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Addressing Animal Abuse in Therapy: A Call to Action for Therapists

Dear reader,


I would like to begin this discussion by sharing a brief story with you. This story is about my favorite childhood companion. He had four legs, a button nose, and black/brown/gray fur. As a child my mother introduced me to a Yorkshire Terrier, she named Fergus. I still remember my mother coming home from a long trip, and opening her coat to reveal a beautiful puppy staring back at me. Fergus was unyielding in his fun and companionship throughout my childhood years especially through several hospital visits and many bouts of my intense shyness I developed leading into my teenage years. One night in my early adolescence, Fergus began scratching at my door relentlessly trying to wake me up. I, in my frustration, yelled at him to go away, but he persisted adding loud barking to the equation. As my eyes opened, so did the rest of my senses and that is when I smelled the smoke. The fire ended up burning an entire upstairs bathroom before the fire department got to our house. We had 5 dogs at the time, but it was the smallest dog, my Fergus, who stayed behind to make sure I woke up with the rest of my family. It was Fergus who reaffirmed for me that my definition of family would certainly always include the loyal pets who stay by my side.

I wish to quickly acknowledge and validate something for you, reader, so that we can get it out of the way. I know it is a lot of pressure for therapists to continue our cognitive “swim” through all the “what-if” scenarios we encounter in our therapy practices. In our practice as therapists, I know that ‘confidentiality’ is perhaps the most important agreement made between a therapist and a client for their mental health treatment. Confidentiality is an obligation. Confidentiality is crucial for protecting the client’s identity and individualism, and it is crucial for trust, and for the therapeutic alliance. It allows for a safe and trusting environment for clients to discuss sensitive issues without fear, judgement or consequences. So, my question to myself and to you reader, is: what happens when we begin thinking about ‘Fergus?’ And what happens when we see our

clients’ treating their own “Fergus” with abuse and/or neglect?


As a therapist, I have noticed several internal conflicts that have surfaced for me and for colleagues during our work with clients who have mistreated animals. Now that we have acknowledged the importance of confidentiality, let me know if any of my own internal conflicts regarding animal reporting ethics resonates with your own thoughts and experiences on the matter. My goal here is to normalize the internal conflicts that arise for therapists when abuse/neglect situations extend beyond the human realm to include animals. What are the internal conflicts that may come up? Why is it important to acknowledge these conflicts and then to move past them to include animals in our responsibility of care?


Therapists may experience several internal conflicts when considering whether to report

animal neglect/abuse. Here are some conflicts that I, and others have experienced.


First is, of course, the conflict of ‘confidentiality versus our duty to report.’ Therapists are required by ethical guidelines to maintain client confidentiality. However, how many of us become aware of animal neglect and begin to immediately struggle with balancing our duty to protect/report with our obligation to protect our client’s privacy/progress?



Another conflict with reporting has to do with the worry that the client’s trust will be damaged after such a strong therapeutic alliance has been formed. Comparable to when we, as therapists, report for other vulnerable populations, reporting animal neglect could potentially strain the therapeutic relationship and begin eroding the trust that was built by the therapist and client. As therapists we feel as if we “know” that damage to the therapeutic rapport will directly impact the effectiveness of therapy. How will our clients tell us anything after we learned in session that their animals were not receiving the care they need and we ended up reporting it?


Third, what about cultural sensitivity? Certainly, many places here in New Mexico, but also across many different cultures - attitudes towards animals and their treatment differ. This can lead to conflicts even when assessing whether neglect has occurred. While considering making a report; I have found myself checking my own culture and biases in session, while simultaneously having to navigate the cultural nuances and sensitivities of my client and their views on animals.


As therapists we are always looking at the reasons ‘behind’ behaviors. Considering client vulnerability also leads to internal conflict in our decision-making process. Clients who are involved in situations of animal neglect may already be experiencing significant stressors or challenges. What kind of potential impact would the reporting have on the client’s well-being? What if reporting could lead to further difficulty or trauma?


Furthermore, what if I, the therapist, am wrong or overthinking it? Therapists may wrestle with their judgment regarding the severity of the neglect and whether it is worth reporting! What if the neglect or abuse does not meet the threshold for reporting?


A sixth conflict comes at me personally, as a therapist and major animal lover. What is the possible effect of reporting animal neglect/abuse on the therapist or on their own work of providing therapy? Learning about animal neglect can be emotionally distressing for therapists as well. For me, I am met with feelings of sadness, anger, and helplessness. These types of cases contribute significantly to secondary trauma and burnout in therapists.


Lastly, a prominent conflict that surfaces for many therapists has to do with personal values and beliefs: Therapists may have personal beliefs or values regarding animal welfare that influences their decision-making process. For instance, I just openly stated that I am an animal lover, so I am aware that my attention is drawn much more readily to the care of the animals in our clients’ lives. Conflicts may arise when these beliefs conflict with the client’s actions or situations.


At the end of the day, navigating these internal conflicts is tough. It requires careful consideration, consultation with colleagues or supervisors, and an understanding of the ethical and legal guidelines that ensures the well-being of both clients and animals. So, what is the point of this discussion? Me, like many others, would like to know how or even if it is necessary to report animal abuse/neglect. I believe, the same reason I am writing this blog, is perhaps the same reason many of you are reading it. 


We know that as therapists we are trusted with the responsibility of protecting the well-being of our clients. We protect our clients. We also break confidentiality to protect particularly vulnerable populations. We protect those who have disabilities. We protect children. We protect the elderly. We protect individuals who may not be able to protect themselves. So why do we so often forget about the vulnerable population in which we have been opening our doors and homes to for hundreds of thousands of years? Our duty of care extends beyond the human realm, encompassing the welfare of all beings within our clients’ circle of influence. This includes animals. Reporting animal abuse/neglect not only protects innocent and vulnerable creatures but also serves as an important and necessary component of our therapeutic practice. So, here is what we need to keep in mind, I believe.


As mentioned earlier, part of the conflict of reporting can also be a huge reason why it is necessary. Animal abuse/neglect are not isolated incidents; they are often symptomatic of deeper issues within individuals, families, and communities. As therapists, we know and understand the complex connections between human behavior and the treatment of animals. We also know that individuals who engage in cruelty towards animals are more likely to engage in violence against humans as well. This makes the intervention of such behavior significant in preventing further harm.


Leading by example is also consistent with the core values taught to us within our profession. These values, that include empathy, compassion and social responsibility are illustrated by us speaking out against the mistreatment of animals so that we support our ethical standards in prioritizing the protection of vulnerable beings and the promotion of a safer, more empathetic society.


Furthermore, when we as therapists address animal abuse/neglect in therapy, it provides us with an opportunity to promote and encourage processing, healing, and growth. For many clients, their relationship with animals is linked with their self-view and their experiences of trauma. When we acknowledge and process the impact of animal abuse, we can help clients navigate their own emotions, heal from damaging past experiences, and develop healthier relationships with both themselves and others.


In New Mexico, licensed therapists are mandated reporters and are required to report suspected cases of animal abuse/neglect to the appropriate authorities. In New Mexico and in many other areas, animal abuse/neglect cases are typically reported to local law enforcement, animal control or humane societies. If you are uncertain where to start, contacting a local law enforcement agency or animal control department is a good first step in the process. Outlined reporting standards can be found in the state’s Counseling and Therapy Practice Board. It is important for therapists to familiarize themselves with these regulations so we can continue to promote the well-being of both humans and animals.


With the understanding that the decision to report animal neglect/abuse has emotional and ethical complexities; it is important to remember a simple rule; When in doubt, consult! Consultation with colleagues, supervisors, and legal professionals provides guidance and support while navigating challenging decisions. In the end, reporting animal abuse/neglect is as much an obligation towards that vulnerable population as it is the rest. It is a moral imperative. By advocating for the voiceless and vulnerable, therapists play a crucial role in creating a more compassionate and just society, a society that recognizes the worth and dignity of all living beings. In doing so, we honor all life and uphold our commitment to healing, empathy, and social responsibility.

 

Juliana earned her Master of Arts from New Mexico State University and enjoys working with teens and adults. Juliana believes that every individual is the sum of their own experiences, beliefs, values, culture and abilities. As such, it is her goal to provide a safe, non-judgmental, and collaborative environment for my clients to lead the discussion where they need to go. Juliana's initial goal in therapy with clients is to assist them in finding connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. From here, the hope is to build upon the client’s strengths in order to find coping strategies, process feelings and emotions and encourage self-awareness, insight, and autonomy. Juliana can be contacted via A New Hope Therapy Center.


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