Understanding The Connection Between Animal Abuse and Family Violence

Acts of cruelty to animals are not mere indications of a minor personality flaw in the abuser, they are symptomatic of a deep mental disturbance.

Research in psychology and criminology shows that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals don’t stop there—many of them move on to their fellow humans.

“Murderers very often start out by killing and torturing animals as kids,” says Robert K. Ressler, who developed profiles of serial killers for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Children who torture or kill small animals like squirrels, birds, cats, and dogs without showing remorse are highly likely to be sociopaths. Many serial killers kill to control others’ lives, and as children, small animals are the only lives they have the power to control.

Link researchers have also connected children’s acts of animal abuse with bullying, corporal punishment, school shootings, sexual abuse, and developmental psychopathic behaviors. 

Children often feel powerless when they are abused by adults and may find their own victims to exert control over and gain a sense of power. They may abuse a pet of a sibling or peer for revenge or emotional maltreatment. Animal abuse can also be part of an initiation ritual for becoming a gang member.

Adolescents have been known to videotape their torturing of animals to play back later when they feel bored. Many share this experience on facebook...it is outrageous that facebook allows this kind of exposure on their site.

All animal abuse situations must be taken seriously. Understanding why children may abuse animals is the key to appropriate intervention strategies.

What Is The Link®?

A correlation between animal abuse, family violence and other forms of community violence has been established. Child and animal protection professionals have recognized The Link®, noting that abuse of both children and animals is connected in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence.

When animals in a home are abused or neglected, it is a warning sign that others in the household may not be safe. In addition, children who witness animal abuse are at a greater risk of becoming abusers themselves.

The link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is becoming so well established that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors.

Cruelty to Animals and Family Violence

Because abusers target the powerless, crimes against animals, spouses, children, and the elderly often go hand in hand. Children who abuse animals may be repeating a lesson learned at home; like their parents, they are reacting to anger or frustration with violence. Their violence is directed at the only individual in the family who is more vulnerable than they are: an animal.

How Serious Is It?

A survey of pet-owning families with substantiated child abuse and neglect found that animals were abused in 88 percent of homes where child physical abuse was present (DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983). 

A study of women seeking shelter at a safe house showed that 71 percent of those having pets affirmed that their partner had threatened, hurt or killed their companion animals, and 32 percent of mothers reported that their children had hurt or killed their pets (Ascione, 1998). 

Still another study showed that violent offenders incarcerated in a maximum security prison were significantly more likely than nonviolent offenders to have committed childhood acts of cruelty toward pets (Merz-Perez, Heide, & Silverman, 2001).

What’s Being Done?

In many communities, human services, animal services and law enforcement agencies are sharing resources and expertise to address violence. Professionals are beginning to engage in cross-training and cross-reporting through inter-agency partnerships. 
Humane societies are also teaming with domestic violence shelters to provide emergency shelter for pets of domestic violence victims. 

In addition, some states have strengthened their animal-cruelty legislation and taken other measures to address The Link®. These state-level actions permit earlier intervention and send a clear message that all forms of violence are taken seriously.

There are now felony-level penalties for animal cruelty in all 50 states. Several states require veterinarians to report suspected animal abuse and offer veterinarians who report cruelty immunity from civil and criminal liability.

Some states require animal control officers to report suspected child abuse or neglect and receive training in recognizing and reporting child abuse and neglect.

A few states permit child and adult protection workers to report suspected animal abuse or receive training on identifying and reporting animal cruelty, abuse and neglect.

Nearly half the states call for psychological counseling for individuals convicted of animal cruelty.

Schools, parents, communities, and courts are beginning to realize that shrugging off cruelty to animals as a “minor” crime is like ignoring a ticking time bomb. Some courts now aggressively penalize animal abusers, examine families for other signs of violence, and order perpetrators to undergo psychological evaluations and counseling.

In March 2006, Maine Gov. John Baldacci signed a law—the first of its kind in the U.S.—that permits judges to include animal companions in court-issued protection orders against domestic abusers.

Other states, including Vermont, New York, California, and Colorado, followed suit. People who harm animals in violation of a court order can face fines and jail time. A handful of states require animal control officers and spousal/child abuse investigators to share information when animal abuse or domestic abuse is found in a home.

What You Can Do

Communities must recognize that abuse to any living being is unacceptable and endangers everyone. 

Children should be taught to care for and respect animals. After an extensive study of the links between animal abuse and human abuse, two experts concluded, “The evolution of a more gentle and benign relationship in human society might be enhanced by our promotion of a more positive and nurturing ethic between children and animals.”
With that in mind, please be sure to do the following:

  • Seek Legal Advice. One of the smartest things victims can do to empower themselves is to get educated. Many local shelters and social services offer free legal advocates who provide crucial resources, assistance filing protective orders, and support in prosecutions. Contact your local shelter, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network hotline, or the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
  • Urge your local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, judges, and schools to take cruelty to animals seriously. Those charged with protecting our communities and animals must send a strong message that violence against any feeling creature—human or nonhuman—is unacceptable. Click here for information how to report animal abuse or neglect.
  • Be aware of signs of neglect or abuse in children and animals, and immediately report suspected crimes to authorities. Take children seriously if they report that animals are being neglected or mistreated. 
Some children won’t talk about their own suffering but will talk about an animal’s. Don’t ignore even minor acts of cruelty to animals by children. Talk to the child and the child’s parents. If necessary, call a social worker.

By demonstrating to and instilling in children, compassion, respect, empathy, kindness, sympathy and love; as well as a balanced sense of self-worth, we can possibly prevent future bullying and abuse of children, animals, and even adults.

To report animal abuse or need help click 
The Hotline. 
If it's an emergency call 911.

  • Daniel Goleman, “Experts See Parallels Between Dahmer, Previous Serial Killers,” New York Times News Service, 11 Aug. 1991.
  • Sara C. Haden and Angela Scarpa, “Childhood Animal Cruelty: A Review of Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Issues,” The Forensic Examiner 14 (2005): 23-33.