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The Cycles of Abuse

The authors of this article, Professor Eleonora Gullone is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Monash University, Australia, a Fellow of the Oxford Center for Animal Ethics, a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society, a Fellow of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, USA; Professor Barbara Boat, is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, the Director of the Program on Childhood Trauma and Maltreatment,  the Executive Director of the Childhood Trust at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, a Member of the Steering Committee at the National Link Coalition; and Malcolm Plant BSc, BA (Hons), MSc, Dipl. Psych, MBPsS  is the Initiator of the 'Making the Link' Study and Intervention Project, an Associate of Teesside University (UK) and one of the editors of the book 'The Invisible Rape of Europe'.


Breaking the Cycles of Abuse


Research shows that animal cruelty shares many of the aetiological pathways and risk factors of other aggressive and antisocial behaviours. The shared aetiology aids understanding of the co-occurrence that has been documented between animal cruelty and other antisocial crimes. 

This article reviews current understandings about the development of antisocial behaviours. From the later childhood years onward, animal cruelty and other antisocial behaviours are indicators of non-normative development. Early detection of such behaviours can provide a valuable opportunity to engage in preventative and intervention strategies including sanctions where appropriate. Previous research has been conducted in environments where animal abuse is ‘socially unacceptable’, we will identify an environment where animal abuse is ‘socially acceptable’ and explore the ramifications of instead of isolated individuals abusing, such abuse is exhibited across a nation. Orders of magnitude different to anything previously explored and of a scope and effect previously unseen in any European society.

The jury is no longer out on the question about animal abuse being connected to abuse against persons. A vast body of research now exists. These findings have supported the introduction of ‘LINK‘ groups where professionals address incidents of serious animal abuse as being deemed indicative of ‘at risk‘ individuals and families and interventions are introduced. Those who are cruel to animals are more likely to engage in a range of abusive behaviours including adult violence, elder abuse, child abuse etc... Numerous examples are identified where murderers exhibited a history of severe animal abuse. Mullen P. (1996); PETA (2003); Neustatter, A (1998); Ascione, FR (1999); Lockwood R & Hodge, GH (1998); Wright, J & Hensley, C (2003).

From Levin, J and Arluke, A in 'The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence' ed Andrew Linzey:

"Inflicting injury, suffering or death on an animal, absent of provocation or hostility, gives an individual tremendous psychological pleasure, the malicious youngster rehearses his sadistic attacks - perhaps on animals, perhaps on other people, perhaps on both - and continues into his adult years to perpetrate the same sorts of sadistic acts on human beings. His attacks on animals are serious and personal. He chooses 'socially valued or culturally humanized animals - for example dogs and cats - against which to carry out his sadistic aims but he is likely to repeat his abusive behaviour on a variety of animals. If he later finds a socially acceptable means of compensating for his sense of powerlessness, then he might very well escape the grip of violence perpetrated against humans. If not, his early experience with animal cruelty may become a training ground for later committing assaults, rape, and even murder."

Central to the concept of  ‘society’ is its inter-connectedness. All elements and facets are interwoven and impact upon each other. Within a society, nothing is exclusive. Increasingly, homogeneity is deemed desirable and inter-connectedness having international impact.

Risk Factors for the Development of Animal Cruelty

Research shows that animal cruelty shares many of the aetiological pathways and risk factors that have been shown for other aggressive behaviours. The shared aetiology not only aids understanding of the co-occurrence that has been documented between animal cruelty and other aggressive and antisocial crimes (Gullone, 2012), it also highlights the dangers over and above those to animals that are lurking where animal cruelty offenders remain unidentified and their crimes remain unsanctioned.

Prior to discussing the risk factors that predict the development of animal cruelty, definitions of the constructs that are central to this review will be discussed. Of particular note is the conceptualisation that has evolved over the past decade that aggressive behaviours mostly occur within the context of other antisocial behaviours including: lying, stealing, destruction of property, burglary, sexual assault and other violent crimes (Hartup, 2005). Significant co-occurrence has been noted between aggressive behaviour, most notably physical aggression and other forms of antisocial behaviour. Much empirical work (e.g., Farrington, 1991), has shown that “the frequency and variety of antisocial acts are the best predictors of more serious forms of antisocial behaviour, including violence.” (Dishion, French, & Patterson, 2005; p. 422).

Thus, animal cruelty and other aggressive behaviours are specific forms of antisocial behaviours that have been shown to co-occur along with other forms of antisocial behaviours. However, other antisocial behaviours can primarily be differentiated from human aggression and animal cruelty behaviours on the basis that these latter behaviours have as their fundamental motivation the deliberate intention to cause harm or injury to other sentient beings. This is clearly indicated in the definitions below.

Defining Human Aggression

According to Dodge, Coie, and Lynam (2006), aggression can be defined as behaviour that aims to harm or injure another or others. Similar definitions have been put forth by others. For example, Anderson (2002) has defined aggression as behaviour performed by a person (the aggressor) with the immediate intention of harming another person (the victim). The perpetrator (aggressor) must believe that the behaviour will harm the victim and that the victim is motivated to avoid that intended harm.

Defining Animal Cruelty

Animal definitions, not surprisingly, share many of the features that are common to definitions of aggression toward humans. Summarizing the different views on animal cruelty, Dadds, Turner, and McAloon (2002) noted that most definitions include a behavioural dimension that can include acts of omission (e.g., neglect) or acts of commission (e.g., beating) (c.f. Brown, 1988). Another key characteristic is indication that the behaviour occurred purposely, that is, with deliberateness and without ignorance. An additional definitional criterion is that the behaviour brings about physical and/or psychological harm. Incorporating these definitional criteria, Dadds (2008) defined animal cruelty as a repetitive and proactive behaviour (or pattern of behaviour) intended to cause harm to sentient creatures.

Gullone (2012) has elaborated further upon Dadds’ definition. According to Gullone, animal cruelty can be defined as:

behaviour performed repetitively and proactively by an individual with the deliberate intention of causing harm (i.e. pain, suffering, distress and/or death) to an animal with the understanding that the animal is motivated to avoid that harm. Included in this definition are both physical harm and psychological harm.

Given shared manifestations as reflected in their definitions, it is not at all surprising that animal cruelty and aggressive behaviours should share risk factors and aetiological pathways of development.

Individuals presenting abusive behaviour contrast with the prevailing norms of the society in which they live. All previous research has been conducted in such environments. There are however environments in which abuse is a societal norm encouraged by controlling authorities. It will be presented here of one such environment. Romania in Eastern Europe suggests a society where abuse is extensive and encouraged. We will define the rationale and framework of a society in which animal abuse is ‘socially acceptable ‘ and explore the potential ramifications.

One of the pioneers of research into the connection between animal abuse and inter-human abuse and aggression, defined animal abuse as ‘non-accidental, socially unacceptable behaviour that results in harm to and/or death of a non-human animal (Ascione  2009). Subsequent research has produced a vast body of data identifying that those who abuse animals are also likely to engage in aggression patterns against humans. These findings are now being utilised by major bodies including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Government of the United States of America. Research in other societies where animal abuse is NOT an accepted social norm, has provided supportive results, identifying perpetrators as being more liable to engage in aggressive practices including rape and even serial murder.

The essential factor is that an individual exhibits practices which contrast with the societal ethos in which animal abuse is ‘socially unacceptable’.

What then would be the ramifications if there were a society where animal abuse was ‘socially acceptable’? Instead of individual abuse of animals correlating with inter-human aggression and antisocial tendencies, what implications if a whole society sanctioned such abuse?

In 2013 the Romanian Government, in order to address the number of homeless animals, with Government figures claiming up to 3 million, introduced Law 258/2013 which legalised the ‘eradication’ of these animals. Animals would be captured, held in shelters and ‘euthanised’ after 14 days. Law 9/2008 which is prescriptive of animal welfare conditions and legal penalties for non-compliance, is never exercised.

The 'Making the Link' Study currently being conducted in Romania, has provided initial interim results suggesting significant domestic violence and sexual abuse in the homes of children aged less than 16.  A significant number of psychometric measures had ALL items scored on the lowest value. It is believed that the sensitivity of the domain of investigation may have resulted in a reluctance for some children to declare such abuse within their homes. If significant numbers of children withheld such identification, the percentages of each of the items represented in the charts below, could be much higher.

UNICEF has identified similar levels of abuse and aggression in schools. Many parents in Romania employ corporal punishment. Violence in schools, by both teachers and other children, is high by world standards, and schools are also the scene of sexual abuse and drugs (UNICEF).

In the 2010 Eurobarometer poll on violence against women [8], 


  • 39% of Romanian respondents said that they thought domestic violence in their country was "very common", 

  • 45% "fairly common",

  • 8% "not very common", 

  • 0% "not at all common", 

  • and 8% did not know/did not answer.

Victim blaming attitudes are common in Romania. In a 2013 Romanian survey, 30.9% of respondents agreed with the assertion that "women are sometimes beaten due to their own fault".[9] In the Eurobarometer survey, 58% of Romanians agreed that the "provocative behaviour of women" was a cause of violence against women.[8]

The 'Making the Link' Study Project was created in collaboration with University of Teesside, UK, and University of Denver, USA, to evidence how positive change could be brought to a society by addressing the results of the unique phenomenon of the extensive numbers of homeless animals and their impact on people and society. This is a phenomenon which exists in various regions of Europe but is endemic in Romania and which uniquely has a government legitimized stray animal ‘eradication’ policy. No study has previously been conducted in such environments, and consequently impact on individual and societal health has not previously been explored.

It was found that in Bistrita, 86,3% of the children who had witnessed animal abuse in public. 65% claimed to have been emotionally affected by the experience. Such abuse has been identified as poisoning, hanging and mutilation of homeless animals. This provides a direct contrast to western societies where almost 50% of dog owners considered their pets to be ‘members of the family’ [21]. A survey of psychologists who practice as therapists in the USA, indicated that the overwhelming majority (87%) considered animal abuse to be a mental health issue [14]. Children (10%) who admitted to abusing animals also correlated with aggression against people and property. They identified a predilection for committing theft but also displayed reduced empathy and suicidal tendencies. Extrapolation of the study numbers over a societal time-frame of 40 years would suggest around 4,000 individuals in a typical Romanian city with a population of 60,000, exhibiting such aggressive, crime-oriented tendencies. 

Phase 1 Animal abuser profile correlations:

Contemplating suicide (r=.213 p<0.01)

  • Aggression (e.g. N=168), fighting (r= .202 p<.001), physically attacking people (r= .277, p< 0.01), hot temper (r= .224 p<0.01)

  • Destruction of own and other's property - Own property (r=.214 p<0.01) - Other's property (r= .350 p< 0.001)

  • Mood swings (r= .162 P<0.01)

  • Arson (r= .208 P<0.01 )

  • Theft (r= .269 P<0.01)

  • Thoughts that others would think were strange ( r= .221 P<0.01)

  • Think about sex too much (r= .271 P<0.01)

  • Dishonesty (r = -.236 P <0.01)

  • Get into many fights (r = .202 P<0.01)

Phase 2 correlations with ‘Contemplating Suicide’:

Although we are seeing some disparities between Rural and Urban and operating on a limited data set (N=60), taking correlations for ' Suicidal thoughts' in an Urban environment :

  • I am cruel to animals r=.662 p < 0.01,

  • Mums Partner hurts her body r=.529 p<0.01,

  • Threatens her with an object such as knife or gun r=.566 p< 0.01, 

  • When he hurts my mum I have called for help r=.413 p<0.05,

  • I worry about my mum's partner being drunk r=.571 p<0.01,

  • An adult in the family has physically attacked me r=.736 p<0.01,

  • Someone in my family has sexually abused me r=.406 p<0.05,

  • I try to hurt or kill myself r=.485 p<0.01,

  • I destroy things belonging to others r=.483 p<0.01,

  • I'm afraid of school r=.413 p<0.05, 

  • I feel worthless r= .381 p<0.05,

  • I hear voices r=.411 p<0.05,

  • I start fires r=.662 p<0.01,

  • I steal things at home r=.662 p<0.01,

  • I have mood swings r=.422 p<0.05,

  • I have a hot temper r=.498 p<0.01,

  • I use drugs other than for medication ( excluding tobacco and alcohol) r=.662 p<0.01

          (Items abbreviated for brevity)

Not only does perpetration psychologically affect the perpetrator, but witnessing abuse also affects those who witness. The study has explored  the implications for a society which is ‘different’ from the majority of North American and European societies where animal abuse is not ‘socially acceptable’. In such societies, individuals who abuse, contrast with the norms of their society. Individuals. What are the implications then if abuse is socially acceptable with diminished status, authority encouraged with potential aggression satisfying victims available on every street corner? Aggression enhancement facilities available throughout the country. This is further exacerbated by the Romanian Government stray animal control strategy of ‘eradication’. This legitimises the capture and killing after 14 days of all stray animals unless adopted. Existing Animal Welfare Laws prescribing punitive responses to animal abuse are NOT enacted. Defined legal conditions for animal shelters are patently ignored. An Animal Police force, created in theory, still awaits enactment. Passive legitimisation and encouragement of the ‘social acceptability’ of animal abuse.

Risk Factors for the Development of Animal Cruelty

Consistent with the broader literature on aggressive and other antisocial behaviour, empirical studies examining factors that are predictive of animal cruelty include a number of constitutional or biological risk factors and individual difference risk factors. Being male has been a consistently demonstrated risk factor across the developmental spectrum (Arluke & Luke, 1997; Coston & Protz, 1998). Age is another important constitutional variable (Arluke & Luke, 1997; Gullone & Clarke, 2008). Environmental factors have also been shown to be important. These factors include micro-environments that can also be referred to as proximal environments such as the child’s family and parenting experiences (e.g., Kellert & Felthous, 1985; Rigdon & Tapia, 1977; Tapia, 1971). Also included are macro-environments which are considered to be more distal environments such as cultural attitudes and norms (Flynn, 1999a).

In his recent review, Flynn (2011) (p. 455) listed what he considers to be the leading predictive factors of children’s animal cruelty. These include “ 

a) being a victim of physical or sexual abuse,
b) witnessing violence between one’s parents, 
c) witnessing parents or peers harm animals.

Other predictors of animal cruelty that Flynn included were the experiences of being bullied or the behaviour of bullying. The research examining the proposed risk factors for the development of animal cruelty behaviours will be reviewed below beginning with biological and maturational variables.

Temperamental Predisposition

Differences in temperament (defined as an internal disposition that influences relatively stable styles of behaving over time and across situations; Schwartz, Wright, Shin, Kagan, & Rauch, 2003) have been reported to be important predictors. It is noteworthy that biological predispositions are just that – predispositions. It is their interaction with environmental factors (such as family and parenting experiences – to be reviewed in the next section) that is of most significance in understanding their aetiological role.

One particularly relevant constellation of temperamental predispositions is referred to as callous-unemotional traits. In particular, experiences of abuse or neglect in childhood interfere with otherwise normative development. Such childhood experiences have been shown to serve as incubators of callous-unemotional trait development in predisposed individuals (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002).

Individuals characterised by callous-unemotional traits lack a sense of guilt and empathy, and callously use others for their own gain (Frick & White, 2008). Research with antisocial youth has shown that callous-unemotional traits are predictive of a higher severity, and stability of aggressive and antisocial behaviour (Frick & Dickens, 2006). Youth who present with callous-unemotional traits tend to be less responsive to cues of punishment but rather tend toward a reward-dominant style. This contrasts with antisocial youth without callous-unemotional traits who tend to show less aggressive behaviour and whose behaviour tends to be reactive rather than proactive (Frick and Dickens, 2006).

Sex Differences

A second important factor shown to be an important risk factor for animal cruelty is sex (and gender). Consistent with the broader antisocial behaviour literature showing that there are marked sex differences with the males outnumbering females on aggressive tendencies by a ratio of around 10 to 1 (Loeber & Hay, 1997), research has shown that males are more likely to be cruel to animals. This is true for childhood (e.g., Baldry, 2005), adolescence (Thompson & Gullone, 2006), and adulthood (Gullone & Clarke, 2008). Of note, Flynn (1999a; 1999b) found that not only were males more likely to commit animal cruelty, they were also more likely to witness it.

Investigating a childhood community sample involving 268 girls and 264 boys (aged 9 to 12 years), Baldry (2005) found that 35.9 percent of girls reported abusing animals compared with 45.7 percent of boys. The investigation by Thompson and Gullone (2006) involving 281 adolescents aged between 12 and 18 years, found that males scored significantly higher than females on two different self-report animal cruelty questionnaires. In their study, Gullone and Robertson (2008) also found that boys scored higher on measures of animal cruelty compared to girls.

Studies examining animal cruelty in adults have also found a higher prevalence amongst men compared to women. For example, in an investigation of all animal cruelty cases prosecuted in Massachusetts between 1975 and 1996, Arluke and Luke (1997) found that approximately 97% of the perpetrators were male. Similarly, in Gullone and Clarke’s (2008) report of Australian data for all recorded offences in Victoria for the years spanning 1994 to 2001, when broken down by age and sex, the data showed that across crime categories including animal cruelty, offenders were characteristically male. Males were also found to be over-represented across all age categories but most particularly between the ages of 18 and 35 years indicating the importance of maturational period or age.

Age Differences

As has been found for other forms of violence, late adolescence and early adulthood are the ages that are most typical for perpetrating animal cruelty for males and females, albeit with a markedly higher prevalence in males. For example, Arluke and Luke (1997) reported that the average age for committing animal cruelty was 30 years. They also found that just over one quarter of the offenders were adolescents and more than half (56%) were under 30 years. In their Australian study, Gullone and Clarke (2008) reported consistent findings in their examination of all recorded offences in the state of Victoria during the years between 1994 and 2001. In addition to being male, most offenders for all offences including animal cruelty, offences against the person, offences against property, and drug offences were aged between 18 and 35 years. When looking only at animal cruelty offences, there was a peak between 18 and 25 years.

In a study of 28 convicted and incarcerated male sexual homicide perpetrators, Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988) found that prevalence of cruelty to animals was 36% in childhood and 46% in adolescence. Of note, in their study, Arluke and Luke (1997) also found differences depending on age, in the type of animal abused. Adults were more likely to be cruel to dogs whilst adolescents were more likely to kill cats. The type of cruelty also differed with shooting animals being more characteristic of adult animal cruelty and beating being more characteristic of adolescent cruelty.

The finding that there are age differences in the propensity to be cruel to animals is not surprising given the profound differences that are associated with different developmental milestones. Not only does physical strength increase as children mature, cognitive functioning and emotion regulation also develop. Emotion regulation involves processes that enable us to be aware of our emotions as well as processes that enable us to monitor, evaluate and change our emotions in order to achieve our goals in a manner that is appropriate for the particular situation. In addition to the maturation of cognitive and emotion processes with age, environmental experiences will vary in their intensity of impact depending on developmental stage, as has been shown for the witnessing of cruelty. This will be discussed in the next section.

Witnessing of Violence and Animal Cruelty

Research has consistently demonstrated the importance of witnessing aggression for the development of aggressive behaviour (e.g., Cummings, 1987; Davies, Myers, Cummings, & Heindel, 1999; Margolin & Gordis, 2000; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002). A number of studies investigating the relationship between animal cruelty and family violence have also examined children’s witnessing of animal cruelty and children’s engagement in animal cruelty. These studies have shown that between 29% and 75% of children in violent families have witnessed the animal cruelty and between 10% and 57% have engaged in animal cruelty. Parental reports of animal cruelty in normative samples of children (children who do not come from violent homes) are typically around 10% or lower (Ascione et al., 2007).

In her 2005 study, Baldry found that youth who witnessed violence between family members, or who witnessed harm to animals, were three times more likely to be cruel to animals compared to peers without such experiences. Currie (2006) also reported a significant relationship between the witnessing of aggressive behaviour (domestic violence) and animal cruelty via parent-report. Mothers’ reports regarding their children’s animal cruelty were compared for a group of 94 children (47 mothers) with a history of domestic violence and 90 children (45 mothers) without a history of domestic violence. According to the mother reports, exposed children were more likely to be cruel to animals compared to children who had not been exposed to violence. Additional support for this relationship was reported by DeGue and DiLillo (2009) who found that those participants who had witnessed animal cruelty were eight times more likely than those who had not, to perpetrate animal cruelty.

In research specifically examining the relationship between children’s aggressive behaviours and their witnessing of domestic violence, Baldry (2003) found that children who engaged in bullying behaviours were 1.8 times more likely to have been exposed to domestic violence than those who were not. Similarly, in their study of 281 (113 males; 168 females) school-based adolescents ranging in age between 12 and 18 years, Thompson and Gullone (2006) found that those who reported witnessing animal cruelty on at least one occasion also reported significantly higher levels of animal cruelty, compared to youth who did not witness animal cruelty. Particularly noteworthy is Thompson and Gullone’s finding that witnessing a stranger abusing an animal predicted lower levels of animal cruelty. This contrasted with the finding that witnessing animal cruelty by a friend, relative, parent, or sibling predicted higher levels of cruelty.

Hensley and Tallichet (2005) reported similar findings to those of Thompson and Gullone. They not only found that inmates who reported witnessing animal cruelty were more likely to frequently be cruel to animals but also that those who witnessed a family member or a friend hurt or kill animals were more likely to commit animal cruelty with even greater frequency. The findings of these studies are consistent with Bandura’s vicarious learning theory (1983) which proposes that observation of behaviour is more likely to lead to performance of the observed behaviour if the model has a meaningful relationship with the observer, or in other words if the model is a significant other. Also, consistent with Henry’s (2004a) findings, it is noteworthy that those who were younger when they first witnessed someone hurt or kill animals were more likely to commit animal cruelty more frequently.

Further indicating the important aetiological role of witnessing cruelty is the study by Gullone and Robertson (2008) in which the possible pathways of acquisition for bullying and for animal cruelty behaviours were investigated. It was found that each type of behaviour was significantly predicted by the witnessing of animal cruelty. Thus, this study supports the co-existence of animal directed aggression and human directed aggression in youth. As with Baldry’s (2005) results, it also further demonstrates the importance of observational learning (Bandura, 1978). In this case the observation of animal cruelty, as a pathway for the development of different aggressive behaviours was demonstrated.

Others (e.g., Flynn, 1999b; 2000; Henry, 2004b; Hensley & Tallichet, 2005) have examined this relationship by asking undergraduate students or imprisoned males about their childhood experiences and behaviours. A study by Henry (2004a) involved 169 university students who were asked about exposure to, and perpetration of, animal cruelty. Results indicated that animal cruelty was witnessed on at least one occasion by 50.9% of participants. Also, the witnessing of animal cruelty before the age of 13 years age was associated with higher perpetration rates (32%) compared to the witnessing of animal cruelty at 13 years or later (11.5%).

Witnessing significant others such as parents abusing animals has been demonstrated to play a large role in attitude formation for the child, contributing to the development of beliefs that aggressive and violent behaviours are somewhat normative, thereby supporting the development of what has been, in the general aggression

literature, referred to as normative beliefs (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). As has been consistently reported in the human aggression literature, children’s beliefs about aggression are correlated with those of their parents (Huesmann, Eton, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1984) as well as those of their peers (Huesmann & Guerra, 1997).

In other research, Deviney, Dickert, and Lockwood (1983) studied 53 families who had companion animals in their home and who met New Jersey legal criteria for child abuse and neglect. They found that compared to the general population, there were higher rates of animal cruelty in families where there was substantiated child abuse or neglect. Observations during home interviews revealed that companion animals were abused or neglected in 60% of these families. When the sample was classified according to type of abuse (physical abuse - 40%; sexual abuse - 10%; neglect -58%), for an alarming 88% of

In 1977, Rigdon and Tapia conducted a follow-up study of Tapia’s (1971) study in an attempt to determine whether the presence of cruelty to animals as a significant clinical feature provides information that is of prognostic value. The original data reported in 1971 were collected between 2 and 9 years earlier. Five of the original 18 children were not able to be located for this follow-up study. The detailed case by case analysis revealed that of the 13 cases followed up, 8 were still cruel to animals as many as 9 years later. The authors concluded that “Most of these children are the products of a chaotic home situation with aggressive parents who administered harsh corporal punishment.” and that “The most effective form of therapy seemed to be removal from or a significant change in the chaotic home environment.” (p. 36).

In the earliest published investigation of the aetiology of animal cruelty by children, Tapia (1971) reported an analysis of 18 child cases of cruelty to animals selected from the clinic files of the Child Psychiatry Section of the University of Missouri’s School of Medicine. In all selected cases, cruelty to animals was either the chief complaint or one of the referring complaints. Among the cases, there was a high male prevalence. The children were of normal intelligence and young in age, spanning from 5 to 15 years with half of the cases being between 8 and 10 years. A chaotic home environment with aggressive parental models was the most common factor across the cases. On the basis of the case analysis, Tapia concluded that cruelty to animals occurs in conjunction with other hostile behaviour including bullying and fighting, lying, stealing and destructiveness, and that a chaotic home environment, together with aggressive parent models are common factors.

Risky families include overt family conflict, expressions of negative affect and low nurturance and warmth. Risky parents are cold, unsupportive or neglectful. Risky parenting and risky family environments leave children vulnerable to the development of psychological and physical disorders. It is important to emphasise the interactional role played by both environment and biology. Whilst certain biologically-based characteristics, such as temperament are predictive of development along an antisocial behaviour trajectory, children whose aggression increases as they develop, rather than following the normative decreasing pathway, may also be expressing a learnt survival behaviour for their particular circumstance. This is highlighted by research showing the intergenerational transmission of aggression such as that described below.

Across different assessment methodologies, including retrospective reporting, a significant relationship between the experiencing of abuse in childhood (mostly within the family environment) and engagement in animal cruelty has emerged. Other factors placing children at risk of developing aggressive and antisocial behaviours, including animal cruelty behaviours, are those that characterise risky families (Repetti, et al., 2002).

Family and Parenting Experiences

Of course, it is not only the witnessing of aggression and violence that contributes to the learning of behaviour and to the formation of attitudes and beliefs, the actual experiencing of behaviour is likely to contribute to learning and attitude formation even more powerfully. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that a relationship has been found between children’s experiences of abuse and neglect and their engagement in animal cruelty. The next section will review the research looking at the relationships between family and parenting experiences and children’s animal cruelty.

In sum, the above studies demonstrate the importance of witnessing animal cruelty (i.e. an aggressive behaviour) for the learning of, and engagement in, aggressive behaviour. Children who witness or directly experience violence or aggression have been documented to be more likely to develop ways of thinking and behaving that support aggression (Guerra, Huesmann, & Spindler, 2003) and a tendency to behave aggressively (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). Given that studies have consistently reported that children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to engage in acts of animal cruelty than children who have not been exposed to domestic violence (Baldry, 2005;, et al., 2004; Flynn, 2000; Hensley & Tallichet, 2005), it can be concluded that witnessing or experiencing of violence and/or aggression are important pathways for the development of these behaviours.

Whilst research has shown that witnessing significant others behave in an aggressive manner serves as a powerful pathway of acquisition, observing media violence also has a significant effect on attitudes and behaviours (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). A large and robust body of research has consistently shown that exposure to media violence predicts an increase in aggressive thoughts, desensitization to later violence exposure and reductions in physiological arousal following violence exposure. It also predicts an increased acceptance and endorsement of violent behaviour (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003; Anderson et al., 2010; Greeson & Williams, 1986; Hansen & Hansen, 1990). There is strong empirical evidence indicating that exposure to real life or media violence plays a strong role in the formation of cognitions related to aggression and violence (Flynn, 1999b), as well as the development of aggressive behaviour (e.g. Baldry, 2005; Becker, Stuewig, Herrera, McCloskey, 2004; Currie, 2006; Gullone & Roberston, 2008; Margolin & Gordis, 2000; Thompson & Gullone, 2006).families displaying physical abuse, cruelty to animals was also present. As many as two-thirds of the companion animals in these homes were abused by the fathers in the family, and one-third were abused by the children in the family.

In their work comparing criminal (aggressive versus non-aggressive) and non-criminal retrospective reports of childhood experiences and abuse behaviours, Kellert and Felthous found that domestic violence and particularly paternal abuse and alcoholism, were common factors among aggressive criminals who had a history of childhood animal cruelty (Felthous, 1980; Felthous & Kellert, 1986; Kellert & Felthous, 1985). According to Kellert and Felthous (1985), the family and childhood experiences of many of the aggressive criminals were particularly violent. The domestic violence in the families of the aggressive criminals was most strongly characterised by paternal violence. Of note, three quarters of the aggressive criminals reported repeated and excessive child abuse compared to 31% of the non-aggressive criminals and 10% of the non-criminals. Among the non-aggressive criminals and non-criminals who were cruel to animals, reports of being physically abused as children were common. As many as 75% of non-criminals who reported experiences of parental abuse also reported being cruel to animals.

In a study by Ressler, Burgess, Hartman, Douglas, and McCormack (1986), 36 convicted sexually-oriented killers were interviewed about their childhood histories. The offenders who were sexually abused in childhood or adolescence were significantly more likely than those who were not abused to report a number of aggressive behaviours including cruelty to animals, cruelty to other children, and assaultive behaviour toward adults.

In research examining the relationships between childhood experiences and animal cruelty, Miller and Knutson (1997) compared the self-reports of 314 inmates in a corrections department with those of a group of undergraduate university students. They found modest associations between animal cruelty and punitive and acrimonious childhood histories. On this basis, the authors concluded that there is an association between punitive childhood histories and antisocial behaviour.

Also based on retrospective self-reports, Flynn’s (1999b) study involved 267 undergraduate students. The results showed a relationship between corporal punishment by parents and the perpetration of animal cruelty. Those who had perpetrated animal cruelty were physically punished more frequently before their teenage years compared to those who had never been cruel to an animal. Also, more than half of male teenagers who were hit by their fathers reported perpetrating animal cruelty.

Ascione, Friedrich, Heath, and Hayashi (2003) also examined the associations between children’s cruelty to animals and physical abuse. In addition, they looked at the relationship between animal cruelty and parental physical fighting. Three groups of children (1. sexually abused group; 2. psychiatric sample with no sexual abuse; 3. control group) aged between 6 and 12 years were involved in the study. Cruelty to animals was associated with a history of abuse and the association was stronger for children who had been physically abused and those who had witnessed domestic violence.

A more recent study by Duncan, Thomas, and Miller (2005) yielded converging findings through the assessment of charts of boys (aged 8 to 17 years) with conduct problems. The children’s histories were also examined to identify the occurrence of physical child abuse, sexual child abuse, paternal alcoholism, paternal unavailability, and domestic violence. Children were grouped according to whether they had or had not been cruel to animals. It was found that children who were cruel to animals were twice more likely to have been physically and/or sexually abused or to have been exposed to domestic violence compared to children who were not cruel to animals.

In sum, these findings of research examining the relationships between childhood animal cruelty and parenting and family experiences are consistent with those from the larger literature relating to the development of antisocial behaviour. Such research, for example, has shown that within homes where there is greater family instability, more conflict, and problematic parenting strategies (i.e., physical punishment), children are more likely to develop along the trajectory of childhood-onset antisocial behaviour, also noted as being the more problematic trajectory with regard to stability of aggression and severity of aggression.

As victims of abuse, children experience a sense of powerlessness that, at a very basic level is likely to be experienced as a threat to survival. Identifying with their abuser enables a transformation from a sense of powerlessness to one of being in control (Marcus-Newhall, Pederson, Carlson, & Miller, 2000). For a child, those who are more vulnerable than oneself are likely to be small animals. Thus it is the animals who are the vulnerable others to whom aggression can be displaced.

Displacement of Aggression

Displaced aggression constitutes a form of aggression against others (human or non-human animals) who did not play a direct role in the precipitating event (Marcus-Newhall et al., 2000; Pederson, Gonzales, & Miller, 2000). Displaced aggression increases if the target of such aggression provides even a minor trigger or the slightest of provocations (e.g. a dog barking). Displaced aggression also increases if the target can be perceived to be a member of a disliked out-group (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003) or as having less social value (e.g. a non-human animal).

There are instances when animal cruelty by children constitutes the displacement of aggression from humans to animals that occurs through the child’s identification with their abuser. Indeed, displaced aggression has been included as one of the nine motivations for animal cruelty reported by Kellert and Felthous (1985).

In addition to environmental variables including family and parenting influences, research has examined the important role played by cognitive constructs in better understanding the development of antisocial and aggressive behaviours. Such constructs include knowledge structures and aggressive scripts.

Cognitive Errors, Aggressive Cues, and Exposure to Violence

Cognitive structures are proposed to develop largely as a consequence of learning experiences. It would be expected therefore that individuals who experience or observe abuse in their formative years learn aggressive behaviours, hostile perceptions, attributions, and expectation biases. They are also more likely to learn callous attitudes and processes to enable disengagement from normative empathic reactions, reactions that would otherwise serve as aggression inhibitors.

Thus, in environments that are sympathetic to antisocial behaviours, the development of aggressive scripts and normative beliefs related to aggression, is promoted. Over time, through genetic and experiential or environmental factors, individuals develop neural pathways associated with these knowledge structures and behavioural scripts. Once stored in memory, these structures and scripts influence information processing, perceptions and behaviour (Anderson, 2002; Huesmann, 1988). Processes play a role that is specifically relevant to aggressive emotion related

Knowledge Structures

Knowledge structures influence perception at multiple levels and in complex ways. They influence judgements and behaviour, and they incorporate emotions. For example, when a knowledge structure containing the emotion of anger is activated, anger will be experienced. Highlighting the broad-ranging role played by knowledge structures in everyday life, Anderson and Bushman (2002) note that knowledge structures influence the situations that an individual will seek out as well as those that they will avoid.

With increased use and over time, knowledge structures tend to become automatic in their influence and so increasingly function outside of conscious awareness (Schneider & Shiffrin, 1977; Todorov & Bargh, 2002). Also, over time knowledge structures become much more rigid and resistant to change. In relation to aggression-related knowledge structures, it is generally agreed upon that the hardening begins to take place at around ages 8 or 9 years. Another important cognitive construct is referred to as a script.

Script Theory

Script theory was proposed by Huesmann (1986). Scripts are proposed to define situations and also to guide behaviour. Once scripts have been learned, they are available for retrieval at subsequent times as guides for behaviour. Scripts have been defined as “sets of particularly well-rehearsed, highly associated concepts in memory” (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; p. 31). They involve causal links, goals and action plans. The processing of social cues is guided by scripts which are stored in memory and are the evolved representational product of experience. They influence selective attention to cues, the perception of stimuli and the consequent decisions made on the basis of those perceptions. Script theory has proven useful for explaining the generalisation of learning processes across different situations as well as the automatization of perception-judgement-decision-behavioural processes (Anderson & Bushman, 2002).

Huesmann (1988) proposed that during the early developmental years, children acquire memory scripts which influence their perception of acceptable actions and their likely consequences. Research has shown that the most accessible social scripts for both aggressive children and adults are aggressive ones (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003). When compared to non-aggressive children, aggressive children are more likely to attend to aggressive social cues (Gouze, 1987). Aggressive children are also less likely to rely on external cues but more on their own stereotypes (Dodge & Tomlin, 1987) and they are more likely to describe their social relationships using such constructs (Stromquist & Strauman, 1991).

Shedding some light on the ways in which particular experiences can influence the development of particular information processing pathways, and consequently the selective attention to particular cues, Pollak and Tolley-Schell (2003) found that physically abused children are more likely to selectively attend to angry faces and to demonstrate reduced attention to happy faces. Such children also demonstrate difficulty disengaging from angry faces. Of additional concern, it is not only children who are abused or who directly experience violence who develop beliefs and scripts that support aggression and a tendency to behave violently but also children who witness abuse or violence (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003).

In sum, cognitive constructs including knowledge structures and behavioural scripts are useful for understanding why, when compared to non-aggressive individuals, aggressive individuals are more likely to perceive hostility in situations even where there is none. This tendency, referred to as a Hostile Attribution Bias, is particularly pronounced in ambiguous situations (Anderson & Bushman, 2002; Crick & Dodge, 1994; Dodge et al., 2006). In relation to animal cruelty, aggressive children may be more likely to attribute hostile intentions to animals since cues provided by animals are often more ambiguous than those provided by humans (Dadds, 2008). Such misattribution can also explain adult aggression toward animals. Although empirical research is required to confirm such processes, they are a logical extension of the Hostile Attribution Bias findings in relation to humans.

In addition to the cognitive constructs involved in understanding the underlying processes of aggressive and antisocial behaviours, there are processes underpinned more strongly by emotions. These will be discussed below in the next section.

The Development of Empathy and Emotion Regulation

A number of behavior (Lemerise & Arsenio, 2000). Of particular relevance are the emotion-related competencies and strategies involved in regulating emotions.

From as early as one year of age, aggression, particularly peer-directed aggression, becomes evident. By the time children have begun school, their aggression levels begin to decrease. Some theorize that this decrease coincides with an increase in interpersonal skills and emotion regulation competencies including effortful control (Anderson & Huesmann, 2003; Eisenberg, Champion, & Ma, 2004; Keenan & Shaw, 1997). Other developing abilities at this time include perspective-taking (Selman, 1980), empathy (Zahn-Waxler, et al., 1979), and emotion processing (Schultz, Izard, & Bear, 2004). According to Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997), motivations driving young children’s animal cruelty including curiosity and exploration likely occur as a consequence of younger children not yet having internalised society’s values regarding the appropriate treatment of animals.

It is not surprising that the development of empathy and emotion regulation competencies predicts a decrease in aggressive behaviours while the compromised development of these competencies places children at risk of developing antisocial behaviours, including engaging in animal cruelty. Moreover, those children most at risk are likely to be that sub-group of children with Conduct Disorders who also present with callous-unemotional traits and an inability to experience guilt (Hastings, Zhan-Waxler, Robinson, Usher, & Bridges, 2000; Luk, Staiger, Wong, & Mathai, 1999). These children tend to initiate and engage in persistent antisocial acts, including displays of aggression toward both people and animals (Miller, 2001). At this extreme end of the antisocial behaviour continuum, a lack of empathy and guilt in addition to an interpersonal style characterised by callousness are predictive of Psychopathy (Frick & White, 2008).

Thus, whilst low levels of empathy constitute a risk factor for antisocial and aggressive behaviour (McPhedran, 2009), higher levels of empathy can be a protective factor against the development of these behaviours. Empathic and prosocial youths are more inclined to treat their companion animals humanely (Poresky 1990; Vidovic, Stetic and Bratko 1999). Several empirical studies have demonstrated the importance that empathy has for interpersonal relationships and behaviours, including those with animals. For example, Poresky’s (1990) study assessed the relationship between bonds with companion animals and empathy levels among 38 children ranging in age from 3 to 6 years. As expected, children who had a strong bond with their companion animal scored higher on empathy than children who did not have companion animals.

In a related study, Vidovic, Stetic and Bratko (1999) assessed companion animal ownership and socio-emotional development among a sample of 826 youths ranging in age from 10 to 15 years. Participants who scored higher than average on a companion animal attachment scale yielded significantly higher scores on both empathy and prosocial orientation than those who scored lower than average. A more recent study involving 381 13 to 18 year-olds by Thompson and Gullone (2008) yielded supporting findings. These researchers examined the associations between empathy and prosocial as well empathy and antisocial behaviours. Behaviours toward humans and animals were investigated. As predicted, low empathy was found to be a significant predictor of antisocial behaviours and high empathy was found to be a significant predictor of prosocial behaviours towards both humans and animals.


In conclusion, what is most apparent from the above review is that the risk factors, not surprisingly, for animal cruelty are not different to those for other aggressive and antisocial behaviours. What is also clear is that the co-occurrence of animal cruelty with other antisocial and aggressive behaviours is cause for significant concern in a number of regards. When a child or adolescent is found to have abused an animal, one needs to ask oneself, not only what other aggressive behaviours might this individual be engaged in, but also what is happening in this individual’s life? Is he/she a victim of child abuse, is he/she living in circumstances of domestic violence, and/or what is the aggression or violence that he may have been witness to?

A relatively recent study conducted by Vaughn and colleagues (2009) is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies to investigate risk factors that has been conducted to date. Given that there has been a relationship demonstrated between bullying and animal cruelty, Vaughn et al., also included bullying as a variable in their study. The study, which was conducted in the United States, was based on data derived from the first two waves of a national epidemiologic survey regarding alcohol and related disorders. The results showed a number of risk factors to be significant.

For bullying, the risk factors included:


  • Being made to do chores that were too difficult or dangerous,

  • Threatening to hit or throw something,

  • Pushing, shoving, slapping, or hitting,

  • Hitting that left bruises, marks, or injuries.

For animal cruelty, the risk factors included:

  • Swearing and saying hurtful things,

  • Having a parent or other adult living within the home that went to jail or prison,

  • An adult/other person fondling/touching in a sexual way

Of significance is the finding that cruelty to animals was significantly associated with all assessed antisocial behaviours. Specifically, strong associations were found between animal cruelty and lifetime alcohol use disorders, conduct disorder, antisocial, obsessive–compulsive, and histrionic personality disorders, pathological gambling, and a family history of antisocial behaviour.

On the basis of their findings, the researchers concluded that:

“Cruelty to animals is associated with elevated rates observed in young, poor, men with family histories of antisocial behavior and personal histories of conduct disorder in childhood, and antisocial, obsessive–compulsive and histrionic personality disorders, and pathological gambling in adulthood. Given these associations, and the widespread ownership of pets and animals, effective screening of children, adolescents and adults for animal cruelty and appropriate mental health interventions should be deployed.” (Vaughn et al., 2009, abstract).

Animal cruelty has also been identified as one of the earliest indicators of what are referred to externalizing disorders, including Conduct Disorder as well as a predictor of the development of aggression along a more severe trajectory (Frick et al., 1993; Luk et al., 1999). Striving for its early identification would therefore seem to be of significant priority as such would provide an optimal opportunity for engaging preventative strategies.

The focus of preventative strategies should be guided by the risk factors reviewed in this work. Processes involved in the development of aggressive behaviours, most particularly the development of cognitive structures such as normative beliefs and aggressive scripts through exposure to antisocial behaviours, need also be addressed at a broader, community level. Given the pivotal roles for aggression learning played by witnessing cruelty, exposure to aggressive models, and media violence, concern is warranted also with regard to legalised aggressive behaviours such as hunting, rodeos, and fishing. On the basis of the reviewed research, it is reasonable to conclude that legalised aggression has an influence on young people’s development of relevant cognitive structures, and consequent aggressive behaviours. This would particularly be the case for individuals with a vulnerable disposition (e.g., a temperament characterised by callous-unemotional traits) toward the development of such behaviours, or those within a vulnerable environment or “risky” family.

Moreover, labelling certain aggressive behaviours as entertainment or sport because they are targeting particular species, and others as antisocial because they are targeting other species, such as companion animals, is incongruous. Mixed and confusing messages are communicated when cruelty is legalised in relation to some practices and species such as confined farming practices for pork production but outlawed for other species on the basis of the argument that they cause suffering.

For most individuals, the potential psychological discomfort caused by such conflicting messages may be managed through the use of cognitive mechanisms (e.g., vilifying the recipients, obscuring personal agency or cognitively reconstructing the conduct) that enable individuals to disengage self-sanctions for engaging in reprehensible behaviour (Bandura, 1983). However, for young people whose attitudes are undergoing processes of formation, such contradiction and inconsistency can only serve as barriers to the development of empathy and compassion. It follows that if we cultivate a culture of compassion toward our non-human citizens, current and future generations will benefit through reduced antisocial and violent behaviour toward all sentient beings.

​The Impact of Toxic Stress and Exposure to Animal Cruelty on the Developing Brain 

Animal abuse, domestic violence and child maltreatment conspire to create what Associate Professor Barbara Boat, Executive Director of Cincinnati’s Childhood Trust and Member of the Steering Committee at National Link Coalition, called a “toxic triad” that not only harms the architecture of the child’s developing brain, but whose multiplying impact exacerbates the risk factors for antisocial behaviours and negative health outcomes. (National Link Coalition Newsletter Vol. 7, Nov.-Dec. 2014)

Boat described the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study Pyramid. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess associations between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. The study is a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente's Health Appraisal Clinic in San Diego) which identified significant negative long-term health and mortality outcomes for what are now called Adverse Childhood Experiences. Such ACEs unleash chronic neurochemical hormones which, without buffers, become major risk Barbara Boat factors for the leading causes of illness, death and poor quality of life many  years later. Boat called ACEs as toxic stressors.

Stress-released bursts of cortisol, for example, may trigger the fight-or-flight mechanism necessary for survival but which also lead to an “attack of the adrenals” that kills cells in the hippocampus. The phenomenon results in a faster heart rate, decreased bone density, lowered immunity against disease, increased blood pressure, and reduced ability to learn and remember things. Often, it takes the body from three to 72 hours to re-normalize after experiencing major stress. 

Cumulative stress is unrelenting and puts the body in a constant state of arousal and fear. Children living under such stressors can develop lifelong hypersensitivity to perceived threats. 

Early childhood adversity starts a vicious cycle of permanent alterations in brain architecture and functioning. New research 
into epigenetics suggests that chronic, toxic stress can affect synapses, neural pathways, and the brain’s plasticity and ability to 
respond and adapt. It can even turn genes on and off and lead to lifelong neurological and physiological changes. These changes can even be passed on inter-generationally to offspring. 

The risk of such changes is particularly acute during childhood, when the developing brain is most malleable and subject to external influences, and in adolescence, when youths are what she called “junkies for attention” impacted by hormones. “Genes may load the gun but the environment pulls the trigger,” she said.

Regrettably, the ACEs study did not include the perpetration or witnessing of animal abuse as an Adverse Childhood Experience, which was a serious oversight. “Cruelty to animals is embedded in many ACEs and potentially multiplies the impact of ACEs,” she said, noting that childhood exposure to animal cruelty: 


  • Teaches children that they and their pets are expendable; 

  • Causes them to lose confidence that adults can protect them;

  • Convinces them that physical harm is acceptable behavior in supposedly loving relationships;

  • Demonstrates a way to seek power by inflicting pain and suffering;

  • Desensitizes them to violence and decreases empathy;

  • Leads to destructive behaviors; and

  • Adds to the child’s other toxic stressors, resulting in a changed brain, unhealthy lifestyle and subsequent poor health.

Research has found that a child’s exposure to physical, emotional and sexual abuse is a risk factor for the child’s committing acts of animal cruelty. Meanwhile, links between high incidence of dog bites and child abuse should prompt hospital and healthcare personnel to routinely screen for child abuse and neglect when treating pediatric dog bites.

Why is this important to professionals who work with children? “Significant adversity in childhood is strongly associated with toxic stress,” she said. “Asking questions about animals in the lives of children often opens the door to much-needed information. All of us are picking up the pieces of what has happened to these children while they’re growing up.” [ ]

The European Union

Although the European Union have no competence in the stray animal domain, it would appear then that we may be identifying a HUMAN-related issue with a significant scale and effect and a Government with an inability to address an issue of such magnitude and which is impacting on their society.

The Treaty of Lisbon, underpinning the ‘competence‘ of the European Union provides:

"Under the principle of Subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at a central level or at regional or local level, but can rather by reason of the SCALE and EFFECTS of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level."

The potential implications are significant - a SCALE and EFFECT permeating a whole society, a nation.

We would conclude by using the words quoted by Professor Eleonora Gullone on the connection between animal abuse and inter-human aggression. She writes: 

"in this area of ‘the Link' – as in several others, such as the area of youth mental health – the difference between what we know and what we do, is greater than the difference between what we know and what we don’t know."

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