Abuse – the veterinary profession working to help humans and animals

15 April 2016

Veterinary practices and animal welfare organisations must work together to raise awareness and create a national network of pet fostering services to help victims of domestic violence to escape their abusers, journalists were told at a press conference at the recent Congress.

Former BSAVA and BVA President Freda Scott-Park is chair of the Links Group, the multi-agency body working to tackle domestic violence towards pets, children and adults. The next major challenge for the Links Group to overcome was the shortage of places where pets can be safely looked after, should the victim try to leave the abusive home taking their pet with them. It is a well-known fact that many victims delay leaving the home unless they can take their pet with them, for fear that the animals will be harmed in retribution for their departure.

There has been significant progress in furthering the aims of the Links Group over the past few months, helped in part by the debate over domestic violence sparked by the behaviour of Rob Titchener on the BBC’s Archers radio programme. That storyline has helped demonstrate that it is not only families living in run-down inner city areas that are victims of violence or coercive control within the home.

Dr Scott-Park explained how the Links Group has been working since 2001 to help veterinary staff recognise animal abuse (this is not always straightforward) and further, to understand that in a violent household where an animal has been deliberately injured, there may be a human victim. Human healthcare professionals, the police and social services are now familiar with circumstances where animals are at risk of being hurt. The Links Group provides a platform where both veterinary and human healthcare professionals share information and work together to increase their respective understanding of the animal or human victims.

“Vets are now part of a huge worldwide family that has zero tolerance of violence in all its forms,&” she said.

In the past year, the Links Group has completed work on a 12 page leaflet that introduces the concept of non-accidental injury and sketches out a protocol to approach these complex cases. A longer and more comprehensive guidance document gives in-depth explanations of the subject of animal abuse and its possible link to human abuse. These documents will be sent to every veterinary surgeon in Great Britain in the forthcoming weeks. The Links Practice Poster will be prepared during the summer and will give a quick visual reminder to practice staff on how to employ the A V D R technique to ask the correct questions that will help release the right information without alarming or upsetting the client.

The Links Group has also produced a contacts card – a useful resource for vets should they feel the need to proffer some help to someone who admits that they are in a violent home. However, Dr Scott-Park warned that it is not always safe for victims to accept such overt items offering the hope of help, and possibly escape, from the perpetrator. So other innocuous resources are available that should not cause suspicion.

Similarly, the new Links Group website created by Vetstream’s Webpartner, has a fast shutdown function that automatically erases the browsing history to save the victim from further violence before they are able to leave the household. “People who commit domestic violence tend to be suspicious as well as controlling,&” Dr Scott-Park explained.

Perhaps one of the most exciting new projects undertaken in the last year has been the development of an online training resource for human healthcare professionals, prepared by veterinary surgeons. Through previous work of the Links Group, colleagues in human healthcare have to record if an animal is present in a violent household. With the help of the online module, due to be released late in 2016, they will be trained to recognise the wellbeing or otherwise of the animal/s and if they have concerns for the animal’s welfare, they can seek help and advice for the animal welfare agencies or local vets.

Paula Boyden, chief veterinary officer for the Dogs Trust and a member of the Links team, acknowledged that the numbers of pets with non-accidental injuries that are actually taken to a veterinary surgery are probably ‘the tip of the iceberg’ – most animal victims will be killed before they can receive veterinary care.

Dr Scott-Park reassured colleagues that staff at a first opinion practice are not expected to be experts in either animal or human abuse but they should understand their responsibilities if they are presented with a suspect case in the consulting room. She highlighted the need to recognise the ‘golden moment’ during the consultation when the victim feels able to explain that their pet’s injuries were not the result of an accident.

Cuts in social care budgets have meant that the numbers of places in refuges for women escaping domestic violence have been reduced in recent years. Those that are available rarely have facilities to cope with the family pets, hence the need to establish a national infrastructure of pet fostering facilities, speakers agreed.

Monika Borchardt of Birmingham and Solihull’s Women’s Aid said that the situation is improving. Agencies like the police are much more aware of the significance of domestic violence and far more likely to effectively respond than they were 10 or 20 years ago. There was a representative from the West Midlands Violence Prevention Alliance Care present at the press conference – this multi-agency alliance recognises that victims of domestic abuse struggle with long-term effects on their mental health. Veterinary behaviourist, Sarah Heath, said there was increasing evidence of the emotional toll on children who witness violence in the home. In some ways this may be more damaging than the effects of any physical violence, she said.

Ms Heath wondered whether many instances of behavioural problems in pets might be caused by experiencing aggression in the home. She argued that greater efforts to understand and treat the effects of such experiences should be another priority for the veterinary profession.