The Direct Link Between Animal Abuse and Child Abuse

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By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director

Have you ever seen a dog chained to a tree in someone’s backyard for days or weeks on end, surrounded by nothing but dirt with a small bowl of water and little shelter? How about a horse in a pasture whose rib cage you can clearly see? Or how about a matted, flea-ridden tabby who you know belongs to your neighbors, but appears daily meowing at your front stoop?

While sometimes these signs can be symptomatic of animals who are sick and under the responsible medical care of their owners, each of these scenarios can also indicate these animals are being neglected or abused. Did you know that animal maltreatment, abuse or neglect can also be symptomatic of maltreatment, abuse or neglect of other vulnerable individuals in a household… including children?

For many years, law enforcement and child protection professionals have recognized a direct correlation between the mistreatment of animals and the maltreatment of children or other vulnerable individuals. That correlation is so strong, in fact, that in January 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) officially declared animal maltreatment to be a crime against society and began charging those offenses as Class A Felonies.

From the FBI: “If somebody is harming an animal, there is a good chance they also are hurting a human,” said John Thompson, deputy executive director of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “If we see patterns of animal abuse, the odds are that something else is going on.”

Vulnerable Victims

This isn’t a new concept. In 2008, Michigan State University College of Law published an article about this abuse connection and says more than 80% of families being treated for child abuse were also involved in animal abuse. The report also cites: “Research in psychology and criminology indicates that people who commit acts of cruelty to animals often do not stop there — many of them later turn on humans.”

According to the MSU report, “When animals in a home are abused or neglected, it is a warning sign that others in the household may not be safe.” This article further states that, regarding domestic violence or abuse, the batterer/abuser often targets pets in the home first, then goes after other potential victims in the household (i.e., children, spouses, elderly parents, etc.). Other organizations including the Colorado Link Project recognize this connection and offer education and intervention resources to help.

The Cherryland Humane Society serves Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties and sees far too many of these types of cases. “People may witness animals being neglected or maltreated, but often shy away from becoming involved in what they believe to be ‘family’ affairs,” shares Cherryland HS Executive Director Heidi Yates.  “Sadly, those people choose not to make a report which further endangers the animals, and possibly other vulnerable individuals in the household… including children.”

Pets Used as Pawns in Abuse

“This happens time and time again in cases of child abuse and domestic violence. Perpetrators often threaten to harm, injure or even kill pets in the home as a way of controlling their child or adult victims. The Michigan State University report cites, “In cases of child abuse, perpetrators often abuse animals to exert their power and control over children and other vulnerable family members. In some cases, abusers will force children to sexually abuse, hurt, or kill a pet. Threats of animal abuse may also be used to intimidate children to keep silent about being victims of abuse.”

This isn’t just a problem here in the United States. A study in UK published by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) cites that nearly half (46%) of female domestic violence victims reported their partner had threatened to harm their pets. Over half (53%) of the victims with physically abusive partners said their family pets were actually “hurt or killed” by their abusers. Of those whose pets were harmed, four (4) primary methods were used to inflict injury or death:

  • Kicking (33%)
  • Punching or hitting (15%)
  • Throwing the pet against a wall (10%)
  • Hitting the pet with an object (5%)

From the Council of State Governments here in the US:

“Michigan enacted domestic violence legislation May 3 that adds companion animals to personal protection orders, making it the latest state to acknowledge the role pets play in domestic violence situations. Currently, 29 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have laws with provisions that allow pets to be included in personal protection orders.”

Animal Abuse = Indicator of Future Violence

Animal abuse often starts in childhood. If a child is abusive to or harms animals, that behavior is a strong indicator of future violence towards people. The Michigan State University report says that violent criminals are five (5) times more likely to commit violent crimes against humans if they abused animals in childhood. Furthermore, There is a further correlation: the most aggressive criminals had committed the most severe acts of animal cruelty in childhood.”

Unfortunately, animals are often a perpetrator’s first victims, as animal abuse is often an entry into violence against people. “It is a matter of escalation: people who want to victimize start with something they can easily control, then they work their way up. A person who only feels powerful and in control while inflicting pain or death must continually sustain that ‘high’ by committing acts that are more heinous or morbid.” (Source: Michigan State University College of Law)

This same report also links animal abuse with school violence and shootings:

“Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who shot and killed 12 students at Columbine High School, spoke of mutilating animals to their classmates. Luke Woodham, who murdered his mother and two schoolmates, tortured and killed his own pet dog beforehand. High-school killer, Kip Kinkel, tortured animals before going on his shooting spree. He was reported to have blown up cows and decapitated cats. Andrew Golden is said to have shot dogs, even his own pet dog, with a .22 caliber rifle before attacking his classmates.”

The report also cites some alarming statistics:

  • 100% of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of cruelty towards animals
  • 70% of all animal abusers have committed at least one (1) other criminal offense
  • Nearly 40% of animal abusers have committed violent crimes against people

Signs of Animal Abuse or Neglect

Again, where there is animal abuse, there is often a child or family in danger. In addition to knowing the warning signs of child abuse, it is also important to keep an eye out for animals in your area that are maltreated or neglected. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals notes both physical and environmental signs to look for…

Physical Signs of Cruelty

  • Tight collar that has caused a neck wound or has become embedded in the pet’s neck
  • Open wounds, signs of multiple healed wounds or an ongoing injury or illness that isn’t being treated
  • Untreated skin conditions that have caused loss of hair, scaly skin, bumps or rashes
  • Extreme thinness or emaciation—bones may be visible
  • Fur infested with fleas, ticks or other parasites
  • Patches of bumpy, scaly skin rashes
  • Signs of inadequate grooming, such as extreme matting of fur, overgrown nails and dirty coat
  • Weakness, limping or the inability to stand or walk normally
  • Heavy discharge from eyes or nose
  • An owner striking or otherwise physically abusing an animal
  • Visible signs of confusion or extreme drowsiness

Environmental Signs of Cruelty

  • Pets are tied up alone outside for long periods of time without adequate food or water, or with food or water that is unsanitary
  • Pets are kept outside in inclement weather without access to adequate shelter
  • Pets are kept in an area littered with feces, garbage, broken glass or other objects that could harm them
  • Animals are housed in kennels or cages (very often crowded in with other animals) that are too small to allow them to stand, turn around and make normal movements

Some states and local municipalities have also enacted chaining and tethering laws, setting limits to the method and duration of animal restraint.

Protect Children and Families in Trouble… Report Animal Abuse!

If you know of an animal that is a victim of maltreatment or abuse, contact:

Help for Victims of Domestic Violence

If you are a victim of domestic violence, contact (caution: be aware computer activity may be monitored by your abuser, so take appropriate action):


About Sue ♥

Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.

About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥

The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.

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