Using Illness Of A Pet To Get Attention


NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Some people have a rare disorder in which they deliberately cause illness in others, and then use the illness to get sympathy and medical attention. Most cases involve mothers who hurt their own children, but a new report shows that people with this illness may also hurt their pets.

In a recent report, a group of UK researchers suggest that up to 9 of every 448 cases of non-accidental injury in a pet--or 2%--may result from an owner's deliberate actions.

The mental illness that may be causing owners to hurt their animals is known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy. People with Munchausen syndrome repeatedly play the patient role to gain sympathy and medical attention by feigning illness or by hurting themselves, while those who use a proxy seek attention by making others ill.

The recent study suggests that, in some cases, the proxy is a pet. In one instance described in the report, a man visited a veterinarian and said a neighbor had poisoned his dog. However, the owner was later convicted of trying to poison his child, and during the court proceedings, officials discovered that he had tried to poison two previous pets--suggesting that the owner himself had made his pet sick.

During the study, the investigators sent questionnaires to 1,000 veterinary surgeons, asking them about their experiences with non-accidental injuries in animals. The veterinarians submitted information about 448 cases, 6 of which they said they believed were instances of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

After reviewing the information, the researchers, led by H.S. Tucker of the Royal United Hospital in Bath, UK, noted that 3 other cases may have also resulted from owners deliberately hurting their pets.

In the report, published as a letter in the Archives of Disease in Childhood, Tucker and colleagues also note that many suspicious cases had certain features in common--notably, owners would often change veterinarians, or request frequent appointments. In one case, an owner reportedly asked for four appointments in one day.

To help identify cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Tucker and colleagues recommend communication between the agencies that deal with child and animal abuse.

"Communication between child protection agencies, veterinary surgeons, and the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) is beginning to occur in different parts of the country," the authors write. "Such liaison should be welcomed by pediatricians."

SOURCE: Archives of Disease

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