Duty to Warn of Animals’ Dangerous Propensities

DAN BAXTER BIO BIG by Daniel L. Baxter

In addition to all of their other responsibilities, veterinarians also have a duty to warn others of animals’ dangerous propensities. As a clinician, you owe this duty to:

  • Staff members
  • Animal owners
  • Third parties

Warning Staff

Ensuring that your staff members understand and account for the dangers of working with animals is one of the best ways to limit the liability of your practice. To protect your staff from injuries:

  • Develop clear procedures for identifying potentially-dangerous animals upon intake.
  • Educate staff with regard to these procedures.
  • Ensure that procedures are consistently followed.

For example, you may implement a policy that requires your staff to label the files of animals with a history of violent behavior and take extra precautions when treating these animals in the future (i.e. muzzles, physical restraints, sedation, etc).

Warning Animal Owners

When you have reason to believe that an animal poses any type of risk, notifying the owner can shield you from liability. For example, if you believe an animal to be especially violent or dangerous, you should warn the owner of this risk. Remember to be consistent when issuing these warnings. You should also document all notifications and warnings for future reference.

Warning Third Parties

In most cases, your duty to warn third parties of potential risks can be satisfied by simply warning the animal’s owner. Since the animal’s owner holds the primary responsibility for the animal’s behavior, he or she will be liable for any injuries or damage the animal causes – as long as you satisfied your obligation to warn of potential risks. However, if you do not warn the owner of a known risk, you may be held liable for these consequences.

For example, assume an animal attacks one of your technicians, but you don’t warn the animal’s owner of its propensity for violence. The animal attacks a third party the following week. In this case, you may be held legally responsible for the third party’s injuries.