ATHENS, Ga. -- The University of Georgia's veterinary hospital treats thousands of horses, cows, cats, dogs, ferrets, birds, reptiles and other pets each year. But don't ask for information about those animals.
Officials with UGA's College of Veterinary Medicine say the same confidentiality rules that apply to human patients apply to animal patients.
The animal hospital does not release information about its patients' medical conditions or allow photographers to take pictures of animals without the owners' consent. In its large animal unit, owners can stand only near the stall of their animal, not others.
Veterinarians, animal hospitals and zoos have differing policies regarding animal privacy ranging from no access to some camera-friendly hospitals such as Denver's Alameda East Veterinary Hospital, where Animal Planet cable channel's "Emergency Vets" show is filmed.
As the federal privacy Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act has tightened policies at human hospitals, some say they've seen vets hold back more information about animal patients even through HIPAA does not apply to animals.
"It's like a human hospital," argued LaDon Wallis, a new graduate of UGA's vet school who has worked at its animal hospital for six years. "It's a hospital. It's not just this place where animals are having a field day like a park. People should respect that."
When some animal owners began to look at charts of sick animals that weren't theirs, the hospital staff had to hang signs on the charts saying they were confidential, she said.
"People would just be flipping through the records," she said.
Sue Gray, records administrator at the University of Tennessee's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, said every individual has a right to privacy, and animals are their property. It is standard procedure to first get an owner's permission to release an animal's medical records or allow photos or video of an animal.
"It protects individual property rights," she said.
California attorney Sandra Toye, who has worked on companion animal law issues for five years, said she has seen veterinary offices refuse to release even the most general information about trends or illnesses they are seeing.
"It seems like the trend is that they're very protective," she said.
Two years ago, Lucy Spelman, director of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., drew ridicule from animal rights activists, media lawyers and others when she withheld records on the death of a 17-year-old giraffe. Spelman cited the animal's privacy and respect for the veterinarian-animal relationship.
The American Animal Hospital Association introduced new accreditation standards last year requiring policies and procedures that protect the privacy of animals treated by its 3,000 members in the United States and Canada.
"There has been an increase in awareness on the part of our profession that we should respect the legal limitations of medical records," said Dr. Link Welborn, a Tampa, Fla., veterinarian and past president of the Denver, Colo.-based association.
HIPAA has "probably raised our profession's awareness about potential liability," he said.
Often, a state's open records law dictates how much access the public is given to patients in animal hospitals. For example, Washington State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital must release information and allow photos because of that state's liberal public disclosure laws.
"Animals do not have a right to privacy like people do," said spokesman Charles Powell.
In working with the media and handling requests from the public, Powell said he tries to get approval from the animal's owner as a courtesy. But he is not required to do so.
"I just don't have any other choice," he said.
Wallis said it surprises her that someone would even think of taking a picture of an animal patient or sneaking a peek at records without the owners' permission.
"They're pets. So many people think of them like children," she said. "People think of animals, 'Oh they're cute,' but it's a hospital."
On the Net:
UGA Veterinary Teaching Hospital: www.vet.uga.edu/hospital
University of Tennessee Veterinary Teaching Hospital: www.vet.utk.edu/clinical
Washington State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital: www.vetmed.wsu.edu/depts-vth/
American Animal Hospital Association: www.aahanet.org