The abuse of animals, including pets, is defined as socially unacceptable, nonaccidental behavior that causes unnecessary distress, pain, or injury to an animal, and, in some cases, the animal’s death. Animal/ pet abuse includes acts of commission, for example, physical or sexual assaults, and acts of omission, for example, severe neglect of basic animal needs or the hoarding of large numbers of animals for which the owner is unable to provide minimal levels of care. Animal hoarding may be related to self-neglect in elder abuse. Certain forms of animal/pet abuse are considered felony-level crimes in 41 states. Due to the strong attachment that may exist between humans and their pets, animal/pet abuse can be considered a form of family violence. Animal/pet abuse may co-occur with other criminal activity (e.g., violent or property crimes) and be related to child maltreatment and domestic violence.
Early philosophical and psychiatric discussions suggested that animal/pet abuse in childhood might be a precursor to later violence against humans. Scientific attention to the link between animal/pet abuse and interpersonal violence increased dramatically during the last quarter of the 20th century. The 1987 revision of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was the first to include cruelty to animals among the symptoms of conduct disorder in childhood and adolescence. Cruelty to animals is also more prevalent in adults diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder. Elevated levels of animal/pet abuse have been reported in studies of juvenile fire setters, juvenile sex offenders, perpetrators of school shootings, and males convicted of rape, sexual homicide, and serial murder.
Animal/pet abuse in childhood and adolescence has most often been assessed using behavior problem checklists that frequently include only one item related to this behavior. Currently, a number of assessments have been introduced that focus specifically on the assessment of animal/pet abuse and include forms that can be completed by caregivers as well as self-report forms. Self-report forms are especially important since children may engage in animal abuse covertly without parental awareness. These newer assessments allow measurement of a number of important characteristics of animal/pet abuse, including the age of onset of the abuse, its frequency and severity, the types of animals/ pets abused, whether the abuse was perpetrated alone or with others, and whether the perpetrator expresses empathy for the animal victim.
Veterinary professionals are aware that they may encounter animal/pet abuse in their clinics. Veterinary professional organizations are currently discussing whether or not veterinarians should be mandated to report suspected animal/pet abuse.
- Ascione, F. R. (2005). Children and animals: Exploring the roots of kindness and cruelty. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Munro, H. M. C., & Thrusfield, M. V. (2001). “Battered pets”: Non-accidental physical injuries
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