Veterinarians are often faced with a dilemma when encountering suspected animal abuse, especially when a client or a member of the client’s family may be responsible for that abuse. First, how can a veterinarian be sure the animal was not involved in an accident? What degree of harm or neglect constitutes animal “abuse”? Do I have to understand the criminal laws to know what is illegal? Will my Board take action against my license if my client does not agree to my reporting? Who do I report to? Do I have to have direct knowledge of animal abuse to report it? The Board periodically receives questions from the practice along these lines. The scenarios presented can be as broad as the imagination allows.
Many jurisdictions have state laws that have made the reporting of the abuse of animals by veterinarians compulsory. Some national organizations such as the AAVSB and AVMA have policies encouraging the legislatures of the states that have not addressed these issues to pass laws providing answers to these questions – laws which would serve to protect the animals in their jurisdictions, along with the reporters who act in good faith and act on their suspicions. Most model acts would adopt concepts of compulsory reporting and broad immunities where reporting is made in good faith.
In reality, however, there is no resemblance of a unified approach state to state on these issues. Some compel certain segments of the population to report suspicions of animal cruelty – in varying degrees – to specific law enforcement officers, usually with some degree of immunity given. Other states allow reporting but do not address immunity issues. Some states trigger reporting with cases involving gross injuries. Many refer to the criminal laws and the definitions therein to compel, or allow, reporting. Some states have no veterinarian specific reporting laws, but compel law enforcement and animal control officers, for instance, to report known cases of abuse or neglect.
Prior to the 2022 legislative session, Louisiana was one of those states without veterinarian-based laws on these issues. Veterinarians faced exposure to civil and criminal prosecutions for reporting cases of abuse or neglect and even potential regulatory sanctions where principles of client confidentiality were involved. However, with the passage of Act 59 effective August 1, 2022, now La. R.S. 9:2800.28, Louisiana has begun to address these issues. While by no means all encompassing, this new law is a start in answering these questions.
This section is found in those laws that provide limitations of liabilities generally to persons and entities. It applies to licensed veterinarians and licensed veterinary technicians (RVTs). It states that if a licensed veterinarian or a licensed veterinary technician makes a report in good faith a reasonable belief that an animal has been the subject of a violation of enumerated criminal acts, immunity from civil liability or criminal prosecution is afforded. The authorities to whom the report is made for which these immunities are provided are limited to (1) the Commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Forestry (or his designee); (2) a P.O.S.T. certified animal control officer; (3) a law enforcement agency; (4) a prosecuting attorney; or (5) in instances where the reporter is participating in any investigation of acts prohibited by law.
The reportable violations are listed in Section 2800.28. Without a comprehensive listing they include, but are not limited to, animals subjected to simple and aggravated acts of cruelty, and instances of hog and canine fighting, injury to police animals, cockfighting and related matters. A reference to the reportable activities is necessary as found in Title 14 due to the numerous and defined acts of cruelty and prohibitions (See La. R.S.14:102.1; 102.5; 102.8, 102.19, 102.20; 102.23 and 102.26.
This legislation also addresses the release of confidential information and provides the same civil and criminal immunity provided the release is compelled by subpoena or court order or with the consent of the owner of the animal or his authorized representative. Immunities are not provided where the licensed veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician acts with gross negligence, willful misconduct or in bad faith.
The effect of Act 59 insofar as regulatory liability is concerned is nuanced. Louisiana remains a state that does not compel reporting of suspected animal abuse and neglect by statute, Board Rule or ethical principles. None of the regulatory authorities provided the Board with which to regulate the practice of veterinary medicine (Practice Act, Board Rules and AVMA Ethical Principles) address the reporting of suspected abuse except to the extent the Board is a secondary regulator, requiring compliance with all local, state and federal laws and regulations but making no independent determination that a violation occurred. With respect to the disclosure of confidential information, the Board has always made an exception to the prohibition of releasing medical records or their contents without owner consent in instances where those records were subpoenaed or were the subject of a court ordered disclosure. Act 59, in that regard, provides civil and criminal prosecution immunities that reflect the same protection from regulatory action.