Policy Implications and Recommendations

This section addresses issues relating to the reporting, assessment, and treatment of children involved in animal abuse. It presents recommendations associated with these issues and highlights the need for enhanced professional training.


Cruelty to animals is all too often a part of the landscape of violence in which youth participate and to which they are exposed. The number of animals that are victims of such abuse is, at present, difficult to estimate, as is the number of young people who perpetrate such abuse. In an ideal world, national data would be available on the yearly incidence of animal abuse, data that could be used to track trends and serve as a baseline against which the effectiveness of interventions could be assessed. The existing national data collection systems in the area of child abuse and neglect illustrate the value of such archival records (Sedlak and Broadhurst, 1996). However, it is not clear how animal abuse offenses could be incorporated into the existing categorization (person, property, drug, public order) of juvenile arrests.

Only two States (Minnesota and West Virginia) mandate that veterinarians report suspected cases of animal abuse (Frasch et al., 1999). Until a national system of monitoring and reporting animal abuse is instituted, the following approaches to recording cases of animal abuse are recommended:

  • Local humane societies, societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, and animal control agencies should routinely refer cases of serious, juvenile- and adult-perpetrated animal abuse to social welfare and law enforcement agencies and should maintain systematic records that could be available for archival review (Ascione and Barnard, 1998; Ascione, Kaufmann, and Brooks, 2000).

  • Parents, childcare providers, teachers, others who play caregiving roles for children (e.g., clergy, coaches), and young people themselves should be informed that animal abuse may be a significant sign of a tendency to violence and psychological disturbance and should not be ignored. Efforts in this area are already emerging and include Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools (Dwyer, Osher, and Warger, 1998) from the U.S. Department of Education and the Warning Signs guide (1999) developed by MTV-Music TelevisionTM and the American Psychological Association and disseminated as part of their Fight for Your Rights: Take a Stand Against Violence campaign. The American Humane Associationís (1996) Growing Up Humane in a Violent World: A Parentís Guide provides developmentally sensitive information about children and animals and the significance of animal abuse. The Guide also includes educational strategies appropriate for preschoolers and some designed for elementary and secondary school students.

  • Youth should be surveyed about their treatment of animals. Because animals may often be abused covertly, parents and other adults may not be the best sources of information about this behavior problem. To obtain a better estimate of the incidence of animal abuse, youth surveys of violent behavior should include self-report items such as "Have you hurt an animal on purpose?" or "Have you made an animal suffer for no reason?" Also, witnessing animal abuse is a form of exposure to violence that should be routinely assessed because it may have significant effects on young people (Boat, 1999). Often children are deeply attached to their pets and observing the violent abuse or death of a pet at the hands of others may be emotionally devastating.

Assessment and Treatment

Photo of young boy and catAs part of the search for effective youth violence prevention and intervention programs, animal welfare organizations have been developing educational and therapeutic efforts that incorporate "animal-assisted" or "animal-facilitated" components (Duel, 2000). The underlying theme of many of these programs is that teaching young people to train, care for, and interact in a nurturing manner with animals will reduce any propensity they may have for aggression and violence. These programs assume that children are more likely to commit animal abuse when their capacity for empathy has been undermined or compromised (for example, by years of neglect or maltreatment—see Bavolek, 2000). Developing a sense of empathy for animals is assumed to be a bridge to greater empathy for fellow human beings, making violence toward them less likely.

The development of animal abuse assessment and intervention programs is accompanied by a number of issues related to evaluation and accountability:

  • Although formal protocols for the clinical assessment (Lewchanin and Zimmerman, 2000) and treatment (Jory and Randour, 1999; Zimmerman and Lewchanin, 2000) of animal abuse are beginning to emerge, they are still at a formative stage of development and their effectiveness is difficult to evaluate.

  • Attempts have been made to create typologies for perpetrators of animal abuse, similar to typologies for firesetters. These typologies have intuitive appeal, but their utility has not been empirically assessed. Whether using the proposed categories of animal abusers can facilitate the selection of appropriate therapeutic interventions remains to be determined.

  • Given the challenges of incorporating animals into the therapeutic process (Fine, 2000), evaluation of animal-facilitated therapy programs must move beyond anecdotal evidence. Katcher and Wilkins (2000) provided an evaluation model in a study of animal-facilitated therapy for children with attention disorders. The model should be expanded to programs for youth with CD.

  • Evaluation of intervention effectiveness will continue to grow in importance because, in some jurisdictions (e.g., California, Colorado), courts may recommend or mandate assessment and treatment of individuals convicted of certain forms of animal abuse (Frasch et al., 1999). The effects of such programs on recidivism have not been examined.


Educational programs at both the preprofessional and professional levels should give greater emphasis to training about animal abuse and its overlap with other forms of family and community violence. This effort has already emerged in veterinary education (Ascione and Barnard, 1998), the legal profession (Davidson, 1998), and law enforcement (Lockwood, 1989) and should be expanded to include mental health (psychology and psychiatry) and other human health professions (e.g., social work, child welfare, and pediatrics) and elementary and secondary education. The following are recommendations for improving and expanding professional training concerning animal abuse:

  • Professional cross training should be expanded (Ascione, Kaufmann, and Brooks, 2000). For example, animal control officers should be trained to identify signs of child maltreatment and child protection workers should be trained to identify animal abuse. The underlying theme of such training should be that animal abuse is a significant form of violence that not only harms animals but may be a warning sign of a child who is psychologically disturbed or in danger of maltreatment.

  • Training and continuing education for judges should include current information on the associations among animal abuse, domestic violence, and child maltreatment. Decisions about child custody and foster placements should be informed by research showing that adults who abuse animals are potentially dangerous to humans.

  • Cross training could also enhance the success of foster placements for maltreated children who may be physically or sexually abusing animals. Foster care providers, especially those with family pets, should be alerted to the potential for animal abuse to occur.

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Animal Abuse and Youth Violence Juvenile Justice Bulletin September 2001