Veterinarians not trained to recognize signs of sexual abuse: experts

Veterinarians diagnose dozens of animals with ailments every day, but one expert says few know how to spot and respond to the signs of sexual abuse.

Between 2008 and 2018, 68 bestiality charges were laid across the country, according to Statistics Canada data. Forensic veterinarian Margaret Doyle said it’s likely many cases go unreported, as vets aren’t trained to recognize the signs.

“Specifically on sexual abuse, there is probably zero training for veterinarians in vet school,” Doyle, who is based in Calgary, told Global News.

“I think every kind of animal abuse is happening far more regularly than we realize … because these are voiceless victims.”

She assists with animal abuse investigations across the country and said she sees one to two sexual abuse cases for every 150 she deals with.

The topic tends to make people recoil, but Doyle highlighted the need for vets to move beyond the taboo, so they can better support animals that are suffering.

“Animal abuse is only really something that’s been … recognized as a societal problem — as something that veterinarians should be paying attention to — really in the last sort of 20 years,” she said.

“We’re playing a bit of catch up [by] trying to train veterinarians that graduated before that when animal abuse wasn’t really something we worried about.”

She noted that some vets who suspect abuse may be hesitant to report it, for fear of getting sued or damaging their clinic’s reputation.

One Saskatoon-based animal protection professional has seen just two instances of suspected sexual abuse out of the 4,000 cases he’s investigated. No charges were ever laid.

“It’s just such a difficult thing to prove without having a confession by the perpetrator or witness statements,” said Don Ferguson, executive director for Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan.

“It’s pretty clear that it’s going on. It’s just not reported or we’re not aware of it.”

He said it is crucial vets are taught to recognize the signs — not just of sexual abuse, but all forms of abuse.

“Veterinary staff … don’t want to believe that the people that are bringing this animal to them for care were the very people that caused those injuries,” Ferguson said.

“Their level of suspicion is lowered, coupled with the fact that they don’t have any training to recognize the characteristics of an animal abuser.”

He said veterinary education is intense, as students need to become experts on six species in a relatively short amount of time.

Both Doyle and Ferguson said the education gap can be narrowed with continued learning — something the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association has undertaken with an online module on animal welfare.

A University of Saskatchewan researcher plans to survey vets across North America about the training they’ve received on detection and prevention of sexual abuse.

“It’s really important that vets are getting the training so that they feel competent in addressing these cases,” Ph.D. student Alexandra Zidenberg said.

“If vets don’t have the education, they’re really left to their own devices, and they might not know who the appropriate person to go to is or what to do if they do receive a report of general abuse or animal sexual abuse.”

Zidenberg said her research has been described as “very disturbing,” but that won’t prevent her from trying to get a better understanding of bestiality.

She has developed a second study currently awaiting ethical approval, where people self-report their sexual interest in animals.

Understanding the psychology behind the crime can help prevent animal sexual abuse in the long run, she said.


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