Massachusetts veterinarians must report animal abuse

PAWS Act created after highly publicized case

November 18, 2014 (published)
By Phyllis DeGioia

Veterinarians in Massachusetts are legally obligated to report when they suspect an animal has been abused, per a state law that takes effect today.

The Massachusetts Protecting Animal Welfare and Safety Act, or PAWS Act, requires veterinarians to alert authorities when they encounter an animal that they believe has been abused. Failure to report could result in disciplinary action from the Massachusetts Board of Veterinary Medicine.

The enactment of PAWS, which also increases fines and prison time for those convicted of committing animal abuse, makes Massachusetts the nation’s 15th state to pass reporting requirements for veterinarians, according to information from the American Veterinary Medical Association and Animal Legal Defense Fund. While the state laws vary — for example, some include livestock and others do not — the statutory demand for practitioners to speak up when they believe an animal has been abused is spreading.

Veterinarians are provided immunity for reporting suspected cases in Massachusetts and at least 26 other states. That means they are protected against lawsuits for making a report in good faith.

Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, vice president of animal welfare for the Animal Rescue League of Boston, said animal abuse is gaining attention because it’s been linked to other crimes, particularly the abuse of children.

“We are seeing an increasing number of local police departments taking the investigation of suspected animal cruelty more seriously because of the growing understanding of the co-occurrence of other crimes,” she said.

A decade ago, legislators passed a bill providing immunity to veterinarians who choose to report suspected abuse. Calls for stronger state laws came when a dog was found in August 2013 near a park in Quincy, starved and brutally tortured. She was euthanized shortly after being discovered.

The case was widely publicized and vigils were held for the pit bull, referred to by the public as Puppy Doe. Local news reports say the dog’s alleged abuser, Radoslaw Czerkawski, is due in court Dec. 20 after pleading not guilty to 11 counts of animal cruelty and misleading investigators. 

Smith-Blackmore performed the dog’s necropsy but could not publicly discuss her findings because she’s a witness in Czerkawski’s trial.

She urges veterinarians to speak up even if they aren’t 100 percent certain a patient is being abused. “If the injuries don't fit the story, report,” Smith-Blackmore said. Determining actual abuse is not the responsibility of a veterinarian but that of the justice system, she added.

That approach leaves some veterinarians uneasy and concerned that the law might interfere with the veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Critics also fear that the law will prevent people from seeking medical care for their pets, even in cases of accidental injury.

Smith-Blackmore said some veterinarians worry that reporting abuse could lead other clients to shun their practices or hurt revenues due to time spent in court. The potential for bad publicity has, in the past, led associates to call Smith-Blackmore for advice when clinic policy barred them from reporting.

With the enactment of PAWS, veterinarians who’ve wrestled with whether to report now are legally obligated to do so.

Recognizing animal abuse

Here are some potential indicators of abuse or neglect compiled by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals:

  • Tick or flea infestations
  • Wounds on the body
  • Patches of missing hair
  • Extremely thin, starving animal
  • Limping
  • An owner striking or otherwise physically abusing an animal
  • Dogs repeatedly left alone without food and water and often chained in a yard
  • Dogs that have been hit by cars and have not been taken to a veterinarian
  • Dogs kept outside without shelter in extreme weather conditions
  • Animals that cower in fear or act aggressively when approached by their owners

“The vet's role is to report just the facts,” Smith-Blackmore said. “The vet is one step in the process, and it's a scientifically based and factual step: What did you see and why did it not correlate with what you were told?"

No one is sure how many abuse cases veterinarians in Massachusetts have been reported, either before or after the passage of PAWS. No central agency gathers such data.

The rate of animal-abuse reporting is fuzzier in states where veterinarians aren’t mandated to report, said Phil Arkow of the National Link Coalition, an informal network that addresses connections between animal abuse, child maltreatment, domestic violence and elder abuse.

When state laws fail to guide veterinarians’ efforts to report abuse, they’re left to “figure it out for themselves,” Arkow said. Legislative mandates allow veterinarians to explain to clients that they’re obligated by law to report suspected abuse cases. “It removes the gray areas,” he added.

The connection of animal abuse to violence against people is well-documented. A 2001-2004 study by the Chicago Police Department indicated that of people arrested for animal crimes, 65 percent also had been arrested for battery against a person. Another study found that of 36 convicted serial killers, 46 percent admitted that they previously had tortured animals. Between 1997 and 2001, boys who had carried out seven separate and unrelated school shootings in the United States each had a history of being cruel to animals, according to research compiled by the Humane Society of the United States. 

Veterinarians may report animal cruelty in states without legal mandates to do so, with one exception. The Animal Legal Defense Fund lists Kentucky as prohibiting it

By law, Kentucky veterinarians are barred from reporting suspected cases of animal abuse to authorities unless there is written consent or a court order to do so.

The Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association is trying to change that by amending the state’s veterinary practice act, said Louise Cook, the group’s executive director.

“We're working on the practice act to get wording in there so it will be permitted. We know the correlation between human and animal abuse,” she stated.

So does the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The agency announced in September that animal cruelty cases will be collected in a separate category in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program and tracked much like homicide, arson and assault incidents.

Data on animal cruelty won’t be collected until January 2016, after law enforcement databases nationally are updated, the FBI said. The goal is to develop statistics on cruelty to animals, now designated by the agency as a “crime against humanity.” 

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