Animal abuse – look for the signs

We’re all struggling with the measures taken to control the current spread of Covid-19, especially with self-isolation, lockdown and social distancing taking over our lives. This pandemic has imposed all sorts of financial and emotional stress on our society, with some worrying consequences for us and our patients.

Posted: 12 May 2020

Animal abuse – look for the signs


There is plenty of evidence around the world showing a recent rise in abuse within the home, and the risk to animals is also very real. To add to this, many more animals are being abandoned, and animal carers are left to pick up the pieces.

Recent research has found that in the first few months of 2020;

  • Domestic violence cases have risen by about 1/3
  • Domestic killings across England and Wales have doubled
  • Domestic animals abandoned have sharply risen since 23rd March (lockdown)
  • Animal abuse is linked to domestic violence and is also expected to rise

To add to this, millions of people are living in increasingly close proximity to their pets, so it's easy to understand why their pets are adding to the stress, especially if their owners aren’t used to being with them 24/7.

Looking forwards we also need to be aware that we may see many more pets being abandoned if the pandemic leads to a deep recession, a prospect which seems increasingly more likely.

As veterinary clinicians, we have a duty of care to look after our patients and this includes the reporting of animal abuse or cruelty. We need to be under no illusion that not only will be helping the animals, we may also trigger an investigation that could save someone's life.

How and why are animals abused?

There are numerous ways in which an animal can be harmed or abused, sometimes from ignorance and neglect, whilst other times it’s from targeted aggression and cruelty. Some common examples include;

  • Alcohol abuse – the stress of living in lockdown has resulted in many more people resorting to drink to cope with the stress. The problems of alcohol abuse though are well known, with unreasonable, argumentative and violent acts being common. The physical abuse can be sudden and unprovoked and is always frightening.
  • Bored children – young children confined for such long periods of time, unable to release their pent-up energy with friends in the park, may soon turn to tormenting the family pet.
  • Stress at work – there are many people who are working long hours during these difficult times, often in a very stressful environment where they are continually exposed to the risks of coronavirus. When they return home, wanting to relax and unwind, the stress may easily overflow with a sudden release of anger.
  • Hormonal teenagers – young adults will undoubtedly be missing their friends and companions as well as the routine and structure of school. This may unfortunately result in uncontrolled acts of aggression towards their pet. 
  • Homes of domestic violence – sadly, the victims of domestic violence frequently tell their supporters that their abuser also targets the family pet, using them as a tool to control their victim. Tragically it’s also known that 1/3 of children in homes with domestic violence will also harm animals, so the cycle goes on.

Animal abuse - what are the warning signs?

It can be so easy to miss the subtle signs of abuse, but at this time we should be extra vigilant and on our guard. Look for any of the following signs;

  • Suspicious history – if the story that’s given to you to explain an injury or illness doesn’t feel right, then maybe ask a few more enquiring questions.
  • Repeat visits with similar injuries – these would be particularly concerning if the injuries involve wounds to the head.
  • Changing history – you might find that the owner tells you one account, but their partner another, or perhaps the details of the incident alter from one day to the next.
  • Frightened patient – the animal may show signs of being extremely frightened of the owner. Look for ears back, panting, crying, tail tucking (dog) or tail flicking (cat). Extreme signs of submission should also make you suspicious, such as the patient urinating in the consulting room when in the past they’ve been fine.
  • Reports of separation anxiety – this is frequently seen in dogs, where the owner suddenly says that they’ve become destructive in the home when left alone.
  • Owner complains of behaviour changes – dogs and cats can both become aggressive when frightened. They may lunge on the lead towards other people or attempt to bite or snap when petted.
  • Doubtful owner details – there may be times when you question if the owner is giving you all the correct information. Be particularly wary of clients who keep changing their vet. Some may register with an address that doesn’t seem to exist, or perhaps offer a history which is vague.
  • Nervous owner behaviour – if the client appears anxious or nervous, it may be because they are trying to hide something or are genuinely feeling fearful of being harmed themselves.
  • Delayed visit to the vet – if the client calls for help at a time which seems unreasonably long after an incident, perhaps this should raise your suspicions.
  • Old injuries – if you find evidence of previous fractures which have healed when investigating a patient with a similar injury, this should make you concerned.

Animal abuse - what can you do?

If you are worried that one of your patients is being harmed or abused, then there are some key things you need to do.

  1. Stay safe – at no time should you ever put yourself or any of your colleagues in a position where they could be harmed themselves. Don’t ever challenge someone on your own.
  2. Admissions – explain why you need to check the animal in your own time, and as far as possible admit the animal to the practice.
  3. Get help from others – don’t tackle the problem on your own. Always involve someone else in the practice and discuss the options.
  4. Get outside help – the RSPCA will always be happy to help with cases or cruelty and abuse.
  5. Call the police – if at any stage you feel you, someone else or the animal is at immediate risk, call 999.

Help for the victim

For many women and children who live in a violent relationship, the options open to them regarding their pets are very limited. The services listed below can try to help them by offering a volunteer foster carer’s home for their pet. All placements are strictly confidential.