British Columbian veterinarians should only report animal abuse if they have “unequivocal evidence” of wrongdoing by clients, according to a directive sent out in June by the organization regulating the profession in British Columbia.
But the province’s top vet has come out against the position, saying she and her colleagues have an “ethical obligation” to report suspected abuse and warning that the position touted by the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia (CVBC) could undermine the profession.
Writing in a Ministry of Agriculture newsletter last month, B.C.’s Chief Veterinary Officer Jane Pritchard said vets must “address suspected animal abuse or neglect by reporting it appropriately.” See the memo and Pritchard’s response below.
And she took the CVBC to task for emphasizing client confidentiality above reporting abuse in an email the organization sent to members in June.
That memo states that reporting a client “should be reserved for circumstances where there is clear and unequivocal evidence of an animal being in distress as a direct result of the actions of the veterinarian’s client. Threatening to report or reporting on circumstantial evidence will leave veterinarians open to criticism for breaching client trust and confidentiality … Veterinarians will best serve their patients when clients can rely on them to make patient treatment a priority, while simultaneously meeting client confidentiality obligations.”
The Prevention of Cruelty Act (PCA) states that veterinarians “must promptly report” what they know if they think a client is “likely” abusing an animal. The CVBC position, which cites the need for “unequivocal evidence,” would require a vet to know for certain that abuse is happening before reporting it to authorities.
In opposing the CVBC memo, Pritchard cited provincial law, an oath taken by vets to protect animal health and welfare, and several high-profile animal abuse cases in the Fraser Valley over the last year.
“The emphasis on protecting client confidentiality to defend not reporting animal cruelty seems to me to be less than professional within the context of our oath and the requirements of the PCA.”
Pritchard wrote that the “CVBC memo focused on the role for veterinarians to protect client confidentiality in face of possible animal abuse.”
She wrote: “In B.C. we have witnessed high-profile media coverage and public outrage on extreme acts of cruelty against farm animals in recent months and years. The public often questions what the role of the veterinarian is in these circumstances, and if we do not speak up, take an interest, ask questions and become engaged in this area, I fear we, as veterinarians, will be seen as irrelevant in protecting animal welfare. I feel that veterinarians need to remain relevant in animal welfare that we should actively continue to strive to promote animal health and welfare, relieve animal suffering.”
In an email to The News and Pritchard, CVBC CEO Luisa Hlus said Pritchard “makes some good points.” But she suggested there were “grey cases.”
Hlus wrote that, “Clients who do not trust their vet (or any vet) as a result of a PCAA report may continue to own animals, but may avoid future veterinary care, potentially resulting in many more animals suffering over time than the one animal saved by that report.”
She added: “Other professions (such as physicians, dentists and lawyers) grapple with similarly difficult issues, and all receive similar advice from their respective regulators about carefully balancing competing duties except in clear cases. The analysis and answers are not as simply as special interest or advocacy groups might suggest.”
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) is also circulating a draft position paper that focuses on vets’ “ethical obligation” to report abuse.
The CVMA has not released its draft statement, but Pritchard said she supports the CVMA position that states suspected animal abuse must be reported. The final statement will be released later this year and may include changes depending on comments from members, the organization’s communications manager said.