The horrific child sexual abuse scandal that has been festering at Penn State gets worse by the day. Among the legal issues are the state law requirements about who has an obligation to report suspicions of abuse, who should receive the reports, and when the reports must be made. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett already has called for strengthening the reporting requirements, and comments from spokespersons representing both political parties suggest that change will come quickly.

What are the requirements for reporting to the authorities when a veterinarian suspects animal abuse and neglect? Not surprisingly, state laws are a mishmash of regulations ranging from mandatory reporting in some states to an outright prohibition on the release of any veterinary records without client consent in others.

If you’ve been a reader of Horses and the Law for a while you know that I’m a member of the Animal Legal Defense Fund and a supporter of many of the organization’s positions. A couple of months ago, ALDF compiled an informative list of state reporting requirements. 

According to the ALDF, reporting at least some instances of suspected abuse and neglect by a veterinarian is mandatory in only 11 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Oregon, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. In five states—Georgia, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Rhode Island—veterinarians "may" report abuse and neglect but are not required to do so. (Maine and Oregon show up twice because reporting is mandatory only for "aggravated" cruelty and discretionary for everything else.) In Maryland, veterinarians are "encouraged" to report animal cruelty.

Among the disincentives for veterinarians reporting abuse and neglect is the possibility of a lawsuit by the alleged perpetrator if the charges prove to be false. An essential part of any reporting requirement is immunity from liability for reports made by a veterinarian in good faith, and this is provided in all the mandatory states.

One Extreme To The Other

At the other end of the spectrum, as far removed from mandatory reporting of abuse and neglect as can be imagined, is the law in Kentucky. Confidentiality of veterinary records is important, but Kentucky lawmakers have taken the idea to an extreme by prohibiting the release of veterinary records without the written consent of the owner or a court order or subpoena. There is no exception for reporting suspected abuse or neglect, an omission that effectively ties the hands of a veterinarian who suspects abuse or neglect.

Consent for the release of records that might indicate animal abuse is an unlikely bit of cooperation to expect from an animal abuser. And without a heads-up to the authorities from a veterinarian who may be in the best position to suspect a problem, court action is a long shot.

The non-reporting law in Kentucky is a fairly recent addition to an existing statute addressing the veterinarian-client-patient relationship and the protection of animal abusers almost certainly is an unintended consequence. Attempts to close the loophole failed in the past, but legislators who recognize the problem should try again when the state legislature convenes early in 2012. It’s an easy fix, and failure to act only enhances Kentucky’s embarassing reputation for having some of the worst animal protection laws in the nation.

Where does your state fall on the continuum for abuse reporting by veterinarians?