Prevalence of Cruelty to Animals by Children and Adolescents

Because cruelty to animals is not monitored systematically in national crime reporting systems (Howard Snyder, personal communication, January 22, 2001), researchers must rely on data from studies in developmental psychology and psychopathology to estimate the prevalence of this problem behavior in samples of youth. A number of assessment instruments that address child behavior problems include a question about cruelty to animals. However, "cruelty" is not always explicitly defined for the respondent, so it is difficult to determine the exact behaviors that are being reported.

Using the Achenbach-Conners-Quay Behavior Checklist (ACQ), Achenbach and colleagues (1991) collected parent or guardian reports of problem behaviors for 2,600 boys and girls ages 4 to 16 who had been referred to mental health clinics and a control group of 2,600 boys and girls of the same age. The nonreferred children constituted a representative sample of the U.S. population, based on ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and place of residence (urban/suburban/rural and national region [e.g., Northeast, West]). These children had been screened for the absence of mental health referrals in the past year. The referred children were drawn from 18 mental health clinics across the United States. Most of the referred children were being evaluated for outpatient mental health services. Potential candidates for inclusion in the nonreferred and referred groups were excluded if they were mentally retarded, had a serious physical illness, or had a handicap.

One item on the ACQ asks the respondent whether their child or adolescent has been "cruel to animals" in the past 2 months. Respondents can answer using the following 4-point scale: 0 = never or not at all true (as far as you know), 1 = once in a while or just a little, 2 = quite often or quite a lot, or 3 = very often or very much. Figure 1 shows the percentage of caregivers, for each age group, gender, and referral status, that reported the presence of cruelty to animals (David Jacobowitz, Statistician Programmer, Achenbach System for Empirical Behavioral Assessment, College of Medicine, University of Vermont, personal communication, July 17, 1992). In their statistical analysis of individual ACQ items, Achenbach and colleagues noted that cruelty to animals was significantly (p<0.01) higher for referred youth, boys, and younger children.

The data in figure 1 illustrate the relatively low frequency of cruelty to animals in the nonreferred sample (0–13 percent) in comparison with the referred sample (7–34 percent). Eighteen to twenty-five percent of referred boys between the ages of 6 and 16 were reported to have been cruel to animals, and the data suggest this item’s incidence has greater stability through childhood and adolescence for boys than for girls.

Data on the prevalence of cruelty to animals are also provided in the manuals for the Child Behavior Checklist (CBC), perhaps one of the most widely used checklists for child behavior problems, which is available in separate versions for 2- to 3-year-olds (Achenbach, 1992) and 4- to 18-year-olds (Achenbach, 1991). The cruelty to animals item on the CBC (which uses a "past 2 months" timeframe for 2- to 3-year-olds and a "past 6 months" timeframe for 4- to 18-year-olds) is scored on a 3-point scale: 0 = not true (as far as you know), 1 = somewhat or sometimes true, or 2 = very true or often true. Referred and nonreferred boys and girls can be compared for each of three age groups. These data are presented in figure 2. In this figure, data on acts of vandalism committed by the two older age groups are included for comparison. Again, cruelty to animals is more often reported for younger children and boys, especially those referred for mental health services. Figure 2 also suggests that reported rates of cruelty to animals (for youth ages 4 and older) are higher than or similar to reported rates of vandalism, a problem behavior about which more systematic juvenile crime data are available.1

Figure 1: Percentage of Youth Reported by Caregivers To Have Been Cruel to Animals, by Offender’s Age, Gender, and Referral Status
Figure 1: Line graph showing the percentage of youth reported by caregivers to have been cruel to animals, by offender's age, gender, and referral status.

Note: Data show caregivers’ responses to a question asking whether their child or adolescent had been cruel to animals in the past 2 months.

Source: Achenbach, T.M., Howell, C.T., Quay, H.C., and Conners, C.K. 1991. National survey of problems and competencies among four- to sixteen-year-olds. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 56: Serial No. 255.

Figure 2: Comparison of Reports of Incidents of Cruelty to Animals and Incidents of Vandalism, by Offender’s Age, Gender, and Referral Status
Figure 2: Bar graph showing a comparison of reports of incidents by youth of cruelty to animals and incidents of vandalism, by offender's age, gender, and referral status.
* In the past 2 months for children ages 2–3; in the past 6 months for children ages 4–18.

† The percentage for girls not referred to mental health services was zero for both age groups.

Sources: Achenbach, T.M. 1992. Manual for the Child Behavior Checklist/2–3 and 1992 Profile. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry. Achenbach, T.M. 1991. Manual for the Child Behavior Checklist/4–18 and 1991 Profile. Burlington, VT: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.

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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001