Animal Abuse and Conduct Disorder

The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–IV) defines CD as "a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated" and requires that at least 3 of 15 separate symptoms be present in the past year for a diagnosis of CD (American Psychiatric Association, 1994:90). Among the symptoms listed are those categorized under "deceitfulness or theft," "destruction of property" (which encompasses firesetting and vandalism), and "aggression to people and animals" (which includes cruelty to people or to animals, stealing with confrontation of the victim, and forced sexual activity). There is a great deal of overlap between the symptoms of CD and behaviors used to characterize serious violent juvenile offenders (see Loeber, Farrington, and Waschbusch, 1998:14–15). Cruelty to animals has only recently been included in the symptom list for CD, appearing for the first time in the revised third edition of the Manual (DSM–III–R; American Psychiatric Association, 1987). Cruelty to animals, however, does not specifically appear in any of the categories (i.e., person, property, drug, and public order) under which juvenile offenders are classified in national crime reporting systems (see Snyder and Sickmund, 1999) despite law enforcement’s acknowledgment of the link between animal abuse and human violence (Lockwood and Church, 1996; Ponder and Lockwood, 2000; Schleuter, 1999; Turner, 2000).

Animal abuse may vary in frequency, severity, and chronicity and range from the developmentally immature teasing of animals (e.g., a toddler pulling a kitten along by the tail) to serious animal torture (e.g., stealing neighborhood pets and setting them on fire). Unfortunately, most assessments of cruelty to animals lack a scaling of these important differences. One exception is the Interview for Antisocial Behavior (IAB) developed by Kazdin and Esveldt-Dawson (1986). Although it was created before the 1987 revision of the DSM, this instrument assesses 30 forms of antisocial behavior, several of which reflect the current CD symptom listings (established in 1994). The IAB has a number of positive features, including both parent- and self-report forms and ratings of problem severity and chronicity.3

As illustrated in a study of psychiatric outpatient referrals by Loeber et al. (1993), patterns of chronic behavior may be more significant than isolated incidents. Three yearly assessments that included a question about cruelty to animals were completed with 177 boys ages 7–12 years, some of whom (40.1 percent) were diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and others (38.4 percent) with CD. Single-year assessment of cruelty to animals did not differentiate boys with ODD from those with CD, but a significant difference emerged when scores on this item were aggregated over a 3-year period: cruelty to animals was present for 13.3 percent of boys with ODD and 29.4 percent of boys with CD (p<0.05).

Because of the interest in early identification of children at risk for later violent offending, it should be noted that cruelty to animals may be one of the first CD symptoms to appear in young children. Parents’ reports on the emergence of CD symptoms in their children mark 6.5 years as the median age for onset of "hurting animals"—earlier than bullying, cruelty to people, vandalism, or setting fires (Frick et al., 1993). That study reinforces the importance of considering animal abuse a significant early warning sign for identifying youth with potential for receiving a CD diagnosis.4 The diagnostic value of this symptom is also supported in a report by Spitzer, Davies, and Barkley (1990), which was based on national field trials for developing DSM–III–R.

Recently, Luk et al. (1999:30) reported a reanalysis of case data for a sample of children (n=141) referred to mental health services for "symptoms suggestive of oppositional defiant/conduct disorder" and control data for a sample of community children (n=37). The clinic-referred children were subdivided into two groups based on CBC assessments: cruelty to animals present (n=40) and absent (n=101). Therefore, 28.4 percent of the clinic-referred children displayed animal abuse. The community children were selected only if cruelty to animals was absent in their CBC assessments. Luk et al. demonstrated that differentiating the clinic-referred subgroups on the basis of cruelty to animals was related to scores on a measure of childhood behavior problems that, unlike the CBC, does not assess cruelty to animals—the Eyberg Child Behavior Inventory (Eyberg and Ross, 1978). The authors found that clinic-referred children assessed as being cruel to animals had significantly (p<0.001) higher mean problem and problem-severity scores on the Eyberg Inventory than either clinic children who were not cruel to animals or community children.

Thus, there is substantial evidence for the value of assessing cruelty to animals as a specific symptom of CD and as a correlate of other forms of antisocial behavior in both childhood and adulthood. One additional study will be described to illustrate this conclusion.

Arluke and colleagues (1999) reviewed the files of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and located the records of 153 individuals (146 males and 7 females, age range 11–76 years) who had been prosecuted for intentional physical cruelty to animals (not passive forms of cruelty such as neglect). A comparison group of 153 individuals (matched for age, gender, and socioeconomic status, but with no record of any cruelty-to-animal complaints) was selected from the same neighborhoods in which those who had been prosecuted resided. The State’s criminal records were reviewed for each individual in both groups. Any adult arrests for violent, property, drug, or public order offenses were noted. As shown in figure 5, individuals prosecuted for animal abuse were more likely to have an adult arrest in each of the four crime categories than the comparison group members. The differences between percentages for abusers and nonabusers were highly significant (p<0.0001) for all four types of offenses. These results make it clear that animal abusers are not only dangerous to their animal victims but also may jeopardize human welfare.

Figure 5: Percentage of Types of Other Offenses Committed by Individuals Prosecuted for Animal Abuse and a Control Group Who Did Not Abuse Animals
Figure 5: Bar graph showing percentage of types of other offenses committed by individuals prosecuted for animal abuse and a control group who did not abuse animals.

Note: Age range of sample: 11–76 years. All chi-square comparisons between abusers and nonabusers significant at p<0.0001.

Source: Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., and Ascione, F. 1999. The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14:963–975.

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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001