Animal Cruelty and Interpersonal Violence-Veterinary Surgeons Board of South Australia

Escrito por Nuria Querol i Viñas.


The issue is certainly not a new one, with philosophers from as early as the 17th century recognizing a link between cruelty towards animals and violence towards humans. Following a surge of interest in the 19th century the subject fell out of favour and was largely ignored until very recently. However, an increasing number of scientific articles and books have been published since the 1980s, and the subject is now well established as a valid field of research.

Veterinary Surgeons Board of South Australia

Animal Cruelty and  Interpersonal Violence

On July the 21st 2004 I attended a seminar looking at links between the abuse of animals and violence towards humans. The seminar was sponsored by Delta Society in conjunction with RSPCA Qld, the Animal Welfare League NSW, the Veterinary Science Foundation of the University of Sydney, the Australian Psychological Society, Menzies Inc. the Centre for Domestic and Family Research (CQU), Hi Perform Veterinary Products, and the Australian Veterinary Association. People from a wide range of backgrounds attended, including animal welfarists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, domestic-violence workers, veterinarians, criminologists, police, and RSPCA cruelty inspectors.

The main speaker for the day was a visiting American researcher and world-leader in this field, Professor Frank Ascione. Professor Ascione was supported by Australian researchers Dr John Clarke, Associate Professor Eleonora Gullone and Dr Peter Green.

Overview of research and literature: The day started with an overview of past research into the relationships between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence. The issue is certainly not a new one, with philosophers from as early as the 17th century recognizing a link between cruelty towards animals and violence towards humans. Following a surge of interest in the 19th century the subject fell out of favour and was largely ignored until very recently. However, an increasing number of scientific articles and books have been published since the 1980s, and the subject is now well established as a valid field of research.

In order to carry out scientific research into animal cruelty and interpersonal violence it is first necessary to define what animal cruelty is. Because his research deals with human psychology, Professor Ascione favours a definition of cruelty that deals only with intentional acts. The definition of animal abuse/cruelty that has been generally adopted for research in this field is: "socially unacceptable behaviour that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or the death of an animal". This is a fairly conservative definition and means that some acts that would generally be considered cruel are excluded from these studies.

So how big is the problem? This is a very difficult question to answer. Because child abuse must, by law, be reported we have some idea how big a problem it is and can monitor changes over time. But, it is not mandatory to report suspected cases of animal cruelty so we have very little idea how common it is or how things are changing. Another complication is that the laws defining cruelty vary from state to state in countries such as the USA and Australia, and also vary substantially between countries (especially given differences in cultural beliefs regarding what is or is not acceptable behaviour). There are also some widespread stereotypes regarding animal cruelty that may or may not be true. For example, one of the most widespread beliefs about animal cruelty is that serial killers are cruel to animals from an early age and begin by killing animals before moving on to human victims. Studies have found that 30-50% of serial killers confess to having abused animals, a substantially higher percentage than non-violent criminals. Nevertheless, the same figure means that more that half of the serial killers interviewed have not abused animals (or do not admit to it). Importantly, research shows that it is not only extreme kinds of violent crime that are associated with animal cruelty. An increasing number of studies have found a strong link between domestic violence and cruelty to animals (more on this below).

Why does cruelty towards animals matter? Firstly, cruelty is itself unacceptable, modern society does not accept the victimization of those who are vulnerable. Secondly, research has shown that people who abuse animals are more likely to be involved in a range of criminal activities. Thirdly, animal cruelty has been linked to a variety of psychological problems including fire-setting, anti-social behaviour and substance abuse. Fourthly, animal abuse is associated with the physical and sexual abuse of children.

Links between animal cruelty and other crime in NSW: John Clarke is a psychologist and criminal profiler with the NSW police department. On their behalf he has been investigating links between animal cruelty offences and other types of crime. The major difficulty that he has faced in this work is that not enough cases of animal cruelty are being recorded on the NSW police database system. In part this is because not all cruelty cases are reported to the NSW police (many are handled by the RSPCA) but in some cases it is because criminals are preferentially charged with offences that will attract the maximum penalty and only this charge appears on the system. Sadly, animal cruelty prosecutions are seldom successful; in the period from January 1996 to December 2000 only 3% of animal cruelty prosecutions resulted in a prison sentence, and 80% of these sentences were for less that four months. While 75% of prosecutions did attract a fine, 98% of these were less that $1,000.

Despite failings with the way animal cruelty cases are recorded and prosecuted, the NSW police are increasingly concerned about the links between animal cruelty and other crimes. Even if an offender is primarily wanted for another crime a record of animal cruelty allegations and/or prosecutions may help in narrowing down a list of suspects, or may serve as a reason to hold a suspect while evidence of other illegal activities is gathered.

Dr Clarke discussed a series of case studies where criminals had a known history of animal cruelty. One interesting finding that came out of this research is that contrary to popular opinion, violent criminals do not transfer their activities from animals to people. Even though they may start out committing acts of cruelty towards animals before moving on to humans, they continue to commit acts of animal cruelty even after they have started to attack humans as well. So, pursuing people guilty of animal cruelty will not just catch people before they commit violent crimes against other people, it may catch people who are already committing those sorts of crimes. Apart from violent crimes against humans, people who commit acts of cruelty towards animals were also found to be more likely to commit other impulsive crimes, to have problems with substance abuse, and to have links with organized crime groups. On average, people charged with animal cruelty offences had a further 4 offences recorded on their criminal record.

Overall, because it reflects charges laid, the NSW police database can be said to reflect the ease of resolution of a crime - crimes for which it is easy to gather evidence and achieve a prosecution are over-represented. Because the database is so skewed, it is very difficult to properly investigate the links between different types of crime. To help remedy this situation Dr Clarke would like to see the mandatory reporting of suspected animal cruelty cases (as is the case with child abuse).

Assessment: Some people who are abused themselves take to harming animals, while others turn to animals for emotional support. Other children from perfectly normal and supportive homes take to committing acts of animal cruelty and may or may not continue this behaviour into adulthood. This raises important questions about why different people react in such different ways.

In many abusive homes animal cruelty is used by the abuser as a form of emotional abuse, a means of controlling their victims. Importantly, bestiality has recently been recognized as a form of abuse, with some women forced to have sex with animals, or take part in the sexual assault of animals by abusive partners. All of this may be observed by children, placing them at risk of committing similar crimes as a form of experimentation or catharsis. Juvenile sex offenders frequently report assaults on animals prior to assaulting people. Because of the link with abuse, some legislatures (including Tennessee in the U.S.) now require psychiatric assessment of all children accused of animal cruelty, in order to determine the cause of their behaviour.

One means of assessing animal cruelty in children (as a part of psychological assessments) is to ask parents to fill in a form asking questions about their child's behaviour. The obvious problem with this approach is that children can be secretive and parents may simply be unaware of any acts of cruelty that their child has committed. Research from the U.S. using this kind of reporting found that approximately 5% of normal children will have committed acts of animal cruelty in the past two months (in many cases as a part of the experimentation that is part of growing up), in contrast with 20-35% of boys and 5-17% of girls referred for assessment by mental health clinics. However, a Canadian study found that where parents reported that 2% of their children committed acts of cruelty towards animals, 10% of the children themselves reported that they had in fact been cruel to animals, so the real incidence of cruelty in the U.S. study is likely to be substantially higher that that reported above. It could be argued that children and adults may define cruelty differently, and that differences in reporting between parents and children may partly reflect this. However, studies of vandalism and arson have found the same sort of discrepancies, suggesting that parents really are unaware of the acts of cruelty that their children have committed.

Several checklists have now been developed to aid in assessing children's behaviour towards animals. One example can be found in the following publication: Guymer EC, Mellor D, Luk ES, and Pearse V (2001) The development of a screening questionnaire for childhood cruelty to animals. J. Child Psychol Psychiatry 42: 1057-1063.

More information on research into animal abuse by children is available in the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, publication "Animal Abuse and Youth Violence". This can be downloaded as a pdf document from: http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/ (search publications using ‘animal' as a keyword)

Animal Abuse and domestic violence: Studies have shown that approximately 50% of women in domestic violence shelters report that their partner has hurt or killed their pets. This compares with only 5% of women in the general population. In a study from Utah, 63% of women in shelters who reported that their animals had been abused also reported that their children had witnessed the abuse. In some cases the children were required to watch. Fifty-one percent of children in domestic violence shelters said that they tried to protect their pets. On the positive side, this protective instinct demonstrates a sense of empathy, unfortunately it may also invite attack. In some American states it is now a separate charge to commit acts of abuse in front of children. Not only is animal cruelty used as a form of psychological abuse against family members, it may be responsible for

keeping women in abusive relationships. Various studies have shown that 25-43% of women delay leaving abusive relationships out of concern for their pets. This may be exacerbated where children are involved because the women do not want to further traumatise their children by separating them from the animals they care for and that provide them with important emotional support. There is now an increasing trend for women's refuges and animal shelters to form collaborative arrangements, so that animals from abusive homes can be cared for by a shelter until the women are re-settled and able to take them again. A book titled "Safe Haven for Pets" has been written in order to give practical advice on developing these kinds of programs. It can be downloaded as a pdf file from: http://www.vachss.com/guest_dispatches/safe_havens.html.

A study of animal cruelty and domestic violence was recently carried out in Australia by Associate Professor Eleanora Gullone from Monash University. One-hundred and four women staying in Victorian refuges or outreach centers were interviewed in this study. All currently owned a pet or had owned one in the previous 12 months. When compared with women who had no history of family violence (but also owned pets), 46% of abused women reported threats of abuse against their pets (vs 6% in the normal population), 56% reported actual physical harm to their pets (vs 0% in the normal population) and 17.3 % reported that pets were killed (vs 0% in the normal population). Thirty-five percent of women delayed leaving abusive relationships out of concern fore their pets, 24% for as much as two months.

Given that this study only included deliberate physical abuse of pets, excluding reports such as; suspicious accidents, refusal of veterinary care, preventing the woman from feeding pets, not providing adequate shelter for pets, and having pets euthanased against the woman's wishes; the true rate of animal abuse within the domestic violence setting must be even higher than the figures reported above. In 29% of cases the women from Victorian shelters or outreach programs reported that their children had witnessed acts of abuse against family pets, in 29 % of cases children witnessed threats of abuse, and in 19% of cases children themselves were involved in the abuse of pets.

Where most studies have interviewed women escaping from violent relationships, one recent study from Utah interviewed men who were guilty of domestic violence. Of the 42 men interviewed, 50% admitted that they had hurt or killed pets. When only the men who had actually lived with pets were included, this figure rose to 55.3%.

Intervention programs and public policy: As awareness of the links between animal cruelty and other violent behaviours has grown, there has been an increased interest in prevention programs. For example; the American Psychiatric and Paediatric Associations' publication "Violence Prevention for Families of Young Children" recognises the importance of pets, while the "AniCare Model of Treatment for Animal Abuse" documents how to respond to animal abuse. Of course, where prevention and treatment programs are implemented, it is also essential to assess how well they are actually working. Importantly, improvements need to occur outside of the training environment, not just within it. For example; as assessment of Delta Society's DogSafe program demonstrated that not only do children educated using this program perform well on a written test, they also behave more responsibly around dogs and are more likely to correctly interpret dogs' behaviour. That is, the program remains effective outside the training environment.

Another aspect of prevention that has been improving in recent years is the formation of alliances between animal and child welfare organizations. In the U.S., the Humane Society has both animal and child-welfare roles, in the U.K., the RSPCA and NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) collaborate to the extent that if one organisation is called in they will look for evidence of the other kind of abuse and notify the other organisation as appropriate.

Mandatory reporting of suspected animal abuse: Both Professor Ascione and Dr John Clarke argued strongly during their presentations for mandatory reporting of suspected cases of animal abuse (as is the case for suspected child abuse) by veterinarians. Peter Green, an Australian vet presented the results of a survey that he carried out in order to assess the attitudes of Australian vets towards mandatory reporting. Using a questionnaire Dr Green asked Australian vets to define abuse, to describe the types of injuries they had seen in their own practice, to consider whether they believed there was a link with human abuse in the cases of suspected animal abuse that they saw, and to answer questions regarding what they feel they should do about suspected cases of animal and/or human abuse.

The response rate to the questionnaire was fairly low, only 28.5%, however the 185 vets who took part in the study represented a good cross-section in terms of age, gender, practice-type and practice location. Overall, the vets divided abuse into two main categories; deliberate harm and acts of omission. These categories could be further divided into forms of physical vs mental abuse. The average rate of suspected abuse seen in Australian veterinary practices was 0.12%. The rate of suspected abuse in different animals closely mirrored actual ownership rates, suggesting that access to an animal is more important in determining abuse than prejudice against individual species (ie cats were not targeted more often than dogs or other species).

In 5.8% of cases where animal abuse was suspected, human abuse was known to be occurring, and in a further 17.8% of cases of suspected animal abuse, human abuse was also suspected. In 53.8% of cases of known or suspected human abuse the target of the abuse was a spouse, in 15.4% of cases it was a child. When asked how they should deal with cases of suspected abuse, 36.8% of vets said that severe cases should be reported, 40% said that all cases should be reported, 42.2% said that counselling should be provided, 58.4% said that the client should be questioned about the suspected abuse, and 3.8% said they should do nothing. When asked if vets have a moral responsibility to intervene where they suspect animal abuse, 96.1% answered yes.

Having established that many vets do feel a moral responsibility to respond in some way to suspected cases of animal welfare, the difficulty is to determine the best way to do this: Who should vets call? Will police take allegations of cruelty seriously? What about confidentiality? Will people change to another vet or refuse their animals necessary treatment if they suspect that they may be reported? These issues need to be addressed before any real progress can be made.

Where to now? The day ended with a question and answer session that raised some important issues for consideration.

Q: How do we improve sentencing outcomes for animal cruelty crimes?
A: Australian magistrates have regular meetings so there is some scope for lobbying at this level. At a state level people can write to the chief magistrate within their state/territory.

Q: Is prejudice against specific species a foundation for abuse?
A: Yes, people do sometimes justify cruelty against particular animals because of their hatred for (and objectification of) that species.

Q: What about people with mental health problems, who may have poor impulse control? A: This is a recognized problem. People sometimes accidentally kill or harm pets through inappropriate behaviour.

Q: Is there a link between animal abuse and military service?
A: More research is needed. There are programs/practices in use as a part of military training that are designed to make people more likely to kill living creatures but it is uncertain how far this should be generalised.

Q: Why isn't there more information on the links between people who marginalise other groups (racists, homophobes, misogynists, etc) and animal abuse?
A: The research simply hasn't been done.

Q: Is there any research following up on the outcome for pets of women who go to women's refuges?
A: No, the research hasn't been done but anecdotal evidence suggests that these animals are at high risk of harm.

Q: Are there ethnic differences in the rate of animal abuse?
A: Different cultural groups have different opinions regarding what's acceptable in the treatment of animals. To give an extreme example, some American religious groups legally practice animal sacrifice.

Q: Where to from here?
A: Get research to the right people, do more research, improve collaboration between organizations. Ian Lynden states that AWAC wishes to pursue this issue in NSW. I announced that RSPCA Australia fund the Alan White scholarship and applications are open to all students attending Australian tertiary institutions. The AVA announced that they also grant funds through their animal welfare trust. Vets from NSW were encouraged to contact the Domestic Violence Hotline (1800 65 64 63) where they suspect cases of abuse.

Miranda Sherley
Research Assistant
RSPCA Australia