We are extremely lucky in this blog post to hear from the remarkable woman, Dr. Lila Miller, who set many of the standards for shelter medicine and catapulted animal cruelty reforms in the United States.

Dr. Miller is Vice President of the National Veterinary Outreach Department at the ASPCA. She is the recipient of the 2008 AVMA (Animal Veterinary Medical Association) Animal Welfare Award. She is the co-founder of and past president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV), as well as apast board member of the American Association of Human Animal Bond Veterinarians (AAHABV). In 2004, Dr. Miller was elected to the National Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (NBVME) by the American Association of Veterinary State Boards. And I particularly love her, apart from the obvious reasons, because she is an alumnus of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. In fact, she has been awarded Adjunct Assistant Professor status where she co-developed with Dr. Jan Scarlett the first shelter medicine course at Cornell.

WILD: How would you define animal cruelty? 

MILLER: Over the years many experts have tried to define animal cruelty. It is a challenge as it varies by cultural and regional attitudes, personal experiences, spiritual beliefs, etc. In 2009 Ascione and Shapiro defined animal abuse as “ non-accidental, socially unacceptable behavior that causes pain and suffering or distress to and/or the death of an animal.” I have never been very happy with the socially unacceptable behavior component of that definition; an alternative definition that I personally like is “any act that by neglect or intention causes unnecessary pain or suffering to an animal” It is important to remember however, that in the United States cruelty is defined by statute. There is no federal statutory definition of animal cruelty; it varies from state to state, which makes it more difficult to ascertain the actual scope of the problem.

WILD: What is the most common form of animal cruelty you find? 2nd most common? 3rd most common? 

MILLER: It is difficult to state what the most common form of animal cruelty is. Although attempts have been made to establish a central database that collects data and statistics specifically on animal cruelty crimes, these attempts have not been successful. One reason for this is because as stated previously, cruelty is defined in each state differently. One of the most common forms of animal cruelty that veterinarians are likely to see involves neglect, including abandonment and failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter or veterinary care. This often manifests itself as starvation, untreated injuries or chronic medical conditions, including severe matting, that cause pain and suffering.

WILD: What are the differences between animal cruelty, animal abuse, and animal neglect? 

MILLER: Animal neglect is commonly considered as unintentional failure to provide adequate food, shelter, water or veterinary care to an animal. Animal cruelty and abuse are terms that are often used interchangeably; statutes refer to animal cruelty but we commonly use the term animal abuse in keeping with the model already developed for humans with child abuse, elder abuse and so on. If one were to try to place these terms on a scale, animal cruelty would represent the most egregious form of animal maltreatment, with statutory language stating that there may be deliberate infliction of pain or an act from which the abuser derives pleasure or enjoyment. Animal abuse parallels the language used in child abuse cases where it may be seen as a willful failure to provide care or harmful behaviors that result in maltreatment. Abuse may occur regardless of intent, motivation or mental condition of the abuser whereas cruelty usually involves deliberate intention and derivation of pleasure or satisfaction. One of the problems that society has in dealing with this terminology is that animal cruelty definitions are widely divergent and animals may be cruelly treated in situations where it is not illegal and therefore there is no legal remedy for the animal. In these cases we must often look to education to enlighten people and improve the situation.

WILD: Why do people often abuse animals? 

MILLER: People abuse animals for a variety of reasons. It may be to control, train or punish the animal, to intimidate and control family members in domestic violence or elder or child abuse situations, because of fear of an animal or prejudice against a species, to instill aggression in the animal to make it vicious, to retaliate against a person, displaced hostility, nonspecific sadism, torture as a gang initiation or to shock people and gain attention, to enhance one’s own aggression, rehearse for future violence, rehearsal for suicide or to prevent a more gruesome death by an abuser in the household and unfortunately, also just for boredom or fun etc.

WILD: What are some signs people can notice to report suspicious activity of animal abuse? What can veterinarians notice? 

MILLER: The average citizen may notice an animal has been abused by hearing it cry out often from being struck by its owner, by seeing it tethered without proper shelter, food or water, or by seeing an animal that has a medical problem such as emaciation or physical injury such as a broken leg that is not being treated. Initial warning signs that veterinarians should look for include signs of extreme neglect such as emaciation, extreme matting of the hair, overgrown nails, heavy parasite infestations such as fleas, ticks or  maggots untreated wounds, chronic, painful medical conditions etc. During the history taking, the details surrounding the injury or medical condition may not make sense or there may be discrepancies in the history, the client may be belligerent,uneasy or reluctant to answer questions, the client may have had several pets in the past whose histories indicate repetitive injuries and medical conditions that went untreated, the client may utilize several veterinarians, bring in a constantly changing parade of animals, or be unable to account for previous pets.


We continue our interview with Dr. Miller in our next two posts! Please stay tuned to learn what animal hoarding is, how animal abuse is related to sexual assault, and what you can do to help!

Stay Wild,

Gabby Wild