Childhood animal cruelty and interpersonal violence

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elsevier.gifConduct disorder (CD) affects 2–-9% of children in this country and has been found to be relatively stable through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood.

Volume 21, Issue 5, July 2001, Pages 735-749   

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Copyright © 2001 Elsevier Science Inc. All rights reserved.

Childhood animal cruelty and interpersonal violence

Catherine Miller  REcor.gif  

Pacific University, USA
Received 30 March 2000; revised 9 April 2000; accepted 10 May 2000 Available online 18 June 2001.


Conduct disorder (CD) affects 2-–9% of children in this country and has been found to be relatively stable through childhood, adolescence, and into adulthood. Although many behaviors that comprise CD have been studied, there has been a lack of research on cruelty to animals. It has been suggested that animal cruelty may be exhibited by 25% of CD children and that animal abuse may be the earliest symptom evident in CD children. In addition, several studies have found a significant relationship between childhood cruelty to animals and violence toward people. Available research is reviewed in this report, including early studies on the relationship between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence, recent assessment attempts, and intervention techniques. Future research needs are also outlined and discussed.

Author Keywords: Childhood animal cruelty; Interpersonal violence; Animal abuse and violence link

According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV), conduct disorder (CD) “is one of the most frequently diagnosed conditions in outpatient and inpatient mental health facilities for children”  (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 88). Prevalence rates have been estimated to range from 2% to 9%  (McMahon & Estes, 1997). Symptom onset is typically late childhood to early adolescence, and CD behaviors may continue into adulthood (Kazdin, 1990, as cited in McMahon & Estes, 1997). As stated in the DSMIV, “a substantial proportion [of children diagnosed with CD] continues to show behaviors in adulthood that meet criteria for Antisocial Personality Disorder” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 89).

DSMIV criteria state that children diagnosed with CD exhibit “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 90). In addition, children with CD “may have little empathy and little concern for the feelings, wishes, and wellbeing of others” (American Psychiatric Association, 1994, p. 87). Specifically, children with CD destroy property, lie, or steal, and are frequently aggressive to people and/or animals.

When the diagnosis of CD was first introduced in an earlier edition of the DSM (DSMIII ;  American Psychiatric Association, 1980), animal cruelty was not included in the criteria. As  Lockwood and Ascione (1998) point out, “violent behavior against people was included as symptomatic [of CD], but … no mention was made of animal maltreatment” (p. 245). In 1987, a revised edition of the DSM was published (DSMIIIR;  American Psychiatric Association, 1987), which included animal cruelty as a symptom of CD for the first time. A study examining disruptive behavior disorders in general found that animal cruelty was a reliable diagnostic criterion for CD  (Spitzer, Davies, & Barkley, 1990). As animals are legally considered property, there was some confusion over whether to consider animal cruelty a symptom comparable to destruction of property or physical cruelty to people (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). Publication of DSMIV (American Psychiatric Association, 1994) clarified the issue, listing animal cruelty under a subset entitled “Aggression to People and Animals.”

Inclusion of animal cruelty as a diagnostic indicator for CD was an important one, due to the suspected prevalence of the symptom as well as the likelihood that animal cruelty behavior will be exhibited early in the course of CD. Studies have suggested that animal cruelty might be exhibited by up to 25% of CD children  (Arluke and  Luk). In addition, although the DSMIV stated that CD symptoms typically emerge during late childhood or early adolescence (American Psychiatric Association, 1994),  Frick et al. (1993) found that hurting animals is one of the earliest reported symptoms of CD, with a median onset age of 6.5 years. The significance of the young age at which animal cruelty is first exhibited may be found in the fact that an early onset of symptoms is typically associated with a poorer prognosis (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Although there have been many studies on firesetting, running away, and other CD behaviors, there is a lack of literature in the area of cruelty to animals (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). Even “very basic information and data are lacking about prevalence (existing cases) and incidence (new cases) of [childhood cruelty to animals]”  (Ascione, 1993, p. 227), due to the fact that animal cruelty typically is not cause for mandated reporting to humane societies or animal welfare agencies (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). At the present time, only two states (California and Colorado) have mandatory reporting statutes that require veterinarians to report animal cruelty cases to authorities  (Shapiro, 1996). No state requires mental health workers, physicians, or psychologists to report cases of animal abuse (Shapiro, 1996). It appears clear that “the current situation is similar to our inability to track incidence of child maltreatment before mandatory reporting became law”  (Ascione, Kaufmann, & Brooks, 2000, p. 327).

One reason for lack of mandatory reporting laws is that not every state considers animal cruelty to be a serious crime. Although it is considered a criminal offense in all 50 states  (Humane Society of the United States, 1999), animal cruelty is only classified as a misdemeanor in the majority of states  (Lockwood and  Lockwood). However, it is important to note that “animal cruelty may be considered a serious, felony-level offense when it is related to gambling (e.g., cock fights) or drug-related activities” (F. R. Ascione, personal communication, April 12, 2000).

In addition to a lack of official reports of animal cruelty, perpetration of animal abuse is often a solitary, secretive activity, known only to the perpetrator  (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). Therefore, it is often very difficult to obtain information about animal cruelty from sources other than the perpetrator, such as family, teachers, or significant others. Such lack of basic information concerning prevalence of animal cruelty makes it very difficult to determine the extent of the problem or the impact on society.

Despite lack of research in the area, cruelty to animals is being held out as a warning sign for potential violence. The humane societies and animal welfare agencies report that “scientists and lawmakers are slowly beginning to acknowledge the humane movement's long-held position that society's treatment of animals is inseparable from its treatment of human beings” (Lockwood & Hodge, 1986, p. 2). In several recent checklists and informational pamphlets, cruelty to animals is listed as a warning sign for juvenile violence (e.g.,  American Psychological Association, 1999;  National Crime Prevention Council, 1999 and  National School Safety Center, 1999). In addition, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Behavioral Sciences Unit teaches its members that “the investigation and prosecution of crimes against animals is an important tool for identifying people who are, or may become, perpetrators of violent crimes against people”  (Lockwood & Church, 1996, p. 241). Media reports of serial murderers or violent criminals routinely emphasize an early childhood history of cruelty to animals, increasing public perceptions of the link between animal cruelty and violence to people. For example, Albert DeSalvo (the “Boston Strangler”), who reportedly killed 13 women between 1962 and 1963, “trapped dogs and cats in orange crates and shot arrows through the boxes” (Lockwood & Hodge, 1986, p. 2). Another example comes from reports on Jason Massey, who, in 1993 at the age of 20, beheaded a 13-year-old female and shot her 14-year-old stepbrother, killing them both. According to Special Agent Alan Brantley of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Massey reportedly started his career killing many cats and dogs (Lockwood & Church, 1996). A more recent example may be found in the case of Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old adolescent who killed his parents and then shot at least 24 students at his high school in 1998. Media reports suggested that Kinkel had a history of animal cruelty, including “decapitating cats, dissecting live squirrels, and blowing up cows”  (DeAngelis, 1998, p. 2).

As stated previously, research indicates that symptoms of CD (such as animal cruelty) may be a longstanding pattern of behavior that continues into adulthood. Research has also suggested that earlier onset indicates a poorer prognosis and that animal cruelty is frequently a very early symptom of CD. Therefore, it appears especially important to examine the popular notion that there is a link between animal cruelty and violence to people. Although there has been little research in this area, the major purpose of this article is to review the available studies on animal cruelty to determine whether the public's perception of the link is valid. In addition, future directions for research on the link will be discussed, including a focus on assessment and treatment of such behavior.

 1. Empirical evidence of the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence 

1.1. Triad behaviors

The earliest research in the area focused on a hypothesized triad of behaviors that appeared to be predictive of violence. Several authors found childhood histories of bedwetting, firesetting, and cruelty to animals in the backgrounds of violent criminals  (Felthous;  Hellman;  Wax and  Wax). MacDonald (1963) made first mention of the triad in the literature, reporting “a clinical impression that the triad of enuresis, firesetting, and cruelty to animals is an unfavorable prognostic sign in those who threaten homicide” (as cited in Hellman & Blackman, 1966, p. 1431). Hellman and Blackman (1966) were the first to empirically assess whether this triad of behaviors in childhood was significantly related to aggressive violent crimes in adulthood. These authors studied 84 male prisoners at an acute psychiatric treatment center in St. Louis, Missouri, which accepted court-referred criminal defendants. The authors divided the prisoners into two groups based on the types of criminal charges (31 prisoners were charged with aggressive or violent crimes while 53 were charged with misdemeanors or nonaggressive felonies). Each subject was interviewed about childhood histories of enuresis, firesetting, and cruelty to animals. The authors found that 21 of the 84 prisoners had a positive history of all three triad behaviors; of the 21, 14 were charged with aggressive crimes. An additional 17 of the 84 prisoners had a positive history of one or two of the triad behaviors; of the 17, over half (56%) were charged with aggressive crimes. Therefore, the authors found that, of the 31 prisoners charged with aggressive crimes, 23 (74%) exhibited all or part of the triad behaviors as children. On the other hand, of the 53 prisoners charged with nonaggressive crimes, only 15 (28%) exhibited all or part of the triad behaviors as children. The authors concluded that “presence of the triad in the child may be of pathognomonic importance in predicting violent antisocial behavior” (Hellman & Blackman, 1966, p. 1435).

In 1974, Wax and Wax studied the triad in a sample of male adolescent offenders within the California Youth Authority. These authors examined 46 male adolescents who were referred for psychiatric evaluations by juvenile authorities. Of the 46, the authors noted that “6 demonstrated the triad of enuresis, firesetting, and excessive cruelty to animals” (Wax & Haddox, 1974a, p. 103). Although several other adolescents were believed to have histories of one or more of the triad behaviors, the authors excluded all subjects who verbally denied any one of the behaviors. The six adolescents with positive, self-reported histories of triad behaviors all had “manifestations of extreme violence and marked sexual deviation” (Wax & Haddox, 1974b, p. 153). The authors also noted that the six adolescents “were considered within the Youth Authority system to be the most assaultive and potentially dangerous wards remanded to its care” (Wax & Haddox, 1974b, p. 154). The authors concluded that “evidence of the triad or any such documented pattern in childhood should serve as an early warning device for clinicians” (Wax & Haddox, 1974b, p. 155).

To determine whether the triad behaviors are predictive of violence in women, Felthous and Yudowitz (1977) looked at a sample of 31 female offenders in prison in Massachusetts. The authors divided the prisoners into two groups based on the current legal charges and prior records. Eleven prisoners comprised the assaultive group, due to having documented convictions of at least one crime of personal violence. Thirteen prisoners comprised the nonassaultive group, as these women had no documented history of such convictions. Seven prisoners were not assigned to either group, due to ambiguous charges or records. Each subject was interviewed regarding assaultive or aggressive behavior. In the assaultive group, 36% of the women had a history of cruelty to animals, 45% had a history of enuresis, and 45% had a history of firesetting. In contrast, in the nonassaultive group, 0% had a history of cruelty to animals, 15% had a history of enuresis, and 23% had a history of firesetting. The investigators concluded that the triad behaviors “may carry significance, but not have pathognomicity, as indicators of assaultive potential in females” (Felthous & Yudowitz, 1977, p. 274).

In contrast to studies that have found a positive relationship between triad behaviors and violence, other studies have not supported the idea that firesetting, animal cruelty, and enuresis are useful predictors of violence  (Felthous;  Heath;  Justice and  Shanok). MacDonald (1968, as cited in Heath et al., 1984) interviewed 60 adults divided into three groups of equivalent numbers (convicted murderers, hospital patients who had made homicidal threats, and hospital patients who had not made homicidal threats and did not have a history of homicidal behavior). Heath and colleagues report that “statistical analysis of [MacDonald's] data did not support the usefulness of firesetting, enuresis, or cruelty to animals as predictors of homicidal behavior” (Heath et al., 1984, p. 97). In a similar study with adolescents, Sendi and Blomgren (1975, as cited in Heath et al., 1984) examined three groups of patients (10 who committed homicide, 10 who threatened or attempted homicide, and 10 hospitalized controls). When no differences in triad behaviors were found between the groups, the authors concluded that “neither the items of the triad nor the triad itself was useful in predicting homicidal behavior or homicidal threats or attempts” (Heath et al., 1984, p. 98).

In a large-scale study, Heath et al. (1984) examined 204 admissions to a child psychiatric clinic in an attempt to assess the utility of the triad behaviors in predicting violence. The researchers employed the parental reports on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL;  Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1978) to identify children as engaging in enuretic, firesetting, or animal cruelty behavior. Heath and colleagues found “no significant overall association of enuresis and cruelty to animals to firesetting” (Heath et al., 1984, p. 99). However, the authors went on to state that their study only examined the current adjustment of firesetters and that “the question about the prognostic significance of enuresis and cruelty to animals for firesetters cannot be answered from this cross sectional data” (Heath et al., 1984, p. 99).

Felthous and Bernard (1979) conducted chart reviews of 133 patients in a private psychiatric hospital. Although statistical analyses were not conducted, the authors found that “most patients with a single triadic behavior lacked a history of interpersonal violence” (as cited in Felthous & Kellert, 1987a, p. 712). However, in a later review, one of the authors did point out that “those with two or three triadic behaviors also had a recorded history of at least two of the following behaviors: homicidal threats, carrying a deadly weapon, and physical assaults” (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a, p. 712).

Finally, Justice et al. (1974), in a study of eight convicts who had shown behavior problems as children, found that symptoms other than the triad behaviors (e.g., tantruming, truancy) were more predictive of interpersonal violence. These researchers examined the school records of 1055 children with documented learning and/or behavior problems between the years 1955 and 1958. They then checked the names of these children against the files in the Texas Department of Corrections and found 57 matches. Of the 57, 8 had been imprisoned due to violent behavior. The authors then conducted follow-up interviews with these eight convicts regarding the presence of a variety of early childhood behaviors. The investigators concluded that childhood behaviors, such as fighting, temper tantrums, school problems/truancy, and interpersonal difficulties, may be more indicative of later violent behavior than the triad behaviors. However, Justice et al. took a cautionary stance, advocating the use of both the triad behaviors and their “quartet” behaviors as warning signs of later violence. The authors concluded that “neither the triad nor the 'quartet' offers infallible diagnostic tools, but both, particularly taken in conjunction, are indicators of serious emotional disturbance that is likely to result in violent behavior” (Justice et al., 1974, p. 459). 

1.2. Cruelty to animals as a single predictor of violence to people

Perhaps due to the conflicting evidence surrounding the triad behaviors of enuresis, firesetting, and animal cruelty, more recent studies have attempted to study various single behaviors rather than looking at the correlation of the triad behaviors  (Felthous;  Felthous;  Kellert and  Tingle). In a retrospective study, Felthous (1979) assessed 429 adult admissions to an inpatient psychiatric hospital. All subjects were interviewed and were administered a questionnaire that included items regarding various childhood behaviors. Subjects were then divided into two groups based on their responses during the interview (aggressive sample and nonaggressive sample). Seventy-four subjects comprised the aggressive sample, due to giving “a history of (1) assaultively injuring someone seriously enough to require medical treatment or dental restoration plus either, (2) threatening serious harm against others, or (3) carrying a knife or firearm for potential use against others (except for legitimate job requirements)” (Felthous, 1979, p. 105). Seventy-five subjects comprised the nonaggressive sample, due to denying any history of aggressive behavior since the age of 15. In the aggressive sample, Felthous found that 23% killed dogs and cats purposely, while 18% tortured and injured animals. In contrast, in the nonaggressive sample, only 10% killed dogs and cats purposely, while 5% tortured and injured animals. Felthous concluded that a history of purposely killing dogs and cats might be useful in the assessment of aggressive behavior, with or without the presence of the other two triad behaviors. Using the same sample from the 1979 study, Felthous (1980) reanalyzed the data by assessing the level of aggressiveness toward people in a group of patients with self-reported histories of cruelty to animals. Eighteen subjects with animal cruelty histories were rated by the author on the severity of aggression to people on a 1–5 scale (5 being the highest severity rating). Felthous found that 12 of the 18 patients with histories of animal cruelty showed high levels of aggressiveness against people (levels 4 and 5).

In 1985, Kellert and Felthous obtained retrospective data from 152 adult males in an attempt to clarify the relationship between childhood animal cruelty and violence toward people. The authors examined three groups of adult males: aggressive criminals, nonaggressive criminals, and noncriminals. Assignment to the aggressive or nonaggressive criminal groups was based on ratings from prison counselors regarding inmates' behaviors while incarcerated rather than on historical factors or the reason for imprisonment. Each subject was interviewed by the authors as to childhood behavior toward animals. The authors found that 25% of aggressive criminals reported a history of five or more acts of cruelty to animals, while less than 6% of the nonaggressive criminals and 0% of the noncriminals reported such a history. In addition, severity of animal cruelty acts was rated significantly higher within the aggressive criminal group than in the other two groups.

Additional retrospective studies on prison populations further supported the idea that aggressive adults had histories of childhood cruelty to animals  (Ressler and Tingle). For example, Tingle et al. (1986) assessed 64 men incarcerated for rape and child molestation. The investigators found that 48% of the men convicted for rape and 30% of the men convicted for child molestation had histories of cruelty to animals. Ressler et al. (1988) assessed 28 male incarcerated sexual homicide perpetrators. These authors found that 36% of the men had a history of cruelty to animals as a child, while 46% had such a history during adolescence.

In recent studies of child samples, similar findings were reported  (Lewis;  Verlinden, 1999 and Ascione). In 1983, Lewis and colleagues assessed a sample of 51 children on an inpatient psychiatric ward. This sample was divided into two groups (homicidally aggressive and not homicidally aggressive) based on ratings by hospital staff members. By examining charts of the children, the researchers found that 14% of the children judged to be homicidal had histories of cruelty to animals, while only 3% of the other children had such a history. In 1988, Wochner and Klosinski (as cited in Ascione, 1993) assessed 50 children from both inpatient and outpatient treatment settings. This sample was divided into two groups of equivalent numbers based on whether or not the children had documented histories of animal cruelty. The authors found that 32% of the children with histories of animal cruelty exhibited “sadistic behaviors” toward people, while only 12% of the other group demonstrated such behaviors. Finally, a recent study examining factors common to school shootings found that in five of nine cases, the adolescent school shooter had a documented history of cruelty to animals (Verlinden, 1999).

In contrast to studies that have found a link between childhood animal cruelty and violence to people, several authors have found no clear association present (Climente, Hyg, & Ervin, 1972, as cited in Felthous & Kellert, 1987a; Climente, Rollins, & Ervin, 1973, as cited in Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). Climente et al. (1972, as cited in Felthous & Kellert, 1987a) divided 80 patients in a hospital emergency room into two groups: those who had come to the emergency room for reasons other than violent behavior and those who “had come to the emergency room with a chief complaint of violence” (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a, p. 711). The authors found that the incidence of cruelty to animals did not significantly differ between the two groups. As the group composition was not further discussed, it is possible that the “violence group” was comprised of both victims as well as perpetrators of violent behavior. In a later study of 95 female prisoners, Climente et al. (1973, as cited in Felthous & Kellert, 1987a) found that childhood cruelty to animals was not significantly associated with interpersonal violence. 

1.3. Summary of empirical studies and methodological limitations

One reason that cruelty to animals may not have been given much attention in psychological or psychiatric literature is the presence of contradictory studies regarding the link between cruelty to animals and interpersonal violence. There appear to be several reasons for discrepancies in the literature, including lack of consensus regarding the definition of animal cruelty, the time frame for assessment, the use of retrospective methodologies, and the use of parental reports or chart reviews rather than child reports regarding the frequency and severity of animal cruelty behavior.

First, animal cruelty has not been clearly defined in most studies (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). Studies that have not found an association between animal cruelty and violence may have used too broad a definition of animal cruelty, to the point that such behavior was almost normative (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). A clear consensus on what behaviors constitute animal cruelty has clearly hampered research in this area. The Humane Society of the United States has defined animal cruelty as “behaviors that are harmful to animals, from unintentional neglect to intentional killing” (Humane Society of the United States, 1999).  Vermeulen and Odendaal (1993) classified abusive acts to animals in a manner similar to that used by child protection services (i.e., physical abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse). Ascione (1993) clarified the definition of animal abuse, stating that cruelty to animals consists of “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal” (p. 228). Intentionally excluded by his definition are “socially approved practices related to the treatment of use of animals in veterinary practices and livestock production (including humane slaughter or other animal husbandry practices” (p. 228). Ascione (1993) went on to state “the definition also excludes activities involved in more controversial uses of animals, for example, in hunting and in laboratory research” (p. 228). Ultimately, judgments about animal cruelty also must be sensitive to cultural factors (Ascione, 1993), as different practices with animals are condoned by different cultures (Ascione et al., 2000). In 1998, Agnew attempted to synthesize the major viewpoints on this issue, stating that the prior attempts to define animal cruelty share the following features: the behavior is socially unacceptable, is intentional, and is unnecessary (as cited in Ascione et al., 2000).

A second methodological problem with prior studies is the discrepancy in the assessment of time frames over which animal cruelty has been exhibited (F. R. Ascione, personal communication, April 12, 2000). Some studies have looked primarily at the preceding few months, whereas others assessed animal cruelty throughout the life span.

Third, researchers have primarily employed a retrospective approach, asking adult criminals about their childhood behavior toward animals (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). Two major problems with this approach are immediately apparent: (a) there is no independent verification of statements, and (b) there may be an underrepresentation of such behavior due to social desirability factors (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). In addition, “other problems with retrospective approaches include true failures in memory and reluctance to disclose (or recall) painful memories that may include perpetrated or witnessed animal cruelty” (F. R. Ascione, personal communication, April 12, 2000).

Finally, a fourth major methodological flaw is the fact that several studies have relied on chart reviews or parental reports of animal cruelty. Such reports may underestimate prevalence of both animal cruelty as well as a second supposed triad behavior (firesetting), as these behaviors “may be performed secretively, away from home, and outside parental awareness” (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). It is also clear that most records or charts will not typically contain information regarding animal cruelty (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). As noted by Lockwood and Ascione (1998), “since animal cruelty was not listed as a symptom of any behavior disorder before the 1987 revision of the DSM, it is not surprising that attempts were rarely made to prompt for such information in preparing the charts of those individuals” (p. 67).

Future studies should attempt to correct these methodological flaws. First, subjects must be interviewed directly. Studies that have not found an association between childhood animal cruelty and violence to people typically employed chart reviews that were likely incomplete (Lockwood & Ascione, 1998). Felthous and Kellert (1987a) point out that “all studies that found an association between animal cruelty and personal aggression obtained data by means of interviewing subjects directly” (p. 715). Second, researchers must ask many questions about involvement with animals, as only one or two questions on cruelty to animals is not likely to obtain much information (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). Finally, researchers must examine repeated patterns of violent behavior rather than focusing on one single incident of violence or cruelty. It is not likely that an association will be found between one act of animal cruelty and one act of interpersonal violence; instead, researchers should focus on examining subjects who exhibit recurrent acts of violence toward both people and animals (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). Felthous and Kellert (1987a) point out that “investigators who identified recurrent impulsive violence found an association with animal cruelty” (p. 715).

In summary, despite conflicting reports, the available research appears to support the following statements. First, regarding the definitional issue of animal cruelty, abusive acts to socially valued animals (pets) are more likely to be associated with interpersonal violence than are abuses of less socially valued animals (e.g., rats) (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a). Second, the association is strongest among people who exhibit repeated acts of animal cruelty and recurrent violence against people (Felthous and Lockwood). As Felthous and Kellert (1987a) stated, “the literature suggests an association between a pattern of cruelty to animals in childhood or adolescence and a pattern of dangerous and recurrent aggression against people at a later age” (p. 716) (italics added). 

2. Possible reasons for animal cruelty

Although somewhat speculative, researchers have attempted to ascertain the cause of animal cruelty. Some have suggested that cruelty to animals is due to a basic lack of empathy. As Grisso (1998) stated, “perhaps no other risk factor is given as much weight by judges and juvenile justice personnel as a youth's apparent lack of remorse, empathy, or concern for past harmful behavior” (p. 142). He went on to state that youths who are “uninhibited by the ability to experience or sense the pain that they inflict on others” increase the risk that they will exhibit future violence in the future (p. 142).

In a study of 23 male subjects with a substantial history of animal cruelty,  Felthous and Kellert (1987b) identified nine different possible motivations for animal abuse. Based primarily on the statements of these 23 subjects, the nine reasons for animal cruelty included the following: “(1) to control an animal; (2) to retaliate against an animal; (3) to satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed; (4) to express aggression through an animal; (5) to enhance one's own aggressiveness; (6) to shock people for amusement; (7) to retaliate against another person; (8) to displace hostility form a person to an animal; and (9) nonspecific sadism” (Felthous & Kellert, 1987b, p. 1716). Other researchers have speculated on different causes of animal cruelty  (Ascione;  Ascione and  Boat), including curiosity, peer reinforcement for cruel behavior, imitating witnessed cruelty, and using cruelty as means of self-injury. In addition, Ascione (1999) reported that “animal abuse may be included as part of initiation rites in youth gangs” (p. 55).

Finally, several researchers have attempted to examine the relationship between animal abuse and child abuse, speculating that children exposed to violent homes may be more prone to exhibit animal cruelty behaviors  (Deviney; Ascione and  Tapia). As early as 1971, Tapia noted that “the chaotic home with aggressive parental models was the most common factor” (p. 77). Deviney et al. (1983) looked at 53 families with substantiated child abuse in family. These authors found that pets were abused or neglected in 60% of the homes, and that 26% of children in these families abused pets. In 1980, Walker (as cited in Ascione, 1993) looked at records from Child Protection Services (CPS) and animal protection agencies, finding that 9% of families were reported to both agencies. Finally, in 1992, Friedrich (as cited in Ascione, 1993) assessed sexually abused children using the CBCL (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1978). He found that parents reported that 35% of abused boys and 27% of abused girls were cruel to animals. In contrast, parents reported that only 5% of nonabused boys and 3% of nonabused girls were cruel to animals. 

3. Assessment of animal cruelty

Perhaps due to the lack of definitional consensus as to what constitutes animal abuse, very little research has been done regarding the assessment of animal cruelty. Assessment has primarily been done via interviews with parents and children, as well as through paper-and-pencil measures. One widely available paper-and-pencil measure, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI2 for adults and MMPIA for adolescents), contains items regarding the treatment of animals in general (Ascione et al., 2000). However, according to Ascione and colleagues, no known studies on animal cruelty have employed this measure (Ascione et al., 2000). It is likely that this instrument has not been used to study animal cruelty due to the length of the measure (over 500 questions) and the broad array of symptoms assessed by the device.

A second widely used questionnaire is the CBCL (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1978), a paper-and-pencil measure designed to assess a large number of behavioral problems exhibited by children. The CBCL has one item that asks the parent to indicate frequency of the child's cruelty to animals on a 3-point scale (not at all, sometimes, and frequently). Cruelty to animals is not defined or described, so it is difficult to determine any specific information if the item is endorsed. Although there is a youth form of the CBCL that is designed to be given to children ages 11 through 18 called the Youth Self Report (YSR;  Achenbach, 1991), this version does not ask the child to rate his or her own frequency of animal cruelty acts.

Despite these limitations, normative data gathered by the authors of the CBCL indicated that parents reported youths in outpatient mental health clinics exhibit animal cruelty behaviors between 10% and 25% (as cited in Ascione et al., 2000). In 1991, Offord and colleagues further examined the CBCL by assessing a sample of Canadian children aged 12–16 (as cited in Ascione, 1993). This study found that only 2–4% of the mothers reported their children had engaged in animal cruelty. However, during interviews, 10% of the children self-reported such behavior. This study highlights the fact that animal cruelty is frequently a secretive, solitary behavior known only to the child involved in the activity.

Attempts to interview significant others regarding animal cruelty have not been very successful. Obtaining a social history from relatives is not always effective in obtaining a history of cruelty to animals (Felthous & Kellert, 1987a), as relatives are often not aware of this behavior. One early attempt to interview parents about a wide variety of problematic child behaviors is the Interview for Antisocial Behavior  (Kazdin & EsveldtDawson, 1986). The researchers demonstrated that this instrument had adequate levels of internal consistency. In addition, the interview schedule has been found to discriminate between CD and non-CD children and youth. Finally, the instrument does address severity and chronicity of animal abuse, a needed addition to earlier attempts to assess this behavior (F. R. Ascione, personal communication, April 12, 2000). However, its utility in assessing animal cruelty is questionable, as it relies solely on parental report of an often covert behavior and it contains only one item regarding animal abuse.

Recently, Ascione et al. (1997) developed a semistructured interview format to obtain more information on animal cruelty. Called the Children and Animals Assessment Instrument (CAAI), it is designed for use with children over the age of 4 and their parents. The interview attempts to assess both witnessing and performing cruelty and kindness acts toward a variety of animals (farm, wild, pet, and stray). In addition, the interview attempts to assess several dimensions of cruelty, including severity, frequency, duration, recency, diversity across categories of animals, sentience of animals harmed, covert (attempts to conceal behavior), isolate (whether acts occurred alone or with others), and empathy. Only one study has been conducted with this interview format (Ascione et al., 1997), in an attempt to establish concurrent validity. These authors employed a sample of 20 children, administering both the CAAI and the CBCL. The authors found that interrater reliability on the CAAI was adequate, ranging from 60% to 83% on the various dimensions. The study also suggested that children may have both cruel and gentle behaviors toward animals in their repertoires. Finally, the authors concluded that the CBCL underestimated the prevalence of animal cruelty.

Other attempts to standardize interview formats regarding animal cruelty may be found in the Diagnostic Interview for Children and Adolescents (DICA;  Herjanic & Campbell, 1982), the Boat Inventory on Animal-Related Experiences (BIARE;  Boat, 1999), and in an interviewer guide developed by  Arluke (1997). The DICA contains many questions concerning a wide variety of psychiatric symptoms, including the following question regarding cruelty to animals: “Have you ever injured or killed a small animal such as a cat or squirrel just for fun?” The BIARE is more specifically designed to assess animal issues, including questions regarding a wide variety of experiences with animals and behaviors toward animals. The author cautions that, at this time, the BIARE is only “meant to be used as a screening and information-gathering instrument [as] it has not been standardized or normed” (Boat, 1999, p. 89). In a similar vein, Arluke (1997) developed a semistructured guide to help clinicians and researchers ask questions of children and parents regarding general animal experiences and animal cruelty behaviors. 

4. Treatment of animal cruelty

In 1998, California became the first state in the country to require psychological counseling as a condition of probation for any person convicted of animal cruelty  (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 1999). In addition, Colorado now has passed legislation requiring counseling for individuals convicted of animal cruelty (Ascione et al., 2000). Other states have passed legislation giving courts the option of ordering counseling for individuals convicted of animal abuse, including Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Virginia, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia  (Randour, 1999).

Unfortunately, very little research has been carried out investigating effective interventions to reduce the frequency and severity of animal cruelty behavior. Given the stability of CD behaviors, as well as the research that has found a link between animal cruelty and violence toward people, it is especially important to examine how to effectively intervene at an early age with such behavior. Reportedly, an organization called Psychologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PSYETA) recommends that “children who abuse animals be referred for appropriate treatment, inasmuch as this is not a benign stage of growing up but rather a sign of emotional illness” (Lockwood & Hodge, 1986).

Typically, humane organizations have attempted to prevent cruelty to animals by teaching basic concepts of animal care and welfare to children in grade-school classrooms  (Loar, 1999). However, efficacy of these programs has not been sufficiently studied (Loar, 1999).

A new intervention approach has been developed by a researcher affiliated with PSYETA (Brian Jory), based on techniques used to treat batterers (Randour, 1999). Called AniCare, this cognitive–behavioral intervention approach emphasizes “the client's need to acknowledge accountability for his or her behavior” (Randour, 1999, p. 1). Seven concepts are addressed with all animal abuse perpetrators via homework assignments and in-session discussions, including “accountability, respect/freedom, reciprocity, accommodation, empathy, attachment, and nurturance” (Randour, 1999, p. 2). Currently, the approach is being tested only with adult perpetrators of animal cruelty. To date, no known research is available regarding the intervention's efficacy.

In a similar vein, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has developed the Animal Cruelty Intervention program, a psychoeducational approach to treating adult animal abusers based on a domestic violence model  (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 1997). Offenders are placed on probation and required to attend 12 weekly meetings, in which “the perpetrator [is taught to] take responsibility for his or her actions, and commit to a permanent alteration in those behaviors that lead to harm against animals” (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 1997, p. 12). As it is a condition of probation, failure to follow the Animal Cruelty Intervention program results in a probation violation and possible prison time. Currently, the program is available only in New York City. In addition, there is no known data available regarding the program's efficacy.

Finally, one study has been conducted in the related area of developing empathy  (Ascione, 1992). Ascione (1992) conducted a yearlong education program with a sample of typically developing, low-risk community children on the humane treatment of animals and found that the results did generalize to human-directed empathy. 

5. Future research

As repeatedly noted in this review, the relationship “between childhood cruelty to animals and both concurrent and future violent behavior has received limited attention in research literature” (Ascione et al., 1997), despite the clinical indicators suggesting that such research is needed. Several areas are greatly in need of further study. First and foremost, a clear and consensual definition of animal cruelty is needed. Some researchers might consider animal cruelty to encompass behaviors such as pulling wings off of flies, whereas others might only consider cruel acts done to sentient creatures to be examples of animal cruelty (Ascione, 1993). Once such a definition is determined, a quick and simple self-report questionnaire may be developed that will help in documenting the prevalence of such behavior.

Further studies then need to be carried out to assess developmental progression of such behavior. It is likely that abusive acts toward animals perpetrated by an infant or toddler may be due to poor motor control (Ascione et al., 2000). In addition, small children may “go through a stage of ‘innocent cruelty’ during which they may hurt insects or other small creatures in the process of exploring their world” (Doris Day Animal Foundation, 1997). However, it is unclear when in the development of a child such behavior becomes problematic and indicative or more than poor motor skills.

Finally, once a clear picture has been obtained regarding prevalence and developmental progression, studies should be done to intervene with cruelty behaviors. Primary prevention programs should also be developed. Ascione and colleagues suggest that future animal cruelty intervention or prevention attempts could be modeled on techniques for treating firesetting behavior (Ascione et al., 2000). In addition, new intervention approaches based on treatment of batterers (e.g., AniCare, ASPCA's Animal Cruelty Intervention) may hold some promise (Randour, 1999). Finally, intervention with childhood cruelty to animals may be modeled after existing family therapy programs, wherein the entire family system is involved in treatment (F.R. Ascione, personal communication, April 12, 2000). Results of studies investigating these promising interventions with childhood animal cruelty should help in the overall treatment of CD and also will help to prevent future interpersonal violence from occurring. 

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 Corresponding Author Contact Information Correspondence should be addressed to Catherine Miller, School of Professional Psychology, Pacific University, 2004 Pacific Avenue, Forest Grove, OR 97116-2328, USA. Phone: (503) 359-2114; fax: (503) 359-2134; email: Esta dirección de correo electrónico está siendo protegida contra los robots de spam. Necesita tener JavaScript habilitado para poder verlo.

Clinical Psychology Review
Volume 21, Issue 5, July 2001, Pages 735-749