Motivations That May Underlie Animal Abuse by Children and Adolescents

Whenever high-profile cases of animal abuse are reported in the media, a common public reaction is to ask: "Why would someone do that?" Burying puppies alive, shooting wild mustangs, setting a dog on fire, beating a petting zoo donkey—these and countless other examples offend the public by their seemingly senseless cruelty. In an effort to better understand this phenomenon, Kellert and Felthous (1985: 11221124) interviewed abusers and discovered a number of motivations that may characterize adult cruelty to animals, some of which may also be applicable to animal abuse perpetrated by juveniles:

  • To control an animal (i.e., animal abuse as discipline or "training").

  • To retaliate against an animal.

  • To satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed (e.g., hatred of cats).

  • To express aggression through an animal (i.e., training an animal to attack, using inflicted pain to create a "mean" dog).

  • To enhance one's own aggressiveness (e.g., using an animal victim for target practice).

  • To shock people for amusement.

  • To retaliate against other people (by hurting their pets or abusing animals in their presence).

  • To displace hostility from a person to an animal (i.e., attacking a vulnerable animal when assaulting the real human target is judged too risky).

  • To experience nonspecific sadism (i.e., enjoying the suffering experienced by the animal victim, in and of itself).

Child and adolescent motivations for animal abuse have not been studied as extensively. However, case reports and a youth interview study (using the Cruelty to Animals Assessment Instrument) conducted by Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) suggest a number of developmentally related motivations:

  • Curiosity or exploration (i.e., the animal is injured or killed in the process of being examined, usually by a young or developmentally delayed child).

  • Peer pressure (e.g., peers may encourage animal abuse or require it as part of an initiation rite).

  • Mood enhancement (e.g., animal abuse is used to relieve boredom or depression).

  • Sexual gratification (i.e., bestiality).

  • Forced abuse (i.e., the child is coerced into animal abuse by a more powerful individual).

  • Attachment to an animal (e.g., the child kills an animal to prevent its torture by another individual).

  • Animal phobias (that cause a preemptive attack on a feared animal).

  • Identification with the child's abuser (e.g., a victimized child may try to regain a sense of power by victimizing a more vulnerable animal).

  • Posttraumatic play (i.e., reenacting violent episodes with an animal victim).

  • Imitation (i.e., copying a parent's or other adult's abusive "discipline" of animals).

  • Self-injury (i.e., using an animal to inflict injuries on the child's own body).

  • Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i.e., "practicing" violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people).

  • Vehicle for emotional abuse (e.g., injuring a sibling's pet to frighten the sibling).

CD assessments are not usually designed to discover the underlying reasons for a child's or adolescent's cruelty to animals, but as with juvenile firesetting (discussed below), understanding motivations may be critical for designing effective intervention strategies. A recent review by Agnew (1998) provides a more extensive treatment of the social-psychological causes of animal abuse.

As noted by Ascione and Lockwood (2001), one model that could be used to develop an animal abuse assessment instrument is the approach that has been taken to assess juvenile firesetting. Firesetting shares many features with animal abuse: both are CD symptoms, may reflect developmental changes, may share etiological factors, may often be performed covertly, and may be early sentinels for later psychological problems.

Some children may manifest both problem behaviors. Wooden and Berkey (1984) noted the co-occurrence of cruelty to animals in a sample of 69 firesetters ages 417: cruelty to animals was reported for 46 percent of 4- to 8-year-olds, 9 percent of 9- to 12-year-olds, and 12 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds. The authors caution that the lower rates for older children and adolescents may be related to the covert nature of this behavior, as children experience greater independence and venture farther from home for more prolonged periods. Sakheim and Osborne (1994) reported similar results with samples of children who set fires (n=100) and those who did not (n=55). Fifty percent of the firesetters' parents reported that their children had been cruel "to children or animals," but only 9 percent of parents of the children who did not set fires reported the same (p<0.01).

Animal abuse in the context of firesetting may also have predictive value. Rice and Harris (1996) reported on a sample of 243 firesetters who had resided in a maximum-security psychiatric facility and were later released. In a followup of 208 of these men, Rice and Harris found that a childhood history of cruelty to animals (coded from patient records) predicted violent offense recidivism (p<0.001) and nonviolent offense recidivism (p<0.05) but not firesetting recidivism.5

Photo of dogThe Salt Lake City Area Juvenile Firesetter/Arson Control and Prevention Program (1992), funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, is based on a typology of juvenile firesetters that may be relevant for developing a typology for children who abuse animals (Marcel Chappuis, personal communication, March 23, 1998). The typology of juvenile firesetters categorizes children into the following groups:

  • Normal curiosity firesetters. The mean age of this group is 5 years (range, 37 years). Children in this group often share the characteristics of poor parental supervision, a lack of fire education, and no fear of fire.

  • "Plea-for-help" firesetters. The mean age of this group is 9 years (range, 713 years). The group's firesetting is often symptomatic of more deep-seated psychological disturbance. The individuals usually have had adequate fire education.

  • Delinquent firesetters. The mean age of this group is 14 years (range, 13 years to adulthood). Firesetting may be one of a host of adolescent-onset antisocial behaviors, including gang-related activities, exhibited by this group.

The Salt Lake City program has developed a series of assessment scales geared to each age group of firesetters that can be administered to the child and the child's parent/guardian. In addition to questions about fire education and the firesetting incident(s), this series has questions about general behavior problems (similar to items on the CBC), including one item about cruelty to animals. (There is also a direct question about whether the firesetting incident involved the burning of an animal.) Responses to these assessments are used to select an intervention strategy. Children who fall into the normal curiosity group are often enrolled in a fire education program, and attempts may be made to educate parents about fire safety and the need for supervising young children. Children who fall into the other two groups are referred to mental health services because fire departments are not prepared to deal with the psychological problems these young people may present.

It might be possible to develop a similar typology for children who abuse animals. Although there is not a great deal of empirical information on which to rely, the study by Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) suggests the varied motivations that may underlie child and adolescent animal abuse. Using the extensive experience of animal control and animal welfare professionals, one could develop a typology mirroring that for juvenile firesetters. A sketch of such a typology might approximate the following:

  • Exploratory/curious animal abuse. Children in this category are likely to be of preschool or early elementary school age, poorly supervised, and lacking training on the physical care and humane treatment of a variety of animals, especially family pets and/or stray animals and neighborhood wildlife. Humane education interventions (teaching children to be kind, caring, and nurturing toward animals) by parents, childcare providers, and teachers are likely to be sufficient to encourage desistence of animal abuse in these children. Age alone should not be the determining factor in including children in this category. For example, CD symptoms may have an early developmental onset, and as noted earlier, cruelty to animals is one of the earliest CD symptoms to be noted by caretakers. Older children who are developmentally delayed may also fall into this group.

  • Pathological animal abuse. Children in this category are more likely to be (though not necessarily) older than children in the exploratory/curious group. Rather than indicating a lack of education about the humane treatment of animals, animal abuse by these children may be symptomatic of psychological disturbances of varying severity. For example, a number of studies have tied childhood animal abuse to childhood histories of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and exposure to domestic violence. In these cases, professional, clinical intervention is warranted.

  • Delinquent animal abuse. Youth in this category are most likely to be adolescents whose animal abuse may be one of a number of antisocial activities. In some cases, the animal abuse may be a component of gang/cult-related activities (e.g., initiation rites) or less formal group violence and destructiveness. The use of alcohol and other substances may be associated with animal abuse for these youth, and they may require both judicial and clinical interventions.

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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001