Recognizing The Signs Of Abuse

Spotting abuse and how to deal with it.

When a 14-pound Jack Russell terrier mix presented with multiple broken bones to Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in Manhattan, N.Y., without a logical explanation from its owner as to how the injuries occurred, Robert Reisman, DVM, medical coordinator of animal cruelty cases, became suspicious.

The terrier’s owner said the fractures resulted from another dog jumping on him, but there was only a five-pound difference between the two dogs.

“You have to do some questioning to understand what they’re saying and determine if the account of the incident fits with the injury,” Dr. Reisman says.

After taking radiographs, Reisman determined that the dog had suffered two fractures of the right hind femur, one below the hip joint and one above the knee joint. In addition, one of its right ribs was fractured, along with its left hind femur, which had broken into multiple pieces.

Reisman has been a veterinarian at Bergh – the hospital featured on Animal Planet’s “Animal Cops” TV show – for 20 years. He has learned to recognize the signs of animal abuse, not only based on the animal’s condition, but also on the owner’s demeanor.

“There’s a series of things vets can look for, like when a person brings in an animal that is injured and doesn’t seem interested in finding out how the injury occurred,” Reisman says.

He says veterinarians should also be concerned if a client refuses to comment on how the pet’s injury occurred or if a client has delayed seeking medical treatment for a serious condition.

Bill Dunn, vice president of ASPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement in New York, recalls a case where a veterinarian in Manhattan reported a Queens’ woman who had waited three days to bring her dog into the veterinary office after it had been hit by a car.

The dog was badly injured and could hardly breathe or move, Dunn says. The woman was later charged with a felony for neglecting to seek proper care for her pet. 

“She said she had just been busy and didn’t have the time to bring it in,” Dunn says. Particular types of physical wounds may also be telling of abuse, says Patrick O’Keefe, vice president of Bergh Memorial.

“We see animals with embedded collars that have caused significant wounds so bad that scar tissue starts growing around the collar,” O’Keefe says. 

Although the full-service medical hospital’s 81 employees routinely handle regular appointments with pet owners, they receive an overwhelming number of animal abuse cases, Reisman says.

“We treat this group of animals as a very special group,” he says. “Here is this abused animal that has had this horrendous life and they deserve to be treated right.” Hospital behaviorists help abused animals rebuild trust so they can eventually be adopted by new owners. Reisman says the hospital spends a significant amount of money to get each animal back to good health. 

“Our vets do all aspects of care: the initial exam, blood work, radiographs, medical treatment and even the preliminary statement often used to arrest the person [suspected of the abuse],” O’Keefe says. 

“Veterinarians who see [these] cases must report their suspicions.”
– Janet Van Dyke, DVM, founder of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Wellington, Fla.

Saving abused animals is a group effort, says Reisman, who works with the legal department and law enforcement officers in Manhattan daily. 

“Work for me as a veterinarian is different from what most vets do,” Reisman says. “Everything I see and do has to be documented because it could be part of a criminal prosecution. I’ve testified [in court] many times over the years.”

ASPCA’s website ( encourages veterinarians who suspect abuse to write a concise, factual statement of what was observed, including dates and times. 

O’Keefe stresses the importance of collecting physical evidence as well, specifically photographs.

“Pictures are very important [in court],” O’Keefe says. “To hear about abuse and to see it are two totally different things.”

Animal Control Officer and cruelty investigator Glenn Johnson of Anne Arundel County, Md., also takes photographs of abused pets for state attorneys to use in court. Depending on the case, collars, food bowls and leashes can also be used as evidence.

Many of the cases brought to Bergh Memorial were discovered through tips from callers to ASPCA’s Humane Law Enforcement division. O’Keefe estimates that they receive more than 40,000 calls a year. After a call is received, officers determine which reports are credible and head into the field for further investigation.


Emanciated and suffering from severe dehydration, Chihuahua Jade had to be put on IV fluids at the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital. "You know the term 'nothing but skin and bones'?" says Robert Reisman, DVM, who worked with the animal. "That's exactly what she was." Photos Courtesy of ASPCA

“The majority of what we see is starvation,” O’Keefe says, adding that his own dog, a Chihuahua named Jade, was a rescue that had almost starved to death before being brought to the hospital. 

Reisman also worked with a pit bull who was a victim of starvation. It arrived at the hospital weighing only 23 pounds. After only two months of being regularly fed, the pit bull reached a healthy 43 pounds, an 87 percent increase in body weight. 

“You could hardly tell it was the same dog except for the fact that the coat pattern was the same,” Reisman says. “You prove starvation by proving it’s not anything else–not liver disease or cancer, for example. In the end, all you basically do is feed the animal, weigh it on a weekly basis and take a blood and urine sample to make sure there is no underlying medical problem.” 

Veterinarians are often the first line of defense for defenseless pets. 

About 10 percent of ASPCA’s reports of animal abuse that end in arrests are made by veterinarians, Dunn estimates, adding that the group also turns to veterinarians’ medical expertise for evaluation and care after removing animals from abusive environments.  Dunn recognizes that some veterinarians may be afraid to report suspicions of abuse out of the fear of alienating the client. 

But making the phone call to report suspected abuse might not only save the life of that animal, but also the lives of other people in the household potentially at risk of abuse, he adds. 

In her 24 years as a veterinarian, Janet Van Dyke, DVM, chief executive officer and founder of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Wellington, Fla., was often faced with the decision between reporting a suspected animal abuse case and keeping client and doctor confidentiality. 

“Early in my career, there were no guidelines for how to handle such cases,” Dr. Van Dyke says. “This left us in a moral dilemma. Were we allowed to bring in the police? How were we to proceed?” 

Van Dyke adds that studies linking animal abuse to human abuse have made it easier for veterinarians to pursue intervention when animal abuse is suspected. 

Johnson says that victims may stay in a potentially bad situation out of fear that their pet may be in danger if they left. Many abuse victims have no where to take the animal. For this reason, Anne Arundel County (Md.) Animal Control has established a Pet Support Program for pets of domestic violence victims. The program provides temporary shelter for the pets of domestic violence victims who need to immediately escape abusive situations (

On April 11, ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement agents arrested Joe Petcka, a 36-year-old actor and former professional baseball player, for beating to death a former girlfriend’s pet cat. 

The orange 7-and-a-half pound domestic feline suffered numerous blows to its body before the owner came home to her Manhattan apartment to find her cat dead. Its body was taken to a local veterinarian who immediately notified the ASPCA.


Gucci, a pit bull who was starved nearly to death, arrived at the Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York, weighing only 23 pounds. After only two months of being regularly fed, the dog reached a healthy weight of 43 pounds, an 87 percent increase in body weight, according to Robert Reisman, DVM.
Photos Courtesy of ASPCA

Veterinarians at ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial performed a necropsy and discovered the cat had suffered numerous broken bones and teeth. 

According to the New York Daily News, the incident occurred just a few weeks after the 6-foot-3, 205-pound actor had gotten into a fight with his then-girlfriend. 

Petcka was indicted and charged with one count of aggravated animal cruelty, a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, and bail was set at $2,500. Reisman was among the veterinarians who examined the deceased cat.

“Veterinarians can bring these cases to light by contacting the local law enforcement agencies, informing them of their suspicions, then letting these trained specialists pursue the evidence,” Van Dyke says. 

“Veterinarians who see [these] cases must report their suspicions. If we worry entirely about losing a client–and not about what happen to [others] in the home with this pet–we should be ashamed.”

For information on how to report animal abuse and where to go for help, visit

**Seen in the September 2007 issue of Veterinary Practice News**


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