This is an older article which sadly remains highly relevant. For an updated and thorough review of the literature I highly recommend the academic article Animal cruelty, pet abuse & violence: the missed dangerous connection by Scott A Johnson
Johson Article Abstract
“The mistreatment and abuse of animals is a significant indicator of violence towards humans, up to and including intimate partner abuse, sexual assault, rape, murder. All too often mental health professionals and prosecutors miss the seriousness of any cruelty towards animals and the significant role animal cruelty plays in the perpetuation of violent and non-violent criminal behavior. The literature supports that animal cruelty is one of the earliest markers for future acts of both violent and nonviolent criminal behaviors. Whether animal cruelty occurs prior to or subsequent to witnessing or experiencing any type of abuse is unknown. What is known is the connections between experiencing abuse, witnessing domestic abuse, and animal cruelty. This means that the directionality of cruelty to animals is not always clear, that is, which occurs first, the negative environmental factors (abuse) or animal cruelty.”
THE LINKS BETWEEN ANIMAL ABUSE AND VIOLENCE TOWARDS PEOPLE
The movement against animal abuse has an extensive history, which has intertwined with child protection and other human service movements. The bible contains many injunctions extolling us to show kindness towards animals, many of which liken animal abuse to violence towards people. For example, Isaiah 66:3 states “He who slaughters a goat is as if he slew a man”. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was established in the United Kingdom in 1824, looking at the alleviation of the lives of the poor and abolition of slavery, as well as animal cruelty. The first case of child abuse prosecuted in the US, the case of a little girl – Mary Ellen – who was beaten by her stepmother, was done under the animal protection statute. This case resulted in the establishment of a society for the prevention of cruelty to children in 1876 (Baenninger, 1991; Bernstein, 1995). More recently Mahatma Gandhi said “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” (Davies, 1998).
The first formal reference in psychological literature to the links between animal abuse and violence towards people appears to have been made by Margaret Mead who, in 1964, noted “torture of animals by children was a precursor to adult violence” (Baenninger, 1991). Numerous serial killers started off their patterns of violence with animals. For example Jeffery Dahmer, who admitted killing 17 people, first stripped the skin off animals with acid. (Perrett,1997; Anderssen,1999). The FBI recognizes the links between animal abuse and violence towards humans in their investigations, and advises that “people shouldn’t discount animal abuse as a childish prank” (Lockwood & Church, 1996, p30). The FBI educates their investigators about the links between animal abuse and violence against people and “we are trying to do the same for mental health professionals” (p29).
Animal cruelty is cited in DSM IV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) as a diagnostic criterion for conduct disorder. The reasons why children abuse animals are varied and complex. These may include peer pressure and reinforcement to impress or shock, and a lack of modeling of appropriate behaviour (Arkow, 1997). Children who are being physically and/ or sexually abused are more likely to be cruel to animals (Ascione, 2001). Whatever the reason, it seems clear that “injury to animals is one way that a child signals that something is wrong.” (Adams, 1994, p69). This is not a new concept. Since as far back as 1905, Freud advised that clinicians pay attention to “children who are distinguished for evincing especial cruelty to animals” (Ascione, 1993). However, despite this research, a child’s abuse of animals frequently does not receive sufficient attention as a warning sign to help identify individuals at risk for perpetrating interpersonal violence and those who may be victims of violence themselves (Ascione, 2001).
The links between animal abuse and other forms of family violence are many, varied and complex. Macdonald notes that “cruelty to animals is often associated with cruelty to other members of the family (and is) related to the concept of dominance” (1979, p356-357). When abuse happens in a home it invariably involves the whole family, including any animals in the family; animal abuse is “part of a constellation of dysfunctional family patterns” (Arkow, 1997). Being threatened with, or witnessing, the abuse of their animals compounds the direct abuse of women and children in abusive homes, and in some cases prevent them from leaving the abusive situation (Ascione, 1996). “When a husband destroys a pet he may be destroying the woman’s only source of comfort and affection” (Adams, 1994, p67). Many abusers use the family pet to intimidate, threaten, coerce, violate or control children or spouses, and this often includes the use of threats or actions towards the animals to obtain the victim’s silence (Arkow, 1997; Adams, 1994). Adams notes that “testimony of survivors of child sexual abuse reveals that threats and abuse of their pets were often used to establish control over them, while also ensuring their silence, by forcing them to decide between their victimization or the pet’s death” (1994, p 67).
In a 1996 study in northern Utah, Ascione found that “a significant proportion of a sample of women seeking safety at a shelter for battered partners have experienced their partners’ threatened or actual maltreatment of pets”. Ascione recommends that future studies ask whether battered women understand the implications of such abuse upon their children’s mental health. In 2000, Ascione replicated this research with a more extensive study of 101 women who had entered a crisis shelter (shelter group), and a control group of 120 women who reported that they had not experienced family violence (non-shelter group). Seventy-two percent of women in the shelter group reported their partner had threatened or actually hurt or killed a pet, compared to 14.5% of those in the non-shelter group. Sixty-two percent of women, with children, in the shelter group reported their children had witnessed animal abuse in their homes, compared to three percent of those in the non-shelter group. Ascione notes that despite these findings, less than 30% of family violence shelters in the US ask their clients about animal abuse during intake interviews (Ascione, 2000, 1996).
Canadian (Ontario) statistics collected by the Ontario SPCA in 2000 indicate that of the 111 women leaving abusive situations who were surveyed, 42% had pets threatened by their abuser, 44% had pets abused or killed by their partner, and 43% reported that they delayed leaving the abusive situation due to fear for the safety of their pet (Daniell, 2001).
These studies provide a foundation, which was both replicated and built upon in a recent research study performed by the author (McIntosh, 2001). This study incorporated prior researcher’s recommendations for future research, and expanded upon the existing research, by exploring the prevalence of childhood animal abuse in the histories of the perpetrators of family violence, and by exploring the extent to which women understand the impact of animal abuse upon their children. This study investigated the links between animal abuse and other forms of family violence with regards to women and children entering women’s shelters in Calgary. A sample of 100 women entering two Calgary shelters (YWCA Family Violence Prevention Centre and Sheriff King Home (‘Sheriff King’), and Brenda Strafford Centre for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (‘Brenda Strafford’)) for protection from violence was surveyed. The survey document comprised questions from a variety of sources, including the Battered Partners Shelter Survey used by Ascione in 1996. Data was gathered regarding the extent, nature and severity of animal abuse, where the perpetrator and/ or the victims of family violence, including children, may be the perpetrator of animal abuse. Data regarding any history of animal abuse in the childhood of the perpetrator of family violence was also gathered. The quantitative data were analyzed using descriptive and chi-square analyses. The open-ended questions were analyzed using content analysis. Of the 100 women surveyed, 65 reported owning pets within the last 12 months. Of these respondents, 25.4% stated they delayed their decision to enter the shelter due to concern for the safety of their pet(s); 56.1% stated their abuser either threatened and/or actually hurt or killed a pet; 26.7% (of respondents with both children and pets) indicated that their children had been overly rough and/or had actually hurt or killed an animal; and 20.6% (of all respondents) indicated that they were aware that their partner had abused animals as a child or teenager. These results are consistent with prior research in the US and Ontario and further confirm that animal abuse and other forms of family violence frequently co-exist. These results have a number of implications with regards to the dynamics of animal abuse within family violence situations, the seriousness of children abusing animals, and the manner in which human service and animal welfare organizations can work together to detect and prevent violence and abuse.
© Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC, 2001
I know this all to well and see it almost daily in my work.
This is heartbreaking, I have previously read about the links with animal abuse and murderers, but did not appreciate the widespread extent of how often this is happening, and the suffering that is being passed down through generations. With children observing animal abuse in their homes, where they are meant to feel safe, and then the history of animal abuse in many of the perpetrators own lives, demonstrating how this pattern repeats ( I imagine unless something happens to intervene and break this destructive cycle, ideally as early on as possible).
Particularly saddened to read about Adams noting the “testimony of survivors of child sexual abuse reveals that threats and abuse of their pets were often used to establish control over them, while also ensuring their silence, by forcing them to decide between their victimization or the pet’s death” (1994, p 67). This is just devastating to think about how helpless they must be, the hopelessness and lack of choice for these children, and there precious, defenceless pets -maybe their only friends -just heartbreaking.
I hear you Donna – it was a tough one to focus on as a thesis and research project for so long! But I do hope and believe that there is much that can be done to support, protect and change people – and animals – caught in this cycle. And with this sort of info we can hopefully intervene sooner and prevent some of the harm. Thats the hope anyway!
there are adults/cg/parents as well who don’t buffer contact with animals and neglect to teach children how to interact with animals appropriately i.e. it’s not ok to chase, scare, pull, pinch, throw objects etc. etc.
I came across this in my course work recently, in a case study about reactive attachment disorder, It was a case study of a child who suffered physical abuse and neglect from 6 months – 19 months of age, who by the age of 6, was harming and killing animals. Her foster parents placed her in a facility for child psychotherapy that worked on learning and developing healthy attachments, and part of the therapy involved AAT and learning to take care of animals on a daily basis under supervision. Not only did the AAT help the client learn to connect and care for another being, but also offered opportunities for the therapist to learn about the inner life of the client in a way that talk therapy could not.
Hi Jacqueline – this is a sad example of how a child who is hurting animals has likely been hurt themselves – so good to hear though that this child was provided with the support she needed!
In nursing school, we had discussions about caring for people with a history of harming animals. I remember thinking I hope I do not have to look after anyone that harmed an animal. I was concerned that I would not be able to provide an non-judgmental environment. I have now cared for numerous people that have hurt animals, and am pleased to say I have been able to build therapeutic relationships. Many of the patients have been neglected, abused, or abandon themselves. This is information that will be of high priority when doing EFW or having these clients around my animals. I plan to be present at all times with clients on my farm but still believe it is crucial info.
Hi Meghan – I’m so glad that these folks have had you there to support them. A history or risk of animal abuse is obviously something we need to take very seriously and protect our (and all) animals from. But the person needs help and support too
This was very challenging for me to read. I know I want to help people, and I have a passion for working with children and horses. This is what makes this work so meaningful. However, having such strong empathetic attachments to my animals and students made this a very upsetting read. To know that animals, who are most likely the only source of happiness, companionship and stability, is used as leverage for power and control is very upsetting.
I hear you Brittney – this was my thesis 20 years ago and it had some pretty tough moments. The research resulted in a number of programs that coordinated initiatives between human societies and women’s shelters though, which have served to protect lots of animals (and people) so it was well worth it. Another interesting aspect, which is in my full report but less well summarised above, is the research which shows that children who hurt animals are almost always victims of abuse themselves – recognising the problem and responding with insight early can help prevent much ongoing harm. This is a screening question I ask for all clients but does not necessarily preclude them from accessing services, for this reason. But I totally agree it is a tough topic and one I wish we didn’t have to consider!
I am surprised that this research is so new (for the most part) as it would seem to be an obvious (albeit tragic) connection. It would also make sense that early intervention would have an immense role in the prevention of cruelty to animals and humans alike, not to mention the potential to positively change ones trajectory in life. Thank you Sue for your research in this important area! I am curious if any formal treatment plans have been developed or instituted for therapists yet or is it still too early due possibly to not enough data on outcomes.
Yes – when I completed this study (20 years ago now!) I was building on some research from the US and Ontario but there wasn’t a lot of formal research out there. I think there has been a lot more over the past 20 years though. What I’m aware of coming out of this and other studies is a number of programs coordinating protection and education programs in humane societies with child protection and women’s shelters programming. E.g. Humane societies providing temporary (and very confidential) shelter for pets when a family moves into a shelter and child protection workers notifying the local humane society when they notice an animal in a home who is at risk (and vice versa). I’m not sure about how well it is being built into therapy treatment plans. Animal abuse has been recognised within various diagnoses (e.g. conduct disorder) for a long time though.
There is an organisation in the US that regularly reports on these issues and initiatives which you could check out: https://nationallinkcoalition.org/ Key names to look up in this area are Phil Arkow and Frank AScione
I work very closely with the child protection social workers in my office. I am often surprised that family pet/animal abuse by a parent is not taken more seriously or used to add weight to the level of danger and harm presented to a child.
Thank you for this Sue. Unfortunately this isn’t the first research I have seen or heard about linking this. And yet as far as I know all or most women’s shelters cannot take pets. I wonder if this would change how soon someone leaves an abusive relationship if that was possible.
I hear you Denay! Fortunately, as a result of this and other research in this area, several programs have been put into place over the past 20 years where humane societies will provide emergency and confidential shelter for pets when the owners go into a shelter. I haven’t seen any statistics, but the fact that the programs exist and are being used is hopeful
I have read about this before. It is a tough situation when you are in an abusive relationship and pets are involved. Unfortunately sometimes you have to give them up. Especially larger animals like horses.
So sad for the victims of abuse. I have a family member that was a cruelty investigator for the BCSPCA for about 8 years and they said there were often child welfare concerns in the homes animal abuse was reported.
yes, they often co-exist. Fortunately there are many initiatives now with animal cruelty investigators and child welfare workers collaborating and cross reporting
Working as a Child Psychologist with families (many of whom are involved with the local child protection agency but some of whom are not), if the family has a pet or pets, I always ask about the pet(s) and carefully observe the interactions among the family members and the pet(s) – harsh treatment of the pet(s), including neglect as well as signs in the pet(s) of hypervigilance or fear are red flags for me, warranting immediate follow-up.
Hi Sonya – I’m grateful that you are being proactive and making these enquires and observations – and following up as needed
I often talk with clients about past relationships with pets. Thanks for raising the consideration of trauma or negative experiences clients may have had with thier pet.
Yes, so important! We can learn much from clients by asking the right questions.
I agree with Ghandi that “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” You can often see a persons moral character by how they treat and interact with animals especially pets.
Thank you for this article. The connections between family violence and animal violence is troubling. It shows the deficits in abusers as they perpetrate animals as a threat to people. I appreciate you also saying that children’s behaviour towards animals is a sign of what can be occurring in their personal lives, that it could be a cry for help. All the more reason for safe adults to guide and protect animal and child.
Hey Sue. Thanks for the article. Sadly, much of this I have been aware of through prior training; however, it is a great review ,however, a disturbing one. As an animal lover, it really bothers me when I hear reports of this in the media. There was a man in our hometown who did some pretty horrific things to one of his farm animals and ended up going to jail for a few years. I remember hearing about it when I was a kid and I just couldn’t understand. Now, much older and a bit wiser, I can understand the “why” behind abuse, both towards humans and animals. I remember someone in a training saying ” hurt people, hurt people” and that made so much sense.
This article has really opened my eyes to be very cognizant when the time comes to use my animals in the therapy setting.
I have heard this said before and it’s so sad to think about. However, it’s also something to be aware of when running a practice.
Thank you Sue! It is so important to be aware of these dynamics when helping people who are surviving abuse. Where I am located in Ottawa, Ontario shelters are starting to have designated pet areas for family cats and dogs. I have seen the positive impact on survivors who are able to make the decision to leave their homes much easier and quicker knowing that their animals will be able to join them. It is (understandably) an important barrier to exit planning.
You’re welcome Julie! Great to hear that Ontario shelters are making this move!
wow. very eye-opening. so sad
A very tough read but I am encouraged by Julie’s news that Ontario shelters are making such a crucial move to ensure designated areas for family pets. It seems so logical that this would be an extremely important barrier to leaving. I plan on inquiring about the status of shelters in Calgary!
Calgary and Edmonton actually put programs in place almost 20 years ago (the Calgary humane society was a key partner in my research project) and have coordination between children’s services investigation programs and human society investigators. The human society provides confidential safe housing (separate from the shelter) for pets when someone needs to go to a shelter.
I am so glad to hear that shelters are making changes in this regard! I also hope that survivors of domestic violence will feel better equipped to leave sooner with these supports in place.
Given how many of us are animal lovers, I wonder about the effects of abuse on people, that can lead some of them to become abusers of people and animals themselves. The quote that “hurt people, hurt people” (and animals) leads me to wonder what it is about abuse that erodes and disrupts that sense of empathy and compassion. Is it simple modeling or lack of prosocial guidance? Or is there a deeper injury that is sustained in some people who have been abused, which may disrupt the ability to have empathy? Is it an eroding of trust that causes some people who have been abused to abuse others? And why do some people who have experienced abuse become abusers themselves, while others do not?
I had a very hard time reading this article 🙁
In my mind, there is no doubting the correlation between animal cruelty and future acts of violence. As excited as I get in thinking about practicing EAT/AAT, I also have to reflect on the times when my therapy animal could be harmed despite my best efforts and how I might handle this situation. It breaks my heart to even think about it.
I have two questions!
1) If you’ve worked with clients with known histories of animal cruelty and abuse, how did you navigate these waters, Sue?
2) Similarly, in your years of experience, has your animal been harmed despite your best efforts? How did you handle this situation?
two great questions Desiree!
Re Q1: I screen for this on all my intakes and if there has been any incident I will always want more information to better understand the why and the context. Sometimes this means I can’t work with that person but usually I can – I will just be even more aware than normal about the need to create context with the client, to explore safety and boundaries, and to provide supervision at all times. Not working with mandated clients certainly helps. I find that if the person wants to be here, feels safe with me, and forms an attachment with the animals, then it is highly unlikely that they would do anything to harm any of the animals.
Re Q2: In over 20 years I’ve had only two incidents, both of which were relatively minor. One was a mental health issue which was addressed through scope of practice and an appropriate referral. The harm was more directed at me rather than the horses but the horses were impacted. We were starting to see some red flags in this situation so had lots of safeguards in place including extra support on site to keep everyone safe. Debriefing with the horses was important as was handling the referral in a non judgmental/ non shaming way.
The second situation was frustration in a younger child. In this case I was close by and able to stop the behaviour immediately before any harm was done and then moved to regulation and validation/ space for the expression of the frustration in a way which was safe (and away from the horse). Again it was a situation where we had to both keep the horses safe (physically and emotionally) AND make safe for the child to express the emotion without feeling and shame of judgment for this and without feeling ‘too much to handle’ in any way.
Thanks for asking such great questions Desiree!
This definitely helps to give me ideas to bounce off of (rather than freezing, panicking, and not knowing what do to). Super helpful, thank you for sharing!
you’re welcome Desiree!
I recall this review in my nursing training and is always an emotional topic and difficult for some to understand,
Like some of the others who have commented, I was feeling heavy and sad after reading this, however useful and informative content nonetheless. This article is a great example of how it is O.K. to feel such emotions, given the content and themes discussed related to abuse of both humans and animals. It is a nice reminder that the vast majority of us are empathetic caring people who intuitively respond to the idea of harm, and that helps me offset any heavy feelings, in addition to the fact that raising awareness around these issues is necessary in order to better our society.
Calgary Police Service has a dedicated officer that looks at all animal cruelty or neglect complaints and deciphers if this is a potential domestic violence situation or other type of violence. This was originally done on the corner of his desk for about a year and 2 years ago it became an actually position. I am relieve to see that a proactive approach is being taken with all avenues being explored to helping interfere with violence against others.
That is great to hear Tanja! The humane society and police in Calgary started to coordinate their programs shortly after this study was performed but it sounds like it has grown further now too which is wonderful – and very much needed!
This was challenging information to take in but important to address and look out for. Since animals are not able to communicate verbally with us when something is wrong/hurting them, it is up to us to look out for them and take preventative measures when needed.
This is a common theme seen too in perpetrators of domestic violence. Some women will stay due the fear of an ex retaliating towards pets if they leave and most cannot take their pets to the women’s shelter.
Fortunately, place like the Humane Society will take care of pets for families fleeing domestic violence. So they have somewhere to send them temporarily while they stay at a women’s shelter.
While reading this article, it was sad how much this made sense and was relatable to the students that I teach. I help students on both sides of the situations. It is all too common how often animals are victims in order to hurt others. I have students daily that relate hearting breaking stories of their animals being kicked, hit or neglected and used against them. I also have students that come to me and relate how they abused or even torture animals. We have protocols for these students to get them the help that they need.
I found the information that Ashley shared about the humane society a positive. I think that more places like this need to exist so that maybe families will feel that they are able to get out sooner.
This was an excellent read. While I was aware of the correlation, I was shocked to see how high the statistics were in this particular sample. I work with clients who have histories of childhood and adulthood trauma, abuse, and neglect. My canine partner is only 25 pounds and she is extraordinarily gentle. She is therefore pretty vulnerable. There have been times when I have left her in my office briefly with clients while I have gone to grab them a coffee or something. This will no longer be happening – she is always safest when she is with me. Thank you for this.
You’re welcome Patricia – I would agree that keeping her with you is likely the wisest all round. I would think for her emotional wellness too!
This article was hard for me to read. Even though being aware of the correlation, it actually makes my stomach turn. While I consider myself very open, it would require me to obtain supervision and do a whole lot of soul searching around this issue if I was presented with a client (even a young child) that had a history of abusing animals. I am encouraged to see that there are strides being taken in developing housing for individuals fleeing an unsafe situation who have pets who are so that factor does not keep them in an unsafe situation. In doing work for another course previously, I became aware of the Colorado link project and Humane Canada. (links included below) I believe it is professionally important for me to increase my level of understanding and increase my ability to explore things from different angles in this topic area as I am aware that I can be pretty single minded in my way of thinking on this matter so I am continuing to educate myself. I had no idea that was your thesis topic Sue, you are an onion for sure.
Ugghh, the topic of animal abuse literally turns my stomach. For some, it needs to be a complete mindshift that animals are not objects that can be mistreated however one sees fit. By the time little kids make it into schools, so much damage has been done already… it’s so sad for the kids and the animals.
I hear you Judy – this was atough one to study that’s for sure. But I just held on to the hope that the more we can understand some of the ‘why’ underlying these dynamics the better equipped we are to intervene early and protect
It saddens me that links between abuse and animal abuse. I am curious about stats for men abused by women and links to animal abuse.
Me too Mikayla!
It’s been a long time since I was an active part of this research but I do think that the studies were open to all genders. That being said, when I was working at a shelter in Calgary many years ago and had a male client it was incredibly hard to find him (and his kids) a placement in a shelter and thus this limitation on the population being invited to participate would then limit the research population too. But the work I did in this area was all over 20 years ago now, so hopefully some other studies have expanded things since then. I hope so!
Similar to other readers, I find animal abuse particularly uncomfortable but this is certainly worthwhile research. It is also something to think about to help us as individuals to better understand others and not only to have more compassion but potentially reduce and avoid the likelihood of this occurring in the future.
So true Selina – it can be really hard to find that compassion sometimes (and needs to be balanced with boundraies and safeguards) but so important. I aim to come up with the ‘hurt people hurt people (and in this case animals)’ reminder for myself as much as possible!
Totally agree Sue!
The research is very sad but I’m not shocked with the correlation between domestic abuse and animal abuse. Thank you Sue for enduring the research to educate and promote change in early intervention, initiatives and protection.
Animal abuse hits hard with me, it tears my heart open and m pretty disturbed that there is so much animal abuse out there. I’m glad there are people and laws that want to protect them.