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Signs a Pet’s Injuries Are Due to Abuse, Not an Accident

abused dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • A study revealed distinct differences in animal injuries caused by abuse or motor vehicle accidents
  • Victims of animal abuse tended to have more injuries to the head, ribs, teeth and claws, and rib fractures were seen on both sides of the body
  • Pets injured in motor vehicle accidents had different patterns of injury, including greater incidence of skin abrasions, skin torn from tissue, lung collapse and bruising and hind-end injury

By Dr. Becker

When dogs or cats are brought into a veterinarian's office or animal hospital with traumatic injuries, it's up to the owner to explain how those injuries occurred. Unfortunately, not all owners are sincere in their stories, particularly when they were the source of the animal's injuries.

While a veterinarian may suspect injuries may be due to abuse rather than an accident, there's no objective way to know for certain. For instance, animal abusers may say the animal was hit by a car when in reality the injuries were caused intentionally.

Research from Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) may help veterinarians to distinguish accidental injuries from animal abuse, however, via a study that revealed distinct differences in injuries caused by abuse or motor vehicle accidents.1

Distinct Patterns May Reveal True Cause of Trauma

The Tufts University and ASPCA study involved data from nearly 500 dogs and cats — 426 of which were involved in motor vehicle accidents (MVAs) and 50 that were victims of criminal animal abuse.

The injuries had unique characteristics that researchers believe could be used to establish patterns to help veterinarians determine the true cause of the trauma.

For instance, when ribs were fractured in an MVA, the fractures typically occurred on one side of the body. In abused animals, rib fractures were seen on both sides of the body. In addition, the study noted:2

"Injuries significantly associated with MVA were pelvic fractures, pneumothorax, pulmonary contusion, abrasions and degloving wounds …

Injuries associated with NAI [non-accidental injuries, i.e. abuse] were fractures of the skull, teeth, vertebrae, and ribs, scleral hemorrhage, damage to claws and evidence of older fractures."

In short, victims of animal abuse tended to have more injuries to the head, ribs, teeth and claws.

Pets injured in motor vehicle accidents had different patterns of injury, including greater incidence of skin abrasions, skin torn from tissue, lung collapse and bruising and hind-end injury, which might be because the animals were hit while running away from the vehicle.

Are Abused Animals Brought to the Vet?

You might assume that it's unlikely an abused animal would even be brought to the vet, but research suggests households with animal abuse use veterinary services comparably to non-abusive households.

Further, international surveys suggest between 44 percent and 90 percent of veterinarians have seen abused animals in their practice.3

Research published in In Practice, however, suggests many veterinarians feel they're inadequately trained not only to identify animal abuse but to take the next step of reporting it.4

Most veterinarians surveyed felt it was not appropriate for them to become involved in such cases, citing fears of litigation or physical retaliation, a belief that no action would be taken, or concern that it would compromise the safety of the animal. According to In Practice:5

"If reporting does not occur, then an abused animal is likely to be released back into a violent environment and, as with interpersonal violence, the risk of repeated and escalating abuse is high.

Adding gravity to the situation is that we now recognize that there is co-abuse of animals, children and women in violent homes. Alongside other professional groups, such as doctors, social services, police and teachers, veterinarians may therefore bear witness to and play a part in identifying family violence."

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What Else May Raise the Suspicion of Animal Abuse?

Currently, only general guidelines exist to help veterinarians identify animal abuse. Among the top signs include:6

  • Inconsistent history
  • Previous injuries or deaths in other animals in the same household (especially when unexplained)
  • Repetitive injuries
  • Defensive or unconcerned behavior of the owner
  • Abnormal behavior in the animal, such as fear

In Practice further listed multiple features that raise the suspicion of non-accidental injury of companion animals, including:7

Lack of explanation for the injury

High pet turnover

Violence in the home

History is inconsistent with the injury

Use of various or new veterinarians

Inappropriate delay in presentation

Evidence of sexual abuse

Evidence of neglect

Evidence of poisoning

However, animal abuse isn't always obvious. Just as veterinarians may have difficulty identifying abuse from accidents, you may not be sure if an animal you've seen is actually being abused. The ASPCA has compiled top signs to help you recognize animal cruelty, below.8

Tight collar that has caused a neck wound or has become embedded in the pet's neck

Open wounds, signs of multiple healed wounds or an ongoing injury or illness that isn't being treated

Untreated skin conditions that have caused loss of hair, scaly skin, bumps or rashes

Extreme thinness or emaciation — bones may be visible

Fur infested with fleas, ticks or other parasites

Patches of bumpy, scaly skin rashes

Signs of inadequate grooming, such as extreme matting of fur, overgrown nails and dirty coat

Weakness, limping or the inability to stand or walk normally

Heavy discharge from eyes or nose

An owner striking or otherwise physically abusing an animal

Visible signs of confusion or extreme drowsiness

Pets are tied up alone outside for long periods of time without adequate food or water, or with food or water that is unsanitary

Pets are kept outside in inclement weather without access to adequate shelter

Pets are kept in an area littered with feces, garbage, broken glass or other objects that could harm them

Animals are housed in kennels or cages (very often crowded in with other animals) that are too small to allow them to stand, turn around and make normal movements

What to Do If You Witness Animal Abuse

If you've witnessed an act of animal abuse, it's important to report the incident to your local law enforcement agency, animal control agency, humane society or taxpayer-funded animal shelter. Veterinarians should take meticulous clinical notes and may even ask the owner, "Do you think someone may have hurt the animal?"9

You'll need to find out who is responsible for investigating and enforcing anti-cruelty laws in your area. If one of the agencies mentioned does not do this, they should be able to direct you to the proper authorities.10 Please do speak up for the animals around you, as they do not have a voice for themselves.

When reporting an incident, give as much information as possible, including dates, times and the location of the animals. If possible, include photos of the location or animals, and remember to follow up on any reports you've made to authorities if you don't hear back in a timely manner.

Also, while you may report animal abuse anonymously, cases are more likely to be pursued if there are credible witnesses available to back up the report. So, ideally, share your contact information and that of anyone else who witnessed the event.