What is veterinary forensic behavioural medicine, and when is it required? - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now



What is veterinary forensic behavioural medicine, and when is it required?

Experts in the fields of veterinary behavioural medicine and clinical animal behaviour can assist the courts in a wide variety of cases involving animals

I have recently been alerted to an excellent article writ­ten by John and Margaret Cooper, entitled “What is veterinary forensic medicine and why is it important?” (Cooper and Cooper, 2018), published in Veterinary Practice. Thorough but succinct, the article first gives the correct definition of “forensic” as meaning “relating to, used, in or connected with a court of law”. In so doing, it corrects the very common misconception (possibly promulgated by a multitude of popular TV murder mysteries) that the term “forensics” applies only to the examination of corpses and their dissection to determine cause of death. In reality, any field which is specifically involved in providing information to the courts in an official capacity in order for justice to be properly served may be termed “forensic”.

My thoughts immediately jumped to my particular field of expertise – veterinary behavioural medicine or, if referring to non-veterinary behaviourists, the field of clinical animal behaviour – and how, if such expertise is used specifically to give information to the courts as I have on many occa­sions, the fields should be more properly termed veterinary forensic behavioural medicine (VFBM) or forensic clinical animal behaviour (FCAB).

The difference between a veterinary and non-veterinary behaviourist is that whereas the clinical animal behav­iourist may suspect the presence of physical disease and should know that an animal’s behaviour may be influenced by disease, both present and past, only veterinary surgeons may diagnose and prescribe specifically for behavioural conditions – whether or not they are caused by, or asso­ciated with, physical disease. Therefore, in an ideal world, there ought to be a close two-way flow of information between vet and behaviourist (if they are not one and the same person) to ensure an animal’s needs are fully met, either as a patient or as the subject of an investigation.

John and Margaret itemise the three main ways in which animals may be involved in litigation: (a) as the cause of an incident; (b) as the victim of an incident; or (c) by providing information that is relevant to an incident.

They go on to clarify that the cases where the animal is the victim, (b), is the most common reason for veterinary involvement and that such cases may fall into four catego­ries, namely the animal:

  1. has died in suspicious circumstances
  2. is alive but exhibits suspicious clinical signs (eg injury)
  3. has suffered compromised welfare and experienced unnecessary suffering in the form of pain or distress
  4. if a non-domesticated species, has been involved in various forms of wildlife crime

It becomes immediately obvious that clinical animal behav­iourists (veterinary or non-veterinary, as long as the need for veterinary involvement is recognised) may be called upon to assist in the investigation of, or to give opinion evidence on, a far wider range of cases than a “pure and simple” veterinary surgeon. Analysis of behaviour may be required in all three given instances of litigation, as follows.

1. The behaviour of an animal may be the cause of an incident

The most common cases involving behaviourists are those brought under section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, which, owing to its strict liability nature, means that a guilty plea on the part of the owner of a dog which has caused injury is mandatory. Most commonly the injury caused is a dog bite, although the law refers to injury “however caused” and may range from claw scratches, minor cuts and grazes to the extreme of a fractured hip if an elderly person is knocked over. Behavioural analysis of the incident and behavioural assessment of the dog in question is necessary to find a rationale for the incident, which might include for example a highly unusual or unpredicted set of circum­stances, the human victim not being as “blameless” as may have first been thought and unwittingly contributing to the incident and their injury, and/or that the dog was suffering from a painful condition at the time. Behavioural conclusions reached taking all information into consideration may provide varying degrees of mitigation for the dog’s actions and reduce an owner’s culpability and, in turn, sentence.

If the identity of the perpetrator is in question, in cases where two or more dogs are involved, then the behavioural proclivities of every available dog should be ascertained as well as the nature of the injury caused. Detailed behavioural history, practical behaviour assessment and analysis of the bite pattern and comparison with the dentition of the possible perpetrators may assist in confirming or refuting the culprit.

In dog-on-dog incidents, particularly if there is a discrep­ancy in size between the combatants, it is unfortunately not uncommon for the owners of the smaller dog involved to put themselves at risk of accidental injury by attempting to pick the dog up or kick a larger dog away. In doing so, although for understandable reasons, they risk being bitten unintentionally by one or both dogs, as their arm or leg simply gets in the way. In the heat of the moment, they may not be aware of which dog bit, but are unwilling to believe it could have been their own dog.

On occasion, dogs have been found on premises together with a human corpse and dog bite injuries initially found to be the cause of death. Accurate human pathology as well as expertise in the difference between predation on the living and how a starving dog might behave if confined with a human corpse is essential.

Animals of various species may cause accident and injury in other ways, for example by straying onto highways, in which case the owner may become liable in a civil action.

2. The behaviour of an animal may result in it becoming the perceived victim

A smaller dog often suffers the worse injuries during a dog-on-dog conflict and is therefore identified as the “victim” and the larger dog the perpetrator. Behavioural analysis is necessary to ascertain which dog is the more likely to have instigated the incident. This may be more relevant where civil claims for compensation are brought, for example for veterinary fees resulting from medical and surgical treat­ment of the injured animal.

3. The behaviour of an animal may assist in providing information relevant to an incident

Dogs frequently become embroiled in situations of inter­human conflict and their subsequent behavioural response can be used to shed light upon conflicting witness state­ments as to what actually occurred. Prior to the Dangerous Dogs Act being applied to private places, such conflicts involved those occurring on the street, whereas now the average “domestic”, frequently fuelled by alcohol, can involve a family or visiting dog.

A dog’s response to human conflict may initially be quite subtle and go unnoticed during human argument and con­flict. Hiding under furniture or leaving the room to distance themselves from the upset are all behaviours intended to restore calmness. If unsuccessful, or if a dog in public is una­ble to move away if restrained on lead, a dog may be forced to bite indiscriminately. Such forced canine aggression is often extremely effective in bringing human conflict to an end but cannot be automatically held up as evidence of a danger­ous dog. Thorough behavioural analysis may reveal evidence of a “dangerous” and badly behaved human instead.

Vets are currently more commonly involved in cases brought under the Animal Welfare Act where allegations of causing unnecessary suffering are made and the animal is a victim of crime. Standard investigation may include the examination of live or dead animals, the examination of the environment, the collection of specimens for laboratory testing and finally the production of a report and preparation for giving evidence in person to inform the court. There are, however, deficiencies if investigation is confined to physical findings only. If suffering is assumed to be caused only by the neglect of poor physical condition or injury and no opinion is given as to mental state, the possible presence of adverse feelings, and hence mental suffering, which may be associ­ated with such physical findings is missed.

Mental state can only be assessed via the behaviour of an animal and is crucial to the thorough assessment of its welfare state. Indeed, behaviour may be considered one of the “gold standards” by which mental suffering is assessed (Morton, 2016). It should be emphasised that mental state can both exacerbate and ameliorate physical suffering and must be taken into account in one’s conclusions via expressed behaviour. Assuming an animal has suffered purely from the description of poor physical condition with­out a behavioural assessment is questionable at best.

At present, the sources of dog behavioural information given to the courts range from experienced police dog han­dlers who have in addition completed a two-week course on all dog law to become Dog Legislation Officers, through to dog trainers who may have supplemented their knowledge and experience with various courses on animal behaviour, to veterinary and non-veterinary clinical animal behaviourists who have reached the upper echelons of academic and expe­riential accreditation. There is little or no standardisation in terms of the reliability of expertise presented to the courts.

The creation and acknowledgement of the fields of veterinary forensic behavioural medicine and forensic clinical animal behaviour would be a first step towards the recognition of the multiple ways in which experts in these fields may assist the courts and, in due course, standardisation of methodology and approach.


Cooper, J. and Cooper, M.


What is veterinary forensic medicine and why is it important? Veterinary Practice, 50, 24-25

Morton, D. B.


Animal suffering and expert evidence. Veterinary Record, 179, 305-306

Kendal Shepherd

Kendal Shepherd, BVSc, MRCVS, qualified from Bristol University in 1978 and was the first veterinary surgeon to be accredited by ASAB as a certificated clinical animal behaviourist in 2005. She has been heavily involved in the behavioural assessment of dogs for the courts under both sections 1 and 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

More from this author

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more