humananimal interactions has been undertaken, and animal law courses are now common in law schools. This increased interest in animal well-being has also facilitated the passage of legislation providing greater protections for animals.

The problem of unwanted and neglected horses was much exacerbated by the recession of 2008. In the years immediately following this economic dip, there were many media reports of horse neglect and abandonment. In addition, there were many articles about equine rescue facilities—already understaffed and underfunded—turning away horses because they were at capacity. According to the Unwanted Horse Coalition, in 2007 it was estimated that about 170,000 horses were unwanted each year.3 In a report by the Governmental Accountability Office to Congressional Committees, it was stated that since domestic horse slaughter ceased in 2007, the slaughter horse market has shifted to Canada and Mexico. From 2006 through 2010, U.S. horse exports for slaughter increased by 148% and 660% to Canada and Mexico, respectively. As a result, nearly the same numbers of U.S. horses were transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter in 2010—nearly 138,000—as were slaughtered before domestic slaughter ceased.4

Concurrently, state and local governments, as well as animal welfare organizations, have reported a rise in investigations for horse neglect and more abandoned horses since 2007. For example, Colorado data showed that investigations into horse neglect and abuse increased more than 60%, from 975 in 2005 to 1,588 in 2009. California, Texas and Florida reported that more horses have been abandoned on private or state land since 2007. The results of the Unwanted Horse Coalition’s 2009 survey showed that 63% of equine rescue facilities reported they were at or near full capacity and, on average, turned away 38% of the horses brought to them. A University of California, Davis, survey found 53.2% of the horses relinquished to rescues and sanctuaries appeared unhealthy upon arrival to the accepting organizations/facilities.5

There are many factors contributing to this situation. Development of farmlands has reduced the amount of acreage available to grow animal grains and hay. Some land has been repurposed to grow corn to fuel cars with ethanol as an alternative energy source. Severe weather and drought conditions have also had an impact. All these issues with scarcity have caused feed and hay prices to rise, and some people cannot afford to feed their horses. This might contribute to an increase in the number of neglected and unwanted horses. Because it now costs more to care for these horses, and because many rescue facilities are already financially strapped, an increasing number of these organizations have been investigated for neglect as their resources have dwindled.

These changes in the equine industry have focused additional attention on equine veterinarians, who are now seeing more abandoned and abused horses than ever before. Practitioners who become involved in these cases need knowledge of their state’s cruelty and welfare statutes, and they need to have a clear plan of action in order to most effectively serve these animals.

How Do Vets Get Involved?

Equine veterinarians can become aware of cases of neglect or abuse during the course of their daily work. The dilemma: When is it appropriate to report suspicions about such cases to law enforcement or other animal welfare authorities? Adding to the stress, veterinary licensing agencies in some states advise veterinarians not to disclose client information, effectively limiting them from being able to help animals if they follow this advice. Veterinarians must determine whether the most effective response to their concerns would be through client education, monitoring the situation or reporting the incident to appropriate authorities. Fortunately, a fairly large proportion of these cases can be resolved through client education.

Equine veterinarians are often asked to accompany the police or cruelty investigators to the scene of suspected animal cruelty or neglect to conduct examinations of the animals. Similarly, veterinarians might examine, treat and perform necropsies on animals seized for cruelty and neglect at the request of law enforcement. Veterinarians can also be ordered by the courts through subpoenas to turn over records or other information concerning animals they have treated. A subpoena might also be used to compel the testimony of a veterinarian concerning his or her patients and their condition and treatment.

What Is the Law?

Veterinarians can be challenged by conflicting professional, personal, public and legal standards of what constitutes inhumane treatment. In common usage, the terms “cruelty to animals,” “abuse,” and “neglect” encompass a range of behaviors harmful to animals, from unintentional neglect to malicious killing. Recognizing animal abuse is not always straightforward. Human mistreatment of animals extends across a spectrum ranging from passive neglect to intentional cruelty. The majority of cases arise from neglect, which is often unintentional due to lack of education or temporary lapses in care. In equine practice, the observation of a horse or group of horses with poor body condition scores in a pasture devoid of forage might be the most common presentation of neglect encountered. As rescue groups and concerned individuals have attempted to meet the demand for unwanted horses in the current economic climate, hoarding of horses (typically unintentional) has become more common.

The legal definitions of the following terms vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and clinical descriptions and public perceptions might vary from statutory terminology. The following terms are commonly used to describe the types of animal maltreatment seen in practice:

Animal abuse—willful failure to provide care or doing something harmful. Abuse implies that maltreatment has occurred, regardless of the intent, motivation or mental condition of the perpetrator, whereas cruelty connotes more deliberate intention.

Animal cruelty—this is defined as any act that, by intention or by neglect, causes an animal unnecessary pain or suffering.

Neglect—lack of care, often resulting from ignorance, poverty or extenuating circumstances, that results in a failure to provide the basic necessities of life, which are adequate levels of food, water, shelter, veterinary care, grooming or sanitation, resulting in poor physical condition. Neglect is the most common form of animal maltreatment investigated by animal protection authorities.

Animal cruelty is a crime in all states. There are both civil and criminal avenues for prosecuting animal cruelty depending upon the facts of the case, and in 46 states aggravated cruelty is a felony within the criminal code. By reporting suspected cruelty to local law enforcement or animal care or control agencies, the veterinary practitioner is taking the first step to resolve unhealthy, dangerous and/or criminal situations. These agencies will then investigate the complaint and take appropriate actions.

Because of the emerging link between animal cruelty and domestic abuse, in recent years several states have focused their attention on the reporting of animal abuse, neglect and cruelty by veterinarians, health care providers and other social service providers. An interactive map showing state laws and regulations that require or encourage veterinarians and veterinary technicians to report animal abuse and cruelty is available at www.avma.org; search for “Abuse Reporting Requirements by State.” The map also includes states that provide civil or criminal immunity for good-faith reporting of animal abuse.

The National Agricultural Law Center provides an interactive map of states’ animal cruelty statutes at nationalaglawcenter.org; search for “Animal Cruelty.” This resource addresses the fact that while each state has enacted statutes to punish individuals who engage in cruelty to animals, the actual codified provisions vary markedly from state to state. Familiarity with these statutes is essential for veterinarians. The interactive map entitled “States’ Animal Cruelty Statutes” provides a link to a pdf of the text of each state’s animal cruelty statutes, along with the date of its possible expiration, simply by clicking on the map.6

In addition, the AAEP has a guide to handling equine cruelty, abuse and neglect on its website.7 Another essential resource is “Practical Guidance for the Effective Response by Veterinarians to Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse and Neglect,” which can be accessed through https://ebusiness.avma.org. This comprehensive document, compiled by the AVMA, provides a number of valuable resources in understanding abuse and planning a practice response to these cases.

What Is the Process?

After a report of abuse or cruelty, an investigation is undertaken by law enforcement. Seizure of horses by law enforcement agencies might occur if there is probable cause that the animals are suffering from abuse, cruelty and/or neglect. However, often the enforcement officer chooses to leave the animals in place and provides terms and conditions if an imminent risk of death is not present. Terms and conditions must be in writing and signed by the owner and the enforcing agency, and the owner must abide by these terms and conditions, or the animal will be impounded. In most cases, animals cannot be removed from a property if the owner is not present unless a warrant is obtained or the animal is in imminent danger and law enforcement is involved. Animals must legally be removed by law enforcement or a contracted agency; otherwise the act is considered theft. The arresting agency must have the ability and financial resources to remove and house any impounded animals. The lack of funding and housing can be a deterrent for law enforcement to investigate and prosecute cases of equine abuse/neglect. Contacting larger organizations for assistance might be of benefit in these cases.

In some cases, law enforcement requires assistance to establish probable cause that the animals are suffering, and that might include a visual exam of the property and animals by a veterinarian. The veterinarian who does such an examination at the request of law enforcement legally has the professional expertise to establish the nature, duration and severity of an animal’s injury. For instance, he or she alone can draw a reasoned conclusion concerning the likely cause of the severe emaciation and rain rot discovered in a horse left standing in a field with poor food and/or no shelter.

Because of this expertise, the veterinarian is an integral part of the prosecution team.

At the time of the initial examination, the veterinarian should visually document the animal’s condition, including any injuries, utilizing high-quality photos and/or video. He or she should also properly identify the animal utilizing tattoos, markings and whorls, but avoid guessing the animal’s breed or age if uncertain. Perform a complete physical examination, including body scoring, and document the normal as well as abnormal findings. Consider using a standard form to ensure that the physical examination is completely recorded. Perform a CBC, chemistry panel and quantitative fecal if consent can be obtained. Neglected animals generally have a higher incidence of parasitism, anemia and hypoproteinemia. Note that the question of who will pay any incurred fees must also be considered.

A comprehensive medical record should be prepared, including a Henneke Body Scoring, physical exam findings, medical history, statements made by the owner or caregiver, observed stereotypic behaviors, detailed description of injuries, an opinion as to whether injuries are adequately explained, results of laboratory tests and diagnostic procedures, and photographs, videos and imaging studies. Careful documentation of the recuperation process during the period of impoundment after seizure is also important.8

While the majority of the cases are resolved prior to a court appearance, the veterinarian should be prepared to present his or her findings to a judge and/or jury in the form of testimony. In most cases the veterinarian will provide a deposition, or a statement of the facts as he or she knows them. Occasionally the veterinarian involved with the abused/neglected horse will be subpoenaed to appear in court. Although it might seem daunting, effective testimony really just means stating what you know for a fact in a simple, coherent fashion that can be understood by those without your medical training. The veterinarian’s value to a cruelty case lies in his or her medical expertise. Because veterinarians are trusted professionals, their expert testimony can carry enormous weight.

In the unusual event that a case goes to trial, the veterinarian will need to appear in court, a process that can take all day. Dr. Liz Fish, of Oneonta, New York, has worked extensively with humane cases. She suggests that depositions generally require two to three hours with law enforcement officials, while court cases might take several days due to motions, delays and rescheduling. According to Dr. Charlotte Kin, court cases are typically called in order of criminal significance and presence of all parties. Some defendants will sign a plea bargain on the court date, before the trial is called before the judge. If the case goes to trial, the District Attorney (DA) will typically prepare you before your appearance and ask you to review your previous reports. It is important to make sure that the DA understands your reports and that you bring to the DA’s attention anything you feel is relevant in the case. Even while on the stand, you can typically request to refer to your report.

Questions that are typically asked by the DA include: What is your background with horses? What is your educational background? What kinds of continuing education are you required to obtain? What is your current employment? How are you involved in this case? How many equine cruelty/neglect cases have you been involved with previously? Do you remember the specific horse(s) in question? Who contacted you regarding the horse(s) in question? What is your standard equine cruelty workup? Was the stated work-up performed on this horse(s)? What were your findings? What do you think is the most likely cause of the horse’s (or horses’) condition?

After the DA has completed questioning, the defense attorney has the opportunity to question the veterinarian. The defense attorney’s questions might range from no questions to asking for extensive explanations of findings and any other possible reasons that the horse or horses might be in its/their current situation.

A Cruel Reality

Working closely with rescue organizations and law enforcement to help horses in need can be very gratifying, as this kind of service supports veterinarians’ values. While this work is rarely profitable and in some cases might actually cost the practice money, equine abuse is a moral wrong. Making a positive difference in the lives of these animals can have a positive effect on a veterinarian’s reputation. According to Fish, the number of positive responses from her clients exponentially exceeded the negative reactions. “People really cared that I was trying to make a difference,” she said.

However, one shouldn’t disregard the danger that can result, she cautioned. Veterinarians are vulnerable to social media attacks, misperceptions of their involvement, damage to their reputations and physical threats. Fish reported that her life was threatened on two separate occasions, both in person and on the phone. In some small towns, where family ties and friendships go back generations, law enforcement personnel might be closely linked to those involved in neglect or cruelty. Acting with the highest of professionalism in accordance with state statutes is essential.

The hardest part of this work, according to Fish, is that “it sometimes takes you to a dark place, where you see the worst of humanity.” Compassion fatigue is not uncommon in veterinarians who perform a lot of work with cruelty and neglect cases. “You see death of horses under sad circumstances, and you experience ugly times with damaged people. You can lose a piece of your soul with the worst of the cases,” she said.

The most important thing is to develop a close working relationship with local reputable rescue organizations, she advised. The best organizations raise funds to support veterinary care for those animals that they take in and will work collaboratively with law enforcement to result in the most positive solution for horses in need. This might mean an owner who has neglected his or her horse surrendering it to the humane organization in lieu of prosecution.

When working with a rescue organization, it is essential to do due diligence before accepting it as a client, Fish said. Because your reputation might be tied to an organization’s performance, you should know the non-profit’s values, ethics and beliefs. Check references and review the rescue’s social media presence. Some people involved in fraudulent rescue organizations have ill intent and have taken in animals and subsequently sold them for slaughter. Others have good intent but limited funding, and they become unable to provide for the horses under their care.

Before accepting a rescue as a client, it is wise to interview its director as well as the staff. Ask why the organization is looking for a new veterinarian. Talk with the rescue’s former veterinarian if you have the opportunity. Be very direct in communicating about your fees, any discounts you intend to give, and what your expectation is for time of payment. When working with law enforcement, ask, “Does your organization have a fund for support of veterinary care for neglected or impounded animals? Who is legally responsible for paying my fees?” If you are going to provide pro bono work, it is best to know it at the onset.

When cruelty or neglect cases hit the news, veterinarians who are involved might suddenly be in the spotlight. Before you talk to the media, it is important to determine the message you want to deliver; then stay on target.

Remember that you don’t have to answer the actual question that you are asked, but instead can simply pivot to deliver your message. You will also want to be proactive in seeking out the media in some cases so that you can control the message to some degree. Media coverage has the potential to be negative, especially in small towns where familial relationships abound. A good strategy is to foster a relationship with a local reporter before a situation arises in which you need to be heard. By offering to be a source of material for articles the reporter might be writing on health topics such as Lyme disease or rabies, you can build a bond that might serve you positively in the future. Then, if you need an ally during publicity of an animal cruelty case, you have an established network in place.

Take-Home Message

Equine veterinarians play a critical part in mitigating animal neglect and abuse by understanding their role in identifying and reporting cases of suspected equine cruelty, using their expertise to assist law enforcement, and aiding officials in the investigation and prosecution of cases. All veterinarians should take a stand to serve in this capacity whenever needed in order to make our world a kinder and more humane place for its human and animal inhabitants.


1. https://www.avma.org/kb/resources/ reference/animalwelfare/pages/animalabuse- resources-for-veterinarians.aspx

2. https://awic.nal.usda.gov/government-and-professional-resources/federal-laws/animal-welfare-act

3. http://www.unwantedhorsecoalition.org/unwanted-horses/

4. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11228.pdf

5. http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d11228.pdf

6. http://nationalaglawcenter.org/statecompilations/animal-cruelty/

7. http://www.aaep.org/custdocs/aaepfaqsequineabuse.pdf

8. http://equinenonprofits.com/2015/05/15/understanding-a-horses-body-composition-the-henneke-scale/ 

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