See the doctor and you expect everything about the visit—test results, medical records, diagnosis, the conversation itself—to be confidential. The same is true when you consult an attorney for legal advice, seek spiritual guidance from a priest or minister, or share confidences with a spouse. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy in all of these communications, and they are generally accorded legal protection. This privilege can be compromised in some situations. If you share your medical test results with some third parties, for example, confidentiality is lost. There are some public policy exceptions as well, such as the general duty of physicians to report suspected child abuse without fear of civil or criminal liability. Confidentiality is the default in most circumstances, however.

But what about veterinary medical records? Are the treatments for your stallion’s infertility problems confidential? How about problems getting your best mare in foal or your performance horse’s unsoundness issues?

Veterinary records might be confidential, or they might not be, depending on the state where you live. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Summary Report on the Confidentiality of Veterinary Patient Records, about half the states currently have some sort of law requiring prior written authorization from an animal’s owner for the release of veterinary records. Some, but not all, of those states have a public policy "good faith" exception that allows a treating veterinarian to disclose confidential information if animal neglect or abuse is suspected.

Kentucky was the most recent state to enact legislation protecting the confidentiality of veterinary records. Kentucky Revised Statute 321.185(3) provides, in part, that a "veterinarian shall not violate the confidential relationship between the veterinarian and the veterinarian’s client" and authorizes the release of veterinary records only upon written authorization from the animal’s owner or a court order or subpoena. There are a few exceptions, including civil or criminal actions initiated by the client relating to the nature and extent of the animal’s injuries or the veterinarian’s care of the animal. This allows a veterinarian to use an animal’s records to defend against a malpractice lawsuit. The statute does not apply to state veterinary board investigations or action by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission.

What KRS 321.185(3) does not include is a "good faith" exception allowing a veterinarian to report suspected animal neglect or abuse to the proper authorities without fear of civil or criminal penalties. Louise Cook, Executive Director of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association, said recently that an amendment providing such a safe harbor for state veterinarians was added to the legislation toward the end of the 2009 legislative session, but was not passed. Ms. Cook said that a similar amendment would be introduced during the 2010 session. Prior to passage of the confidentiality provision, Kentucky veterinarians could report suspected neglect and abuse because records were not confidential, but were not required to do so. Now they cannot.

It’s difficult to argue with the idea that veterinary records should be confidential, and adding a confidentiality provision to state law passed unanimously in both the Kentucky Senate and House of Representatives. A free pass for owners who abuse or neglect their animals almost certainly was not the intention of the legislators, however, which leads to some questions: do legislators (not just in Kentucky but everywhere) actually read proposed legislation, and if they do, does anyone think beyond the immediate and obvious impact of the new laws? The answers, it often seems, are no.