Cruelty to animals, which begins as early as age six, is one of the earliest and most reliable predictors of later violent behavior. People who are cruel to animals almost always come from dysfunctional families, reports Kathleen M. Quinn, director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The childhoods of violent adults usually include gross neglect, brutality, rejection and hostility. Violent adults are also more likely to have had an alcoholic father, from whom they were separated, to have set fires and to have exhibited bedwetting after the age of five. Many have histories of family chaos, serious drug abuse and sexual crimes as well.
Recent research finds, however, that these experiences do not necessarily predict future violence unless the child was directly responsible for repeated incidents of animal cruelty, showed no remorse, and mistreated pets such as cats and dogs. Researchers note that children in violent homes often rely more on their pets for love and loyalty than do other children. Yet in violent homes, Quinn writes, animals seldom survive beyond the age of two. They either are killed, die of neglect or run away to escape abuse. A side effect of this frequent turnover in pets is that the young child suffers from repeated cycles of attachment and loss. In one New Jersey study, 88 percent of the families who had physically abused their children also had records of animal abuse. The study found that pets were mistreated as a way of hurting family members. Two-thirds of the animal abusers were fathers. In a Wisconsin study of battered women, 80 percent of them reported that their partners had been violent toward their pets or livestock. In most cases animal cruelty was carried out in the presence of battered women and their children. Abusive partners frequently threaten to give away their pets as a way to control family members. Research on convicted sex offenders found that 48 percent of rapists and 30 percent of child molesters admitted to cruelty against animals in their childhood or adolescence. Pet mistreatment is one way sexual abusers control their young victims. However, in one-third of the cases studied, the children themselves abused pets.
Quinn reports that some communities have been successful in reducing domestic violence. In an attempt to reduce high rates of domestic homicide, officers in Nashville, Tennessee, instituted a screening process for all domestic-violence calls. They asked callers if the batterer had threatened his partner with a weapon, if there was a threat of suicide, and if there had been any abuse of family pets. Adult abusers with any of these characteristics were sent to special programs. Within a year, domestic fatalities fell 80 percent.
Because of the frequent connection between animal cruelty and violence in the home, Quinn suggests that talking with children about their pets may be a way for counselors to find out how the children themselves are being treated. She writes that children may be more willing to discuss what has happened to their pets than to describe what they themselves have experienced. Researchers recommend that counselors ask children: Do they have any pets? Who takes care of them? Does anyone ever hurt them? Have they ever lost one, or do they worry about losing one? Quinn also recommends that if a child indicates that he has hurt an animal, immediate intervention should be provided. If intervention occurs when animal abuse is first discovered, the child may be diverted from the path of increasing violence. Animal control officers are called to many homes where child abuse is occurring, and they can serve as an early warning and reporting system for victims.
Since children identify strongly with animals, they may hear messages about abuse more clearly when animal mistreatment is used as an example. Quinn believes that pets can be used to teach children to express their needs for power and control through life-enhancing nurturing of pets.
“Contemporary Research on Parenting: The Case for Nature and Nurture” American Psychologist Volume 55, Number 2, February 2000 pp. 218-232.
Published in ERN April 2000 Volume 13 Number 4