Was it an accident? Or was it animal abuse?
This is one of the questions a veterinarian has to ask - and answer - when an injured patient comes in and the cause of injury is unknown. There are general guidelines that veterinarians can use to help hone in on suspicious human behavior in suspected animal abuse cases, but pinpointing specific abuse-related injuries can be tricky.
Fortunately, new research in veterinary forensics from Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is making it easier for veterinary professionals to distinguish between accidents and animal abuse.
The research, now available online and soon-to-be published in the September 2016 print edition of the Journal of Forensic Sciences, shows that motor vehicle accidents and non-accidental blunt force trauma cases in dogs and cats are distinguishable by the types of injuries with which the patients present.
In animal abuse cases (non-accidental), abusers often reports a false cause of injury, with motor vehicle accidents being a favorite cover story for animals that present with skeletal injuries. With this regularity in mind, the Tufts and ASPCA researchers chose their sample cases accordingly.
The study compares records from 50 criminal animal abuse cases compiled by the ASPCA's Humane Law Enforcement Division with 426 motor vehicle accident cases from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine's clinic, the Foster Hospital for Small Animals.
Fourth-year veterinary student and one of the study's lead authors, Nida Intarapanich, reports,
"Our research has found that non-accidental injury and motor vehicle accidents cause different patterns of skeletal and soft tissue injury."
The study documented higher incidences of head injuries, rib fractures, and tooth and claw damage in abused animals. Abused animals also tended to show evidence of older fractures, much like the pattern found in many human abuse cases.
Animals that were injured in motor vehicle accidents presented more often with skin abrasions, skin tearing, lung collapse, lung bruising, and injuries to their hindquarters.
Furthermore, the researchers noted that rib fracture patterns were helpful in distinguishing animal abuse from accidental injury. Abuse-induced injuries more often caused fractures on both sides of the body, whereas motor vehicle accidents usually caused fractures on only one side of the body.
This study is an invaluable addition to a small but growing body of documentation in veterinary literature dealing with patterns of injury caused by intentional cruelty to animals.
"The forensic veterinarian's job is to use scientific evidence to tell the story of an animal victim of cruelty. This study serves as a valuable tool in that process...and will help forensic veterinarians continue to give a voice to the voiceless," says Robert Reisman, D.V.M., who collaborated on the study.
Hats off to these researchers. Their work will help veterinarians and law enforcement personnel hold animal abusers accountable for their crimes. You can read more about this important study here.