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(p. 95) Understanding Animal Cruelty and Sexual Abuse 

(p. 95) Understanding Animal Cruelty and Sexual Abuse
(p. 95) Understanding Animal Cruelty and Sexual Abuse

Lacey Levitt

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date: 14 December 2017

Animal maltreatment has increasingly been recognized as a serious social problem, especially because research has indicated that it is frequently associated with the maltreatment of humans (Arluke, Levin, Luke, & Ascione, 1999; Merez-Perez & Heide, 2003; Miller & Knutson, 1997; Tallichet & Hensley, 2004). Despite this apparent linkage, little is known about the characteristics and offending patterns of individuals convicted of animal maltreatment. Few studies have examined their sociodemographic characteristics, personality attributes, or criminal histories.

This chapter describes what is known about individuals who commit various types of intentional animal maltreatment. It explores existing research and theories of motivation for three classes of intentional maltreatment: physical abuse of animals, the sexual abuse of animals, and animal fighting. The research on physical abuse, however, is presented in two sections, one for adults and the other for juvenile and family-related animal maltreatment.

Perceptions of what constitutes animal cruelty or abuse have varied historically and culturally (Boat, 1999), changing as our understanding of animals’ needs changes (Ascione & Shapiro, 2009). Accordingly, research in the area has focused on intentional maltreatment that is widely socially rejected such as the unnecessary cutting, burning, beating, and shooting of pets and other socially desirable animals, or as summarized by Ascione (1993): “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal” (p. 228). This definition notably excludes certain forms of animal maltreatment that are socially sanctioned, such as vivisection and factory farming (which involves, for example, confining sows to small, metal gestation crates).

(p. 96) In this chapter, the term “physical animal cruelty” includes, but is not limited to, the intentional beating, hitting, kicking, stomping, throwing, choking/strangling, suffocating, hanging, stabbing, shooting, poisoning, and drowning of an animal. It also includes burning an animal with fire, fireworks, or caustic substances. Finally, it encompasses mutilation or torture, though definitions of the latter will vary.

Sexual abuse of animals has received considerably less scholarly attention. Sexual abuse of an animal, often referred to as “bestiality,” includes a wide range of sexual behaviors such as vaginal, anal, or oral penetration; fondling; oral-genital contact; and penetration using an object (Beirne, 1997).

McMillan (2005, 2009) has argued that we should include emotional maltreatment, or causing an animal distress, in discussions of animal cruelty, particularly in light of the proliferation of recent research demonstrating the complexity of animals’ emotions and the connection between emotional well-being and physical health. Emotional abuse may include, but is not limited to, isolating an animal, depriving him of mental stimulation or freedom of movement, or rejecting, abandoning, or terrorizing him.

Physical Cruelty to Animals: Studies of Adults

This section reviews research on animal physical cruelty among adults and is followed by a similar section reviewing research on juveniles and family-related animal abuse. It is organized according to various populations that have been studied, including the general population, animal abusers generally, animal abusers with various disorders (psychiatric, substance abuse, psychopathy), and incarcerated adults. There is some overlap of content across these topics because, while they are grouped according to their sample populations, they sometimes provide information related to other population characteristics. For example, a study beginning with a general population may provide information regarding the relation of physical animal cruelty to people’s criminal histories or to various mental disorders.

Physical Abuse of Animals in the General Population

Importantly, because the FBI did not begin collecting data on animal cruelty offenses in their National Incident-Based Reporting System until 2015 (Wisconsin Department of Justice, 2014), the data will not be available until at least 2017, and local studies were not aggregated, there is not yet a national estimate of the incidence or prevalence of animal cruelty (Schmitt, 2014). However, in the first study of its kind, Vaughn and colleagues (2009) examined sociodemographic and psychiatric correlates of animal cruelty in the United States. As part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, they completed 43,093 structured psychiatric interviews of adults living in households (p. 97) and group settings (such as shelters and college dormitories) across the country. Animal cruelty was assessed with an item embedded in the antisocial personality disorder interview module. All respondents were asked: “In your entire life, did you ever hurt or be cruel to an animal or pet on purpose?” Respondents who answered yes were defined as having a history of animal cruelty. Results revealed that 1.8% of the individuals interviewed reported having hurt or been cruel to an animal on purpose. Males, younger persons, and individuals with lower income levels were more likely to report having committed animal cruelty during their lifetimes. Moreover, the prevalence of all antisocial behaviors was higher among individuals who had committed animal cruelty compared to those who had not. Those who reported having committed animal cruelty were disproportionately likely to report robbing or mugging another person, fire-setting, and harassing or threatening someone.

Although the aforementioned study is important, we do not have a stable or reliable estimate of prevalence of animal cruelty in the general population. Such an estimate is not easy to obtain. Although there exist estimates of animal maltreatment among college students (Flynn, 1999; Henry, 2004; Miller & Knutson, 1997), there is no reason to believe that college students are representative of the “general population.” Prevalence may vary geographically. Studies differ in their definition of “animal cruelty” and in how they ask the question. And self-reported incidents of animal cruelty may vary because of surveying conditions that offer more or less protection from anonymity. In addition, animal cruelty may be underreported because of the social undesirability of the act (Wilson & Norris, 2003) and because it is often a solitary, secretive activity others may not be aware of (Felthous & Kellert, 1987). The field will be limited in its ability to identify the relation of animal cruelty to various pathological conditions without a general population benchmark.

Research on Animal Abusers

Gullone (2011) points out that antisocial behaviors such as stealing, burglary, vandalism, sexual assault, and violence co-occur such that the presence of one form of antisocial behavior predicts the presence of others. Animal cruelty is one form of antisocial behavior. Therefore, she argues, it should be considered an indicator of other forms of antisocial behavior and violence. The research described here suggests that among individuals investigated for animal cruelty, one often finds other forms of criminal behavior as well. In what is apparently the first study to examine a sample of animal abusers, Hutton (1983) investigated 23 families who, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Animal Cruelty, had a history of animal abuse and neglect. Of those families, 19 (82.6%) were known to local social service departments and 14 (60.8%) were known to the local probation department for reasons other than animal abuse. More specifically, eight of the families involved children at risk, five involved physical violence, and five involved child neglect. In addition, the types of abuse perpetrated (p. 98) upon the animals paralleled those perpetrated on the humans in the home. Hutton concluded that “animal abuse may be symptomatic of similar dynamics within the larger family group” (p. 446) but acknowledged that “abuse” was not properly defined in his study.

Clarke (2002) reviewed the criminal histories of 200 individuals with a record of animal abuse in New South Wales, Australia. Police databases revealed that the individuals had an average of four different types of criminal offenses each; only two of the 200 had convictions solely for animal cruelty. Many had been arrested for assault (61.5%) including domestic violence. Seventeen percent of the animal abusers were also arrested for sexual abuse, and animal abuse was a better predictor of sexual assault than previous convictions for firearms offenses or homicide.

In another study of Australian offenders, Gullone and Clarke (2008) examined the criminal histories of animal cruelty offenders arrested between 1994 and 2001. The majority of animal abusers were male, and the peak period of offense occurred between the ages of 18 to 25. When compared with all offenders in the Statistic Services Division of Victoria Police Department’s records unit, the animal offenders appeared more violent. More specifically, 25% of the animal abuse offenders committed crimes against a person compared to 8% of the other offenders. The authors concluded that “there appears to be a greater likelihood that people alleged to have abused animals will engage in offenses against the person, including violent crimes, when compared to all alleged offenders” (Gullone & Clarke, 2008, p. 315). The Australian findings support Osgood, Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman’s deviance generalization hypothesis (1988), which holds that a variety of deviant behaviors are positively correlated with one another because one form of deviance leads to involvement in others or because various forms of deviance have the same underlying causes. Individuals who commit animal maltreatment would thus be likely to commit other forms of deviant behavior as well.

Arluke and colleagues (1999) examined the criminal records of 153 animal abusers who had been investigated by the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). Sixty-nine percent of the cruelty incidents involved dogs, 22% involved cats, and 9% involved other animals. The researchers compared the animal abuse group, which ranged in age from 11 to 76, to 153 control participants matched by gender, socioeconomic status, age, and residence. Findings indicated that animal abusers were significantly more likely to be involved in other forms of criminal behavior, including violent offenses. Seventy percent of the animal abuse group committed at least one offense compared to only 22% of the control participants. Moreover, 37% of the animal abusers had committed a violent crime compared to only 7% of the control group. Thus, animal abusers were 3.2 times more likely to have a criminal record and 5.3 times more likely to have a violent criminal record than matched control participants. They were also four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes, 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for disorderly behavior. Interpretations of this study are (p. 99) limited by the fact that nearly three-fifths of the participants were under the age of 21, so that implications of the study across the adult age span are uncertain. Also, the authors relied solely on state computerized criminal records, and therefore some of the individuals in the control group may have committed acts of animal cruelty for which they were not charged.

Arluke and colleagues (1999) found that animal abuse was no more likely to precede than follow other criminal offenses, including violent ones, in the criminal histories of animal abusers. In other words, offenders did not appear to be “graduating” from animal cruelty to interpersonal violence. However, the authors noted that offenders may have committed multiple acts for which they were not arrested, thus the temporal sequence of their offending cannot be assured. If the offenders were not graduating from animals to humans, the authors speculated that the offenders could be graduating from distant to intimate targets, such as being abusive towards individuals in the community and then towards one’s own dog. Alternatively, of course, animal abuse may desensitize a perpetrator to suffering, serve as a rehearsal for abuse of humans, and embolden the perpetrator if his acts went undetected, all of which could pave the way for interpersonal violence.

Sergeant Brian Degenhardt of the Chicago Police Department conducted a statistical summary of offenders charged with animal cruelty (2008). Degenhardt examined 332 Chicago Police Department arrest records (over a period of three consecutive years) of individuals charged with crimes against companion animals. He found that 91% of the animal abusers were male, 41% were between the ages of 18 and 24, 33% were between the ages of 25 and 34, and at least 59% were confirmed members of criminal street gangs. Eighty-six percent of the cruelty offenders had two or more other arrests in their history, 70% had been arrested for other felonies, and 65% had been arrested for battery. Thirty-six (13%) of the animal abusers were convicted sex offenders: 11 were convicted of sexual assault by the use of force, and 7 committed predatory sex offenses involving victims age 12 or younger. In addition, 70% had been arrested for illegal narcotics, most commonly for selling, delivering, or trafficking. Degenhardt concluded that animal abusers “regularly victimize humans with their criminal activities” (p. 2). Unfortunately, although Degenhardt claimed to have selected a control group of offenders with no animal cruelty arrests, the report did not include comparative arrest data for the control group. The study also did not report percentages of each type of animal cruelty offender included in the study (e.g., how many of the animal abusers were convicted of dog-fighting as opposed to animal torture).

In conjunction with a FBI study of the criminal histories of animal cruelty offenders, Levitt (2011) reviewed the arrest reports and criminal histories of 150 adult males who were arrested for animal cruelty, animal neglect, or animal sexual abuse between 2004 and 2009. Records indicated that a minimum of 41% of the offenders in the sample were arrested for interpersonal violence at least once, 18% were arrested for a sex offense such as rape or child molestation, and 28% were arrested for another interpersonal crime, most commonly violating a restraining order or harassment. Significant relationships emerged (p. 100) between physical abuse of animals (e.g., beating, drowning) and the following variables: subsequent arrest for an interpersonally violent offense, assault of a spouse or intimate partner, and substance abuse; 38% of active offenders had been arrested for domestic violence and 64% had a history of substance abuse. Finally, approximately one-third of those who had been arrested for sexually assaulting an animal were also arrested for sexually assaulting a person. This study was limited by the use of nonrandom sampling and the lack of a control group.

Although the aforementioned studies have examined the criminalities of animal cruelty perpetrators, there are limitations in this literature. First, some of the research is not widely available. Clarke’s initial data were part of an “in confidence” research publication that was not released to the public because it contained sensitive law enforcement information (Gullone & Clarke, 2008). Degenhardt’s (2008) study was also unpublished and, as previously mentioned, omitted information regarding the control group and frequencies of various types of animal cruelty incidents. Secondly, most of the studies were limited to specific geographic regions. For example, Arluke and colleagues’ well-designed 1999 study focused only on cruelty incidents investigated by the MSPCA in Massachusetts. Hutton (1983) and Gullone and Clarke’s (2008) studies focused exclusively on cruelty offenders outside of the United States. Levitt’s study (2011) included the Criminal Justice Information Systems record of offenders for only six months to a maximum of five years following their arrest for animal maltreatment; the offenders may have committed other crimes which were not included on the criminal histories readily available to the FBI. Nevertheless, as a body, these studies suggest that clinicians investigating persons charged with animal cruelty should routinely seek information about other types of offending as well.

Research on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Approximately 32 state statutes include a provision recommending or mandating that animal cruelty offenders undergo counseling (National District Attorneys Association, 2013). This reflects society’s and the law’s presumption that animal cruelty often represents a psychological problem. However, very few studies have examined the relationship between mental health or substance use disorders and physical or sexual abuse of animals.

There is relatively little mention of animal cruelty in diagnostic classification systems. Animal cruelty is listed explicitly as a criterion only for conduct disorder in the DSM-5 (2013). Bestiality and zoophilia (a sexual preference for animals) are subsumed under paraphilia not otherwise specified in the Manual. They were eliminated as formal diagnostic classifications in the revised third edition (DSM-III-R) because both were thought to coexist with other clinically significant problems and almost never to be the only disorder for which individuals would otherwise qualify (Cerrone, 1991).

(p. 101) Personality and Substance Abuse Disorders

Gleyzer, Felthous, and Holzer (2002) compared 48 criminal defendants who had histories of repeated, substantial animal cruelty with 48 criminal defendants who lacked such a history. Those in the control group were selected from the files of criminal defendants also undergoing forensic evaluations within the same calendar year and were matched for sex, race, and age but apparently not for type of criminal history. The authors relied on retrospective forensic chart review (which reflected multiple interviews with each defendant) to classify the subjects; any subject with some history of animal abuse or neglect who did not meet the threshold definition for substantial cruelty to animals was not included in either group. The two groups differed significantly in the prevalence of antisocial personality disorder, antisocial personality traits, and polysubstance abuse and dependence, with greater prevalence rates in the group with animal cruelty histories. Given that substance abuse can increase one’s impulsivity and reduce one’s control over aggressive behavior, its association with animal cruelty is perhaps unsurprising. The animal cruelty acts of individuals with borderline personality disorder may be a function of their impulsivity and explosive anger (Yokoyama, 2008).

Using a community sample, Vaughn and colleagues (2009) found that individuals who reported having been cruel to animals frequently suffered from lifetime alcohol abuse and had a family history of antisocial behavior. In terms of psychiatric disorders, the largest adjusted odds ratios were found for conduct disorder and antisocial personality disorder. Significant, albeit smaller, associations were found for pathological gambling, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder. The authors noted that chronic alcohol use, pathological gambling, conduct disorder, and antisocial and histrionic personality disorders are characterized by self-control deficits in which emotional and cognitive dysregulation are common.

Schwartz, Fremouw, Schenk, and Ragatz (2012) explored the psychological characteristics of animal abusers in an article entitled, “A Psychological Profile of Male and Female Animal Abusers.” They asked college students if they had ever intentionally hurt an animal (with exclusions for hunting and a few other situations) or forced animals to fight. The 29 (predominately white) college students who reported two or more incidents of animal cruelty were compared to a control group matched on age and gender. The results of self-report questionnaires revealed that animal abusers had more previous criminal behaviors and were more likely to bully than the control group. They also had the highest scores on the Power Orientation criminal thinking scale, meaning that they have a strong desire for power and control; offenders who score high on this scale typically show an outward display of aggression in an attempt to control their external environment and try to achieve a sense of power by manipulating others (Knight, Garner, Simpson, Morey, & Flynn, 2006). Differences in empathy and in personality traits were expected but did not emerge. Female animal abusers scored significantly higher than female controls on total criminal thinking scores as well as on Power Orientation and Justification subscales; justification refers to a thinking pattern (p. 102) characterized by the offender minimizing the seriousness of antisocial acts and by justifying actions based on external circumstances (Knight et al., 2006). Female animal abusers also were found to be more likely to bully (83% compared to 33%), and exhibited lower scores on measures of perspective taking and empathy than female controls. Although the study produced intriguing results, the variety of motives for and methods used to harm animals, even for the narrow population studied, suggest multifaceted offender personalities rather than a single profile.


Kavanagh, Signal, and Taylor (2013) asked respondents to complete an online questionnaire measuring “the Dark Triad” (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), attitudes towards animals, and acts of animal cruelty. Their sample consisted of 227 adults, the majority of whom were Australian and female; psychopathy was measured with the Self-Report Psychopathy Scale III. Higher levels of psychopathy were modestly correlated with having intentionally killed a stray, feral, or wild animal for no good reason, and having intentionally hurt or tortured an animal for the purpose of causing pain. The authors concluded that the callous and manipulative attitudes and behaviors toward others that characterize the Dark Triad are applicable in relations with both humans and animals.

Other Forms of Disorder

Yokoyama (2008) theorized the relationship between animal maltreatment and a variety of other psychiatric disorders. First, individuals with depression may neglect their pets’ needs due to their own low energy and psychomotor retardation. In countries such as Japan, depressed individuals who perceive their pets as family members have included them in “double suicides” (or alternatively refrained from suicide because of their pet). Anxiety and specific phobias may lead to the abuse of a specific type of animal. Individuals with factitious disorders such as Munchausen syndrome by proxy may deliberately harm an animal in order to elicit sympathy from others. Sensory integration disorders may account for some instances of cruelty. For example, according to one study of citizens of five countries, Americans were found to be most sensitive to noise made by pets (Namba, Kuwano, Schick, Açlar, Florentine, & Da Rui, 1991).

In summary, we do not know whether people with various types of major mental disorders (e.g., schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, mood disorders) have any greater prevalence of animal abuse than those who do not have such disorders. There is some evidence that people with antisocial personality disorders, conduct disorders, or substance abuse histories have a higher prevalence of animal abuse.

Animal Cruelty among Incarcerated Populations

Several studies have relied on retrospective accounts of childhood and adolescent cruelty to animals provided by incarcerated males. In these studies, inmates (p. 103) disproportionately endorse having committed such cruelty (e.g., Hensley & Tallichet, 2009; Merz-Perez, Heide, & Silverman, 2001).

Kellert and Felthous (1985) classified male inmates in federal prisons in Kansas and Connecticut on levels of aggression, using prison counselors’ assessments of the inmate’s documented, observed, and self-reported behavior in prison. They found that 25% of the chronically aggressive inmates reported five or more animal cruelty incidents in childhood compared to less than 6% of the less aggressive criminals and 0% of the community sample. In other words, childhood cruelty toward animals occurred to a significantly greater degree among aggressive criminals than among nonaggressive criminals or noncriminals. The aggressive inmates also reported more extreme forms of cruelty, such as stoning animals. Finally, paternal violence and alcoholism were significantly more common in the childhoods of those with histories of animal cruelty.

In this same study, Kellert and Felthous’ (1985) interviews with inmates revealed nine motivations for inmates’ cruelty toward animals. First, some subjects were cruel in an attempt to control an animal or shape his behavior. For example, one subject rubbed his dog’s anus in turpentine to deter the dog from entering a chicken-coop. Second, some subjects engaged and even delighted in intense cruelty to retaliate against an animal for a presumed wrong; for example, one subject burned a cat who had scratched him. Third, some subjects engaged in violent or sadistic conduct against an animal to satisfy a prejudice against a species or breed, frequently cats, whom they shot, burned, or mutilated indiscriminately. Fourth, subjects occasionally were cruel to animals in order to use the animals to express their own violent, aggressive behaviors toward other people or animals. For example, one subject fed his dog gunpowder so the dog would be “tough” (i.e., prepared for aggressive behavior). Fifth, some subjects killed animals to enhance their own aggressiveness or impress others with their capacity for violence. For example, one subject reported killing animals in an unspecified “outrageous fashion” to impress his fellow motorcycle gang members.

Others used cruelty to animals as an expression or way of communicating with a specific person. Some inmates were cruel to animals to shock people and generate amusement. Inmates sometimes engaged in cruelty to animals in order to retaliate against another person, often by harming the other person’s pet. Subjects’ animal cruelty sometimes represented a displacement of hostility or frustrated aggression from another person—often an authority figure the subject hated but feared—to an animal. For example, one subject described beating animals as revenge for the beatings he endured. Finally, some subjects inflicted injury, suffering, or death on an animal in order to derive pleasure from causing injury or suffering: “Sadistic gratification was sometimes associated with the desire to exercise total power and control over an animal, and may have served to compensate for a person’s feelings of weakness or vulnerability.” Kellert and Felthous note that motivation to mistreat an animal is typically multidimensional, and most subjects exhibited a variety of the aforementioned motivations.

Merz-Perez, Heide, and Silverman (2001) compared 45 inmates with histories of violent offenses to 45 inmates in the same maximum security prison who had (p. 104) no violent offenses in their criminal histories. Fifty-six percent of the violent inmates endorsed having committed past acts of animal cruelty on a self-report measure compared to 20% of the nonviolent inmates. Furthermore, 26% of the violent offenders endorsed having abused a companion animal compared to 7% of the nonviolent offenders (all three of whom reported dogfighting). The authors noted that in some cases the past cruelty acts reported by the violent offenders resembled their instant or most serious offense (e.g., forced sodomy).

Tallichet and Hensley (2004) surveyed 261 male inmates in three prisons in a southern state. They found that inmates who committed recurrent childhood animal cruelty were more likely to be convicted of recurrent adult acts of violence against humans. In a replication study, Hensley, Tallichet, and Dutkiewicz (2009) surveyed 180 male inmates in southern medium and maximum-security prisons. They found that those who had committed repeated acts of animal cruelty in childhood were more likely to have engaged in repeated acts of interpersonal violence as adults. Inmates who had drowned or had sex with animals during their youth were also more likely to have been convicted of later repeated acts of interpersonal violence.

Overton, Hensley, and Tallichet (2012) surveyed 180 male inmates in one medium- and one maximum-security southern correctional facility; 103 had engaged in animal cruelty in childhood or adolescence. Inmates who had committed recurrent animal cruelty as youths were more likely to have committed recurrent adult violence toward humans; results were statistically significant at the .05 level. Unlike Hensley and Tallichet (2008), who found that the commission of childhood animal cruelty for fun was a statistically salient motive for predicting later recurrent violence against humans, Overton and colleagues’ analyses revealed that none of the motives for committing childhood animal cruelty predicted later recurrent violent crimes toward humans.

In Australia, Alys, Wilson, Clarke, and Toman (2009) compared 20 incarcerated male sexual homicide offenders, 20 male sex offenders (who did not commit homicide) from an outpatient treatment program, and an age-matched control group of 20 male college students. Sexual homicide offenders were significantly more likely to have committed animal abuse, both during childhood and adolescence, than the sex offenders and college students. They reported significantly more frequent animal cruelty than the controls as well. Almost all (19 out of 20) of the homicide offenders reported abusing animals compared to none of the sex offenders. Childhood animal cruelty was a significant predictor for antisocial behavior (e.g., stealing, destroying property, cruelty to children) for the sexual homicide offenders and especially for the college students. According to Davis and Schlesinger (2013), serial sexual murderers report a history of cruelty to cats in particular, perhaps because “cats are generally considered a female symbol” (p. 272).

Animal cruelty in childhood has been documented not only for individuals convicted of murder but for those convicted of rape and of child molestation. For example, Tingle, Barnard, Robbins, Newman, and Hutchinson (1986) found that 47.6% of persons convicted of rape and 27.9% of those convicted of child molestation reported having been cruel to animals in childhood or adolescence.

(p. 105) More recent research has explored this behavior with a closer examination of the context in which it was occurring. In their study of 269 male sex offenders in Colorado prisons, Simons, Wurtele, and Durham (2008) found that 38% of child sexual abusers reported engaging in sexual contact with animals during childhood, compared to 11% of rapists. In general, the child sexual abusers reported a more heightened sexualized childhood; they were more likely than rapists to have been sexually abused and exposed to pornography. Sixty-eight percent of rapists reported engaging in acts of childhood cruelty towards animals, compared to 44% of child sexual abusers. Rapists reported generally more violent childhoods; they were more likely than child sexual abusers to have experienced physical and emotional abuse and parental violence. The average age of onset for sexual contact with animals for child sexual abusers was 12 whereas the average ago of onset for cruelty to animals among rapists was 10. The average age of onset of sexual offending was 14 for child sexual abusers and 16 for rapists, suggesting that the maltreatment of animals may precede interpersonal sexual offending.

We must be careful not to conclude from these results that all children who sexually or physically abuse animals will become sex offenders, or that childhood animal abuse invariably predicts future sexual offending. Among all of those children who abuse animals, perhaps only a minority become sex offenders. Yet Simons, Wurtele, and Durham’s study provides important information about the constellation of factors accompanying animal maltreatment that may signal a particularly at-risk juvenile as well as the need for secondary prevention for youth manifesting these developmental risk factors.

O’Grady, Kinlock, and Hanlon (2007) also examined the developmental experiences of prison inmates, represented in this study by 183 drug-abusing men and women in Maryland. Interviews revealed that 30.1% (n = 55) of the inmates deliberately hurt animal(s) during their youth. Moreover, a childhood history of torturing animals was significantly related to later violent crime. Of the 55 participants who had deliberately hurt animals as a child, only one inmate (1.8%) had no history of violent crime, while 29 (52.7%) inmates had attempted to or committed murder. Thus, within a population of inmates, a history of torturing animals as a child was strongly related to membership in the murder or attempted murder group. Torture of animals was also related to early engagement in criminal activity (on average, prior to age 10) and a high degree of family deviance (parent or sibling substance abuse, criminal activity, and/or abuse of other family members). Results from studies of this type do not mean that torturing animals predicts later murder convictions. It means that they are related within a prison population, but this would not likely be the case if one began with a general community sample.

Levin and Arluke (2009) reviewed the histories of 44 serial killers who had tortured their victims. Among them, 73% had reportedly also injured or killed animals and 55% tortured the animals they abused. At least 18 of the 24 serial killers who tortured animals did so using the same methods they used for torturing their human victims such as decapitation or strangling, and the majority (p. 106) (71%) tortured animals they did not know, just as serial killers typically target strangers. The authors point out that many “normal” individuals report a history of harming animals in childhood and opine that perhaps it is incidents of animal abuse in which a socially valued, anthropomorphized animal such as a cat or dog is tortured in a “hands on” manner that predicts subsequent violence against humans.

Along these lines, Felthous and Kellert (1986) suggested that among youth who perpetrate childhood animal cruelty, the nature of it may be qualitatively different (e.g., severity, frequency, type of animal) for those who graduate to adult offending and those who do not. For example, it is not uncommon for boys to play with BB guns and bows and arrows, particularly in certain geographic regions. Animals often become the target, though the boys’ intent was not to inflict pain on the animal whose suffering may be an afterthought. Likewise, Dadds, Turner, and McAloon (2002) noted that certain dimensions or features of childhood cruelty to animals may be meaningful in evaluating aggressive individuals. These features include direct involvement, variety of cruelty acts, variety of species victimized, victimization of socially valued species (e.g., pets), lack of self-restraint, motivations for cruelty (e.g., causing pain versus seeking a caregiver’s attention), enjoyment of the animal’s pain, and lack of remorse. The nature and frequency of animal cruelty behavior in the childhoods of violent offenders compared to non-offenders has not been studied extensively.

Finally, special mention should be made of studies examining the so-called “homicidal triad” of symptoms—enuresis, fire-setting, and cruelty to animals. It has long been claimed that if these are exhibited in childhood, they are predictive of aggressive violent crimes in adulthood. This triad was widely utilized by clinicians in the prediction of dangerousness during the 1970s and early 1980s (Diamond, 1974; Monahan, 1981) and exemplified in the histories of serial killers such as Ken Bianchi (one of the “Hillside Stranglers”) and Richard Chase (the California “Vampire Killer”) (Stone, 2001). It was first examined by MacDonald (1963), who studied 100 patients of the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital admitted for making homicidal threats. He found that the childhood triad of animal cruelty, firesetting, and enuresis was “often encountered” in the “very sadistic patients” (pp. 126–127) and concluded that it was “an unfavorable prognostic factor in those who threaten homicide” (p. 130). However, in a later study he did not find it to be a useful predictor of future violence (1968). In a retrospective study, Hellman and Blackman (1966) compared 31 prisoners charged with aggressive crimes to 53 prisoners charged with nonaggressive crimes. Twenty-three (74%) of the former had the full triad while only seven of the latter had the full triad and eight more had a history of part of the triad (28%). Langevin and colleagues (1983), on the other hand, found that the triad was not a useful predictor of homicide in their study. Because of the methodological limitations of these studies, firm conclusions regarding the validity of the triad in predicting future violence cannot be determined at present.

(p. 107) Research on Animal Cruelty by Adolescents

According to the National School Safety Council, the U.S. Department of Education, the American Psychological Association, and the National Crime Prevention Council, animal cruelty is a warning sign for at-risk youth and an indicator that those youth pose a potential risk to others (Randour, 2004). This position is likely based in part on the experiences of law enforcement personnel. For example, in their seminal FBI study of 28 convicted sexual homicide perpetrators, Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas (1988) found that 36% of them had abused animals in childhood and 46% had done so in adolescence. Serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer, who impaled dogs’ heads, frogs, and cats on sticks, and Albert DeSalvo, the “Boston Strangler,” who trapped dogs and cats in orange crates and shot them with arrows in his youth (Merz-Perez & Heide, 2004), recounted animal torture as their first violent act (Melson, 2013). Likewise, several of the “school shooters” who killed classmates and school personnel during the 1990s and 2000s had a history of abusing animals (Verlinden, Henson & Thomas, 2000), particularly anthropomorphized species (dogs and cats) in an up-close and personal manner such as strangulation, bludgeoning, or beating to death (Arluke & Madfis, 2014). For example, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 classmates and a teacher at Columbine High School, reportedly used to brag about mutilating animals (Arluke & Madfis, 2014; Petersen & Farrington, 2007).

Studies of Animal Cruelty and Delinquency in Adolescence

Recent studies have explored whether a history of animal cruelty in childhood serves as a marker for severe maladjustment and criminal behaviors. Lucia and Killias (2011) examined data from the 2006 Swiss National Self-Reported Delinquency Survey, which was completed by more than 3,648 students in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, most of whom ranged in age from 13 to 16. They found a lifetime prevalence of animal cruelty of 12%; 17% of boys and 8% of girls reported having intentionally harmed an animal. Children who admitted having maltreated animals had a three times higher likelihood of committing serious violent acts such as robbery, snatching/mugging, or assault with injury. That is, 7.8% of those who admitted having mistreated an animal committed serious violence compared to 1.9% of those without a known history of animal cruelty; likewise, 24.1% of those who admitted having mistreated an animal committed minor violence compared to 11.5% of those without a known animal abuse history. The odds ratios for animal cruelty were particularly strong for vandalism (OR 3.35) and for serious violence (OR 3.16), but far less so for minor violence (OR 1.47) and nonviolent offenses, suggesting that animal cruelty is associated with offenses that have a component of violence, aggression, or anger. However, the results are limited by the authors’ inclusion of insects into the list of animals maltreated; separate analyses of those who harmed or killed only vertebrates were omitted.

(p. 108) Also using a community sample, Henry (2004) surveyed 169 college students and found that those who reported perpetrating animal cruelty had significantly higher scores on a delinquency measure than those who did not report a history of animal cruelty. In other words, they were significantly more likely to report greater involvement in a variety of antisocial behaviors, both within the previous year and over the course of their lives.

Becker, Herrera, McCloskey, and Stuewig (2004) used a prospective design to investigate relationships among family risk factors, childhood firesetting and animal cruelty, and adolescent delinquency. Results from their sample of children in a battered women’s shelter revealed that animal cruelty was not associated with a referral to juvenile court, but it was related to self-report measures of nonviolent (r = 0.14, p < .05) and violent (r = 0.19, p < .01) delinquency.

Using prospective data from a longitudinal study, Walters (2014) analyzed interviews with 1,336 culturally diverse individuals between ages 14 to 19 who had been adjudicated delinquent in Philadelphia or Phoenix; most of the youth were male. Walters found that when pre-baseline covariates (age, sex, race, early onset of behavior problems) were controlled, childhood animal cruelty was related to subsequent aggressive and non-aggressive (income) offending, though effect sizes were modest. There was evidence that the relationship between animal cruelty and subsequent offending was mediated by several cognitive and personality variables, particularly hostility and callousness. Walters concluded that results were congruent with a deviance generalization interpretation of the relationship between animal cruelty and offending, wherein cruelty toward animals is conceptualized as a symptom of low self-control or general deviance.

However, as previously mentioned, a single and fairly minor animal cruelty act alone may have little value in predicting future serious offending, because it appears to be fairly common in American boys. For example, in a study of college students, Flynn (1999) found that 34.5% of the 84 males (and 9.3% of females) reported engaging in at least one act of animal cruelty in childhood/adolescence. Yet Myers, Burgess, and Nelson’s (1998) study of 14 incarcerated juveniles who committed or attempted sexual homicide found that 29%, about the same prevalence as among Flynn’s general sample, had a history of cruelty to animals. Of the 299 predominantly male Iowa prison inmates surveyed by Miller and Knutson (1997), 36 reported having killed a pet, 98 reported having killed a stray, and 49 reported having hurt an animal in childhood or adolescence. For comparison purposes, the authors then surveyed 308 undergraduates (57% of whom were female), and found that 20.5% endorsed having engaged in at least one act of animal cruelty in childhood; 10 reported having killed a pet, 44 reported killing stray animals, and 30 reported intentionally inflicting pain on an animal in order to tease or torture them. Finally, one study using an anonymous survey found that 10% of male adolescents and 9% of female adolescents admitted committing animal cruelty (Ascione, 2001).

(p. 109) Additional research is needed regarding the utility of using animal abuse in a general child or adolescent population as an indicator of later delinquency in clinical or forensic applications. Even if it is more frequent among youth who later are delinquent, no research has yet shown the level of false positives that would occur if we used animal abuse as a “marker” for later delinquency. The review does suggest the possible value of animal abuse history as a factor in differentiating among types of youth who are already known to have engaged in violent or non-violent delinquencies.

Psychiatric Disorders in Adolescents and Animal Cruelty

Conduct Disorder

A history of animal cruelty has been found in 29.4% of boys with conduct disorder (Loeber, Keenan, Lahey, Green, & Thomas, 1993). Indeed, animal cruelty is highly indicative of conduct disorder. One study using data gathered from 440 children and adolescents who had been referred to mental health clinics found that positive predictive power (PPP) for cruelty to animals was .82, meaning that 82% of children displaying animal cruelty (per the report of adults close to them) received a conduct disorder diagnosis (Frick et al., 1994). This finding suggests that animal cruelty does not exist in isolation but is typically but one of a constellation of deviant behaviors.

It is important to interpret those results with caution. Considered together, these studies suggest that most conduct-disordered youth (70%) do not engage in animal abuse. However, when one encounters a preadolescent or adolescent who has been referred to a mental health clinic (typically because of some serious behavior disorder) and who is cruel to animals, the chances are 80% that he or she meets criteria for conduct disorder. Note also that this does not suggest that cruelty to animals in adolescence is necessarily related to later antisocial behavior in adulthood. Most youth with conduct disorder do not receive a diagnosis of antisocial personality when they reach adulthood.

The early onset of conduct disorder (e.g., prior to age 10) is typically associated with a poorer prognosis (APA, 2013). Cruelty to animals, then, may be a particularly important warning sign because it is one of the earliest reported symptoms of conduct disorder. In clinical samples, the median age of onset of animal cruelty reported by parents is 6.5 years, meaning that it is observed earlier than bullying, cruelty to people, vandalism, or fire setting (Frick et al., 1993). Notably, children in clinical samples who are cruel to animals exhibit more symptoms of conduct disorder than other children; animal cruelty may be a marker of a subgroup of youth with conduct disorder who have a poorer prognosis (Luk, Staiger, Wong, & Mathai, 1999).

To examine the utility of individual DSM-IV CD symptom criteria in predicting the progression from conduct disorder to antisocial personality disorder, Gelhorn, Sakai, Price, and Crowley (2007) used a national (p. 110) representative sample of adults (who had been interviewed in person as part of a larger study). They found that cruelty to animals significantly discriminated between those with clinical and subclinical conduct-disordered behaviors (based on retrospectively reported criteria): 18% of males in the conduct-disordered group endorsed having harmed an animal intentionally, compared to 5.5% of the subclinical group. However, cruelty to animals was not useful in discriminating between transient and persistent antisocial behavior.

Using a high-risk community sample (the children of mothers in battered women’s shelters) and a comparison group, Becker, Stuewig, Herrera, & McCloskey (2004) found that children ages 6 through 12 who were cruel to animals were more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder than children without a history of animal cruelty That is, 29% of “cruel children” were diagnosed with conduct disorder compared to 7.2% of noncruel children, and 54.8% of cruel children were diagnosed with ADHD compared to 27.7% of noncruel children. These differences were statistically significant. Dadds and colleagues (2004) examined the prediction of animal cruelty in a sample of 1,333, mostly Caucasian Australian children ages three through nine and their caregivers. The factors with unique and significant prediction were education of the mother, conduct problems, and hyperactivity. The authors concluded that because two of the biggest predictors of animal abuse were conduct problems and hyperactivity, cruelty may be due in part to poor impulse control.

Children who demonstrate proactive aggression (that is, premeditated instrumental aggression such as animal cruelty) are at higher risk for later delinquency than those with reactive aggression only. In this respect as well, cruelty to animals is a possible marker for a subgroup of conduct disorder that has a poor prognosis (Dadds, Turner, & McAloon, 2002). About one-third of children with conduct disorder continue to show behaviors in adulthood that meet criteria for antisocial personality disorder (Duncan & Miller, 2002). As noted earlier, about 30% of youth with conduct disorder have engaged in animal cruelty. Thus with further study, animal cruelty among conduct disordered youth might be found to be of help in distinguishing conduct disordered youth who will or will not continue their offending in adulthood.

Other Psychiatric Disorders in Juveniles

High incidence of animal cruelty has also been found in juvenile populations with attachment disorders (Ascione, 2001; Baldry, 2003), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, depression (Becker, Stuewig, Herrera, & McCloskey, 2004), polysubstance abuse and dependence, and personality disorders including antisocial personality disorder (Gleyzer, Felthous, & Holzer, 2002). However, more research is needed in all of these areas before formal associations can be made because it is unclear whether animal abuse is any more prevalent in these disorders than in general populations.

(p. 111) Family and Social Variables Associated with Childhood Animal Cruelty

Witnessing aggression between parents or caregivers may be a form of observational learning through which children learn violent problem-solving behaviors (Ascione, 1993). Children may imitate their parents’ fighting by abusing their pets. DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood found that pets were abused or neglected in 60% of families known to engage in child maltreatment, and 26% of the children abused or were cruel to their pets. Moreover, in 88% of families displaying child physical abuse, pet abuse was also present (compared to the 34% in families displaying child sexual abuse or neglect). The relationship of a youth to the perpetrator who is being observed appears to mediate the youth’s likelihood of committing similar subsequent acts. Those who observed a friend, relative, parent, or sibling abuse an animal reported significantly higher levels of animal cruelty while those who observed a stranger abuse an animal reported lower levels (Thompson & Gullone, 2006). Along similar lines, Hensley and Tallichet (2005b) found that male inmates who witnessed a friend or family member hurt or kill an animal were significantly more likely to frequently engage in animal cruelty compared to those who witnessed another person (e.g., a stranger) commit the act. Likewise, Baldry (2003) found that exposure to animal cruelty, particularly at the hands of parents or peers, is a particularly strong factor for subsequent acts of animal cruelty perpetrated by the juvenile observer.

In addition to parental animal abuse, family risk factors for animal cruelty include physical abuse, corporal punishment, sexual abuse, and exposure to domestic violence (Duncan & Miller, 2002). Becker, Herrera, McCloskey, and Stuewig (2004) found that animal cruelty among children ages 6 through 12 was associated with paternal (r = 0.19) and maternal harsh parenting (r = 0.14). Dadds et al. (2004), on the other hand, found that harsh and inconsistent parenting style was not associated with childhood cruelty to animals in a large sample of Australian youth after controlling for other factors. In an Italian study, verbal abuse on the part of the mother was associated with animal cruelty for boys but not for girls, while physical abuse by the father was associated with animal cruelty for girls but not for boys (Baldry, 2005). In his sample of college students, Flynn (1999) found that the frequency of being spanked by fathers was positively related to perpetrating animal abuse for males; nearly 60% of males who received corporal punishment more than 20 times from their fathers had abused an animal. Moreover, nearly 60% of males who were physically punished as teens by their fathers perpetrated animal abuse, compared to 23% who were not hit as teens by fathers. No patterns emerged for males spanked by their mothers or females spanked by either parent. Flynn agreed with DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood’s speculation (1983) that children who are physically harmed by their parents may employ “scapegoating,” inflicting violence on their powerless pets. He also pointed to the “cultural spillover” theory which maintains that the more (p. 112) exposure an individual has to socially acceptable violence, the more likely he is to engage in socially unacceptable violence (Straus, 1994).

In a study of conduct disordered children in a residential treatment center, children who were cruel to animals had significantly greater histories of child abuse, both physical and sexual, than children who were not (Duncan, Thomas, & Miller, 2005). Similarly, in a study of seriously mentally ill adolescent inpatients, Ascione (2001) found that parental reports of cruelty to animals were 35% for sexually abused boys and 27% for sexually abused girls compared to 5% for nonabused boys and 3% for nonabused girls. In another study, Ascione and colleagues surveyed maternal caregivers of 6- to 12-year-old children who had been sexually abused (and referred to a clinic) about their children’s behavior (Ascione, Friedrich, Heath, & Hayashi, 2003). The reported prevalence of cruelty to animals was more than five times higher for the sexual abuse (17.9%) and psychiatric comparison (15.6%) groups than for the normative group who did not have a history of sexual abuse (3.1%). Yamazaki (2010) found that a sample of maltreated, institutionalized Japanese youth were significantly more likely to report witnessing and committing more severe animal cruelty than a group of nonmaltreated elementary-age youth. Sexually oriented adult murderers who were sexually abused in childhood or adolescence were significantly more likely than non-abused murderers to report a history of cruelty to animals (Ressler, Burgess, Hartman, Douglas, & McCormack, 1986).

Currie (2006) found that Canadian mothers who reported that their children were exposed to domestic violence were almost three times more likely to report that their children were cruel to animals compared to a matched sample of mothers who did not report domestic violence (17% vs. 7%, respectively). Likewise, in a nonclinical Italian sample, Baldry (2005) found that youth age 9 to 12 who reported exposure to interparental violence were three times as likely to have abused animals as their peers who were not exposed to such violence. Fifty-nine percent of those who witnessed their father physically abusing their mother endorsed having been cruel to an animal compared to 33% of those who had not witnessed this. Sixty percent of those who witnessed their mother being violent toward their father endorsed having been cruel to an animal compared to 34% who had not witnessed this. Ascione (1998) found that 32% of women residing in a domestic violence shelter reported that one of their children had hurt or killed a family pet. Estimates of the number of children in domestic violence homes who have witnessed animal abuse range from 29% in Australia (Gullone, Volant, & Johnson, 2004) to 61% (Carlisle-Frank, Frank, & Nielsen, 2004) and 67% (Ascione et al., 2007) in the United States.

Other parental factors have been associated with increased rates of animal cruelty. Among them are low parental education levels (Dadds, Whiting, Bunn, Fraser, Charlson, & Pirola-Merlo, 2004; Dadds, Whiting, & Hawes, 2006; Flynn, 1999), a physically and/or emotionally unavailable father (Felthous, 1980; Hellman & Blackman, 1966), paternal alcoholism (Felthous, 1980; Tapia, 1971), and residence in rural areas (Hensley & Tallichet, 2005a). However, more (p. 113) research is needed to determine whether these relationships can be generalized or are specific to the single studies that reported them.

Theories about Family Violence and Animal Maltreatment

As the preceding section suggests, several studies (e.g., Ascione, Friedrich, Heath, & Hayashi, 2003; Flynn, 2000a) have demonstrated that animal abuse may be a reliable marker for other forms of family violence, including domestic violence and child abuse. For example, a 2001 study conducted by the Humane Society of the United States involving 1,677 official and unofficial reports of deliberate animal cruelty revealed that 89% of the cases also involved domestic violence, 67% involved child abuse, and 50% involved elder abuse (Arkow, 2003). The results of these studies are sufficiently consistent that a number of theories have arisen to explain the relationship.

DeGue and DiLillo (2009) identified several explanations for this link between animal cruelty and family violence. Some “homes may be prone to generalized physical violence—with lines blurred between victims and perpetrators” (DeGue & DiLillo, 2009, p. 1051). The family dynamic may be one in which vulnerable or dependent household members are devalued. Abusing an animal, particularly one to whom the child is bonded, may be a form of emotional abuse and a means of intimidating, controlling, scaring, or upsetting children. Child abusers may harm animals or threaten to do so in order to frighten or manipulate children into complying with the abuse or agreeing to keep it secret. Children, in turn, may abuse animals to redirect their aggression and cope with their victimization. Their ability to do so may reflect the lack of parental supervision often associated with child neglect and abuse. Consistent with social learning theory, children may also be reenacting the animal cruelty they witnessed in the home or with peers.

Febres and colleagues (2014) theorize that the overrepresentation of animal abuse in adulthood among domestic batterers may represent these individuals’ propensities toward maladaptive coping strategies (such as the use of aggression) across settings. They point out that those who perpetrate interpersonal violence and those who perpetrate animal cruelty endorse characteristics in common, such as antisocial traits, problems with impulsivity, low empathy, and involvement in other illegal behaviors. To that list, Walters (2014) added callousness-unemotionality and interpersonal hostility and hypothesized that perhaps those two mediate the relationship between animal cruelty and general offending.

DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood (1983) believe that “triangling” frequently occurs within domestic violence families wherein pets are mistreated as a way of hurting another family member. They pointed to the fact that 88% of individuals in their study who had physically abused their children also had records for animal abuse. Coston and Protz (1998) conceptualized this behavior as a “pecking order of aggressive acts” in which violence and a lack of empathy was passed down from the head of household through the child and down to household (p. 114) animals (p. 154). As a result of this intergenerational transmission of cruelty, children in violent homes may abuse their siblings and pets (Ascione, 1993).

Intimate Partner Violence and Animal Cruelty

Pets are frequently abused by men who batter their partners. Seventy-one percent of the 38 women interviewed in a battered women’s shelter in Utah reported that their partners had threatened to harm or kill their pet, and 57% reported that their partners had actually harmed or killed their pet (Ascione, 1998). Quinlisk (1999) anonymously surveyed 72 women in Wisconsin domestic violence programs, 62 of whom reported having pets in the home. Of those 62, 49 (68%) reported that there was violence directed toward the animal(s), and two others reported that their partners threatened to kill or give away the pets. Twenty of the 43 battered women interviewed in a South Carolina shelter reported that their abuser had harmed or threatened to harm their pets (Flynn, 2000b). Fifty-three percent of women in a New York domestic violence shelter reported that their partners had physically harmed their pets (Carlisle-Frank, Frank, & Nielsen, 2004). In a study of 151 primarily Hispanic women in two South Texas domestic violence shelters, 36% reported that their partners had threatened, harmed, or killed their pets (Faver & Cavazos, 2007). Walton-Moss, Manganello, Frye, and Campbell (2005) analyzed data from a large, case-control 11-city study. Cases were women who had survived an attempted homicide (n = 183) or proxies of women who did not (typically mothers, sisters, or friends) (n = 220). A randomly selected control group of nonabused women was also used. Five partner characteristics were associated with abuse, one of which was threat or actual abuse of a pet. Of those five risk factors, partner pet abuse had the largest effect for risk of intimate partner violence (AOR 7.59, p = .011); women who reported partner pet abuse were 7.59 times more likely to be victims of severe intimate partner violence than women whose partners did not abuse animals.

Logan, Shannon, and Walker (2005) examined battering experiences of 450 women who had obtained protective orders against their intimate partners. Thirty-six percent of the rural women and 19.6% of urban women reported that their partners had threatened or harmed their pets. It should be noted that compared to urban women, rural women more often reported that their partner had been violent toward the couple’s children, threatened the woman’s life, and threatened her with weapons. The idea that animal cruelty in domestic violence relationships may be indicative of a particularly high-risk relationship was also suggested in a study by Simmons and Lehmann (2007) with a sample of 1,283 women seeking services at an urban domestic violence shelter. As reported by the women, significantly more men who abused the family pets sexually had assaulted, raped, and stalked their partners compared to men who did not abuse the family pets.

Ascione and colleagues (2007) compared a convenience sample of 101 women in domestic violence shelters in Utah to 119 women in the community who indicated that they had not been physically abused by a partner. When queried, 52.5% of the abused women reported that their partner had threatened to harm or kill (p. 115) their pet compared to 12.5% of women in the community group. Moreover, 54% of the abused women reported that their partner had actually harmed or killed their pet compared to 5% of the women in the community. The majority (66.7%) of the abused women’s children reported having seen or heard one of their pets hurt. Overall, 22.8% of the abused women reported that concern for their pet delayed them from seeking refuge in a domestic violence shelter; among women whose pet(s) had been abused and threatened, 34.3% had delayed seeking refuge. The strongest predictors of threats to pets were the Conflict Tactics Scale’s Minor Physical Violence and Verbal Aggression subscales whereas the strongest predictors of actual harm to or killing of pets by a partner were the women’s shelter or nonshelter status and the Severe Physical Violence subscale of the Conflict Tactics Scale. According to DeGue (2011), this suggests that the severity of animal cruelty may increase as a function of the increasing severity of interpersonal violence.

Loring and Bolden-Hines (2004) studied women who had had a pet in the past year and were clients of a family violence center specializing in emotional and physical abuse of adults who had legal charges. The women lived in rural and urban areas, mostly in the southern United States. Their ages and family incomes ranged considerably. Each met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder. Fifty-four of the 72 women (75%) reported that their batterer had abused their pet. Twenty-four of the women reported that their partner harmed a pet in order to force the women to commit an illegal act(s) including robbery, fraud, and/or drug-trafficking. All 24 coerced women reported committing the illegal act(s) so that her pet would not be hurt (Loring & Bolden-Hines, 2004).

In another study involving a criminal population, researchers interviewed 38 incarcerated men in Utah who had a violent intimate relationship in which a pet was present. Fifty-five percent of these men acknowledged abusing or killing the pet (Ascione & Blakelock, 2003). Those who acknowledged pet abuse also reported higher rates of forcing their partner to engage in anal and/or oral sex, firesetting, and punching, kicking, or biting others. Jorgenson and Maloney (1999) also queried abusive men about their treatment of pets in the home. Only 1% of the 1,354 males surveyed acknowledged committing animal cruelty, a figure that stands in contrast to the much greater percentage of battered women in the study who reported that their partners had abused the family pet(s).

A significant percentage of battered women delay fleeing to a shelter out of concern for the welfare of their companion animals. Proportions vary from 18% (Ascione, 1998; Flynn, 2000b), 33% (Volant, Johnson, Gullone, & Coleman, 2008), and 43.5% (Fitzgerald, 2005) to 48% (Carlisle-Frank, Frank, & Nielsen, 2004).

The relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse is evident in other countries as well. In Australia, researchers matched a group of 102 women utilizing domestic violence services in Victoria to a comparison group of 102 women in the community whose relationships were not abusive. Approximately 53% of the women in the domestic violence group reported that their partner had abused their pet compared to none of the women in the comparison group. Forty-six percent of the battered women reported that their partners (p. 116) had threatened to harm their pets compared to 5.8% of the women who were not abused (Volant, Johnson, Gullone, & Coleman, 2008). However, because this study, like the aforementioned American studies, used narrow recruitment methods, they may not be representative of all domestic violence victims. A 2012 New Zealand study involved a survey of 203 Women’s Refuge clients (current or former domestic violence victims). Of these, 36.5% reported that a pet or other animal had been injured or killed some time in their violent relationship, most commonly within the past two years. In approximately 90% these instances, it was the woman’s abusive partner who had harmed the animal(s). Approximately one-third of survey respondents reported having stayed in the relationship either “somewhat” or “completely” out of fear that their partner would injure their animal (Roguski, 2012).

Two Canadian studies also examined the treatment of pets in domestic violence households. The Ontario SPCA surveyed 111 women in 30 domestic violence shelters in the province who had pets in the past year. Of those, 44% reported that their partner had abused or killed one or more of their pets; 43% of the women reported that concern over their pet’s welfare prevented them from leaving the abusive situation sooner (Daniell, 2001). McIntosh (2001) surveyed 65 women in a Calgary domestic violence shelter who reported having had one or more pets in the past year. Of those, 47% reported that their partner hurt or killed a family pet; 25.4% delayed coming to a shelter due to concern for their pet(s). As in other studies, many of the women reported that their children had witnessed the abuse of family pets and some expressed concern that their children had harmed or killed animals themselves.

Most of the studies described here concerned women who eventually sought refuge in battered women’s shelters. It is worth noting that women with even stronger attachments to their pets may be underrepresented in these studies because of their reluctance to go to shelters, most of which prohibit animals (Long, Long, & Kulkarni, 2007). In addition, factors such as socioeconomic status and social support networks influence whether a woman will seek refuge in a shelter (McPhedran, 2009). Thus, much less is known about animal cruelty in the homes of domestic violence victims who have remained with their batterer or sought safety with friends or relatives (Ascione et al., 2007).

Examinations of animal abuse behaviors among domestic batterers typically focus on abuse by men. However, Febres and colleagues (2012) surveyed 87 women arrested for domestic violence, most of whom were Caucasian. A history of animal abuse (which the authors conceptualized as encompassing threats, neglect, and physical cruelty) was overrepresented in the sample: 17% committed at least one act of animal abuse since age 18, compared to the 0.28% prevalence rate reported in the general population (Vaughn et al., 2009). Women who reported committing animal abuse as an adult showed moderately higher rates of psychological aggression and physical assault perpetration against their partners, relative to women who did not report a history of animal abuse. In a parallel study of 307 primarily Caucasian men arrested for domestic violence in Rhode Island, Febres and colleagues (2014) found that 41% reported having (p. 117) committed animal abuse since age 18, compared to the 1.5% prevalence rate in the general population (Vaughn et al., 2009). Psychological and physical intimate partner violence (overall and severe), antisocial traits, alcohol use, total adulthood animal abuse, and physical animal abuse were all positively and significantly correlated with each other. However, adulthood animal abuse was not significantly associated with overall psychological aggression or severe physical aggression above and beyond antisocial personality traits and alcohol use (Febres et al., 2014).

Child Abuse

DeViney, Dickert, and Lockwood (1983) surveyed the treatment of animals in 53 families in which children had been physically or sexually abused or neglected. A social services staff member who worked with the family interviewed an adult or teenager in the family home so that he or she could observe interactions with pets directly. Based on the families’ self-report and caseworkers’ observations, the researchers determined that pets had been abused in 60% of the families, most frequently by both parents. Children had clearly been physically abused in 19 of the families; in 17 of those 19, animals were also abused. The authors noted that 50% of the animal abusers with more than one pet differentiated between their “good” pet and their “bad” pet, a theme that is common in child abuse cases (DeViney, Dickert, & Lockwood, 1983).

Child molesters may threaten or actually harm their victims’ pets in order to coerce the child into remaining silent about the abuse (Adams, 1994; Arkow, 2007). Abusers may physically harm animals in order to intimidate, control, frighten, or upset children who they are not molesting as well (DeGue & DiLillo, 2009). Parents may also force children to participate in the abuse of a pet in order to “toughen them up” (Loar, 1999).

DeGue and DiLillo (2009) surveyed 860 college students, the majority of whom were white and female. Victims of family violence were significantly more likely to report experiencing animal cruelty as a witness or perpetrator than nonvictims, with 26.8% of victims reporting exposure to animal abuse. Specifically, participants who witnessed animal abuse were significantly more likely to report a history of child physical abuse, emotional abuse, and severe domestic violence than participants who did not witness it. Witnessing and perpetrating animal cruelty increased the odds of child abuse or domestic violence exposure by 1.5 to 2 times. Further, individuals who reported abusing animals were more likely to report a history of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect than nonperpetrators. In sum, approximately 60% of individuals who witnessed or perpetrated animal abuse also experienced family violence. The authors concluded that animal cruelty may prove a reliable marker for other forms of family violence as child maltreatment or domestic violence may be present in many or even the majority of homes in which animals are abused.

Brennen and colleagues (2010) surveyed 993 adults in the Bahamas, approximately half of whom lived with pets. Violence was used to train pets in approximately one quarter of the homes with pets, and pets were intentionally harmed (p. 118) in 14.6% of homes. In 272 of the homes where there were both pets and children, 11.4% contained domestic violence, child abuse, and pet abuse. Pets were hit as a means of discipline in 54.5% of the homes in which spanking was considered abuse compared to 23.5% of the homes in which spanking was not considered abuse. Furthermore, in 45.5% of the homes in which spanking was considered abuse, the abuser was the same person who hit the pet (compared to 7.9% in homes in which the spanking was not considered abuse). The authors concluded that people who harm pets could be at a higher risk of harming children and may need counseling.

Girardi and Pozzulo (2012) surveyed child protection workers in Ontario, Canada about the significance of animal cruelty when completing child protection investigations. Of the 78 workers who completed the online questionnaire (reflecting a low response rate), 28% endorsed directly observing caregivers (mostly fathers and stepfathers) physically harming animals during investigations in the past year, and 45% reported directly observing children doing so. In addition, 44% endorsed observing evidence (e.g., visible injuries) that an animal had been abused, and 95% endorsed observing evidence of animal neglect during the investigations in the previous year.

Elder Abuse

As with child abuse, many of the same factors place dependent, elderly adults and companion animals at risk for abuse. Dependent elders require substantial supervision. Their limited mobility and/or physical maladies may lead to boredom, frustration, and, consequently, complaining. Incontinence may be the breaking point that propels the caregiver towards abusive behavior (Loar, 1999). Abusers’ drug and alcohol abuse may also play a part, as may the social status of both groups: elders and animals are typically looked down upon by others, an attitude which facilitates abuse (Rosen, 1995).

Ascione asserted that some caregivers may abuse their elderly parent’s pet as a way to punish their parent for abusing them when they were children (Rosen, 1995). Alternatively, an individual may abuse or threaten to harm an animal in order to intimidate an elderly person into signing over assets or property. According to Rosen (1995), “Pets and grandmas get bloodied, neglected and raped for the same reasons: greed, anger, frustration and ignorance” (p. 2). The elderly person may be dependent on the abuser (financially or otherwise) and thus reluctant to report the abuse (Petersen & Farrington, 2007).

Lockwood (2002) argues that pets are typically more visible victims than mistreated elderly persons. The presence of a mistreated pet, then, can signal that an older person may be suffering as well (Rosen, 1995).

In 2001, the Humane Society of the United States and the National Center on Elder Abuse distributed questionnaires to Adult Protective Service caseworkers and supervisors nationwide regarding animal cruelty and elder abuse. Of the nearly 200 respondents, 35% reported that clients talked about pets having been threatened, injured, killed, or denied care by a caregiver. More than 45% of the respondents reported that they have encountered evidence of abuse or neglect (p. 119) of animals when visiting clients. Approximately 92% reported the coexistence of animal neglect and a client’s inability to care for him or herself. Finally, more than 75% of respondents noted that clients’ concern for their animals’ welfare affected decisions about interventions or additional services such as housing (Lockwood, 2002).

Boat and Knight (2000) also queried Adult Protective Services case managers about their experiences with elderly clients who had pets. The six case managers most often reported having observed companion animals being neglected by their elderly “owners.” However, the workers noted that animal neglect tended to be a symptom of the elder’s inability to take sufficient care of him- or herself. Rarely, they stated, was the animal the only one suffering. As a result of these and similar findings, Ascione and Peak (2009) developed a protocol for assessing animal welfare issues in the lives of elder adults as well as a follow-up protocol for cases in which elder adults have expressed concern about the welfare of their animals.

Animal Sexual Abuse

The sexual abuse of animals includes a wide range of sexual behaviors such as vaginal, anal, or oral penetration; penetration using an object; oral-genital contact; and fondling. In their sample of 28 cases of sexual abuse of small animals (53 dogs, 4 cats, and 1 rabbit) in the United Kingdom, Munro and Thrusfield (2001) found that most involved either penile penetration or insertion of a foreign object (such as a broomstick or knife) into the animal’s vagina or rectum. They concluded: “the range of injuries in abused animals reported here mirrors, by and large, the spectrum identified in human victims” (p. 336).

According to Beirne (1997), this abuse may be conceptualized as interspecies sexual assault because the human has power and control over the animal including most aspects of the animal’s welfare. In this way, the sexual abuse of a pet is arguably akin to the sexual abuse of a dependent child. Also like children, animals are unable to consent to humans in a clear and unambiguous manner (Beirne, 1997). A proclivity for exploiting them may reflect a preference for abusing those who are unable to voice consent or opposition (Sandnabba, Santtila, Nordling, Beetz, & Alison, 2002). Nearly half of all states in the United States require individuals convicted of having sex with animals to register as sex offenders (National District Attorneys Association, 2014), which could suggest that lawmakers believe that individuals who sexually assault animals pose a risk to humans. It is also illegal to create, sell, distribute, or exchange “animal crush videos,” sexual fetish films that typically depict women, often in high-heeled shoes, torturing and killing small animals (Tallichet & Hensley, 2013; Williams, 2014).

(p. 120) Prevalence

The sexual abuse of animals may be more common than one might think, at least among certain populations. For example, in a 1991 prevalence study, Alvarez and Freinhar found that 6 of the 15 male psychiatric patients (40%) queried endorsed having had sex relations with an animal. Based on their study of 5,300 men, Kinsey et al. (1948) estimated that 8% of white American males had engaged in sex with animals; however, Kinsey’s nonrandom sampling and aggressive interview style call into question the generalizability of his results (Beirne, 2001). In a sample of 267 college students, 2.4% of the male sample reported having engaged in sex with an animal (Flynn, 1999). Sexual contact with animals may particularly common in regions in which it is more culturally accepted and/or in rural areas. Zequi and colleagues (2012) questioned 118 penile cancer patients and 374 controls from mostly rural Brazilian cities. One hundred and seventy-one (34.8%) of the men reported having had sex with animals, and 29.8% reported having had sex with animals with a group of men. The majority of subjects (60%) practiced sex with animals for over one to five years, and mares and donkeys were the most commonly abused.

It is important to note that prevalence rates of animal sexual abuse may be underreported, even among offender populations. For example, when English, Jones, Patrick, and Pasini-Hill (2003) interviewed 180 convicted sexual offenders, mostly males convicted of crimes against children, approximately 4% acknowledged having had sex with animals. However, after a polygraph administration and treatment process, 36% admitted to having had sex with animals. Likewise, in a survey of 32 juveniles adjudicated for “severe contact” sexual offenses, 37.5% endorsed having had sex with animals on a true-false questionnaire but 81.2% admitted to having had sex with animals during a polygraph administration (Schenk, Cooper-Lehki, Keelan, & Fremouw, 2014). According to Maher and Pierpoint (2012), recent community samples of individuals reporting that they have had sex with animals indicate that the majority are male, Caucasian, single, and with at least a college-level education.

Types of Animal Sexual Abusers

Scholars have differentiated between various types of sexual abusers of animals. Sexual contact with animals is often referred to as bestiality. However, “zoophiles” are sexually fixated on animals; animals are their preferred sexual partners (Beetz, 2005; Beirne, 1997). “Zoosexuals” report having an emotional as well as sexual attraction to or a relationship with an animal (Beetz, 2004). The advent of the Internet has led to the development of a online zoophile community in which individuals share information and pornography via websites, chat rooms, and mailing lists and receive validation for their sexual practice. Pedophiles engage in very similar activities online (Durkin, Forsyth, & Quinn, (p. 121) 2006). Adams (1995) likened zoophiles to child sexual abusers in that they often view the sexual acts as consensual and mutually enjoyable.

Zoosadists derive sexual pleasure from sadistic activities with an animal such as torture. Necrozoophilia, also known as necrobestiality, involves a sexual attraction to dead animals. Aggrawal (2011) also differentiated between “opportunistic zoosexuals,” who would be content with sex with humans but partake in sex with animals if the opportunity arises, and “classic zoophiles,” who prefer sex with animals over sex with humans. He identified a subclass of the latter as “regular zoophilia by proxy,” wherein an individual may force his or her partner to engage in a sexual act with an animal. Aggrawal based these and other proposed classes of zoophilia on a 10-tier classification of necrophilia.

Motivations for Animal Sexual Abuse

Animal sexual assault may be perpetrated by adolescents who have easy access to animals and seek to experiment with them. Particularly in rural, agricultural areas, adolescents may lack other outlets for their sexual urges and/or become aroused by the sight of animals having sex with one another (Kinsey, Pomeroy, & Martin, 1948; Kinsey, Pomeroy, Gebhard, Martin, 1953). Males may satisfy their sexual urges with animals when females are not present or sexually available (Nagaraja, 1983). Youth may also engage in such behavior out of cruelty, in order to show off for other boys, to learn sexual techniques they could later use on girls, or simply out of curiosity (Beirne, 1997).

Individuals may sexually abuse animals because they feel isolated (Cerrone, 1991), embarrassed, insecure, or fearful of rejection (Beetz, 2004). They may become accustomed to exploiting or controlling others for their own sexual gratification (Humane Society of the United States, 1999). In a study of 93 adults who reported having sexual relationships with animals, half acknowledged forcing an animal into sexual contact, 9% admitted to forcing a human to participate in a sexual act he or she did not want to do, and 3% admitted to raping another person (Miletski, 2002). In their study of 51 chronic zoophiles, Peretti & Rowan (1982) found that the zoophiles had difficulty relating to other humans. The men explained that they did not have to spend time or money on their interaction with animals. Rather, the interactions were simple, straightforward, and free of pretense. Some of the men viewed human social interactions as basically superficial and opted for a sexual outlet instead of enmeshment in a relationship. They could engage in various sexual practices such as anal penetration without having to persuade their partner or worry about their own performance. Some reported using animals to act out rape or other sadistic experiences. These motives may also be those of patrons of animal brothels in which tourists pay to have sex with dogs, horses, and other animals. Such establishments have reportedly sprung up in the United States (Sullivan, 2010) and abroad in countries such as Denmark (e.g., King, 2014; Nadeau, 2012).

(p. 122) There are still other theories regarding the motivations for sexually abusing animals. Individuals who have been sexually abused may act out their abuse on animals in an attempt to gain a sense of control. Some may derive sexual gratification from inflicting pain and suffering while sexually abusing animals (Adams, 1995). Animal sexual abuse, like rape, can be “the eroticization of violence, control, and exploitation” (Humane Society of the United States, 1999, p. 1). According to Merz-Perez and Heide (2003) violent sexual activities such as the sexual abuse of animals occurs when “sexuality and aggression have become developmentally fused, and the two are mutually inclusive in the psyche of the offender” (p. 66). The offender’s violence towards others, including animals, leads to a sexual release and sometimes escalates to killing (Wright & Hensley, 2003). In fact, some forensic texts argue that interspecies sexual abuse “typifies the early lives of serial killers in the form of cruelty to animals (called ‘zoosadism’)” (Williams & Weinberg, 2003, p. 524). In particular, sexual intercourse with small animals that frequently die from injuries may be sadistically motivated. In cases reflecting “zoosadism,” the animal is intentionally killed during the sexual act (e.g., breaking the neck of a chicken), and the animal’s contractions while dying heighten the offender’s sexual arousal (Beetz, 2004; Sandnabba et al., 2002). In other instances, killing the animal sexually gratifies the offender, who may masturbate over or with the animal’s corpse (Beetz, 2005). The offender may use an animal as a surrogate or practice object in place of or in preparation for the murder of a human (Beetz, 2008). Finally, the motivation for sexually abusing animals may be financial. For example, an offender may have or facilitate sex with an animal in order to manufacture pornography to sell (Maher & Pierpoint, 2012).

Animal Sexual Abuse among Juvenile Sex Offenders

Perhaps because animal sexual assault is thought to occur most commonly among adolescents, existing studies have tended to focus on juvenile populations. In a study of 485 adolescent males being evaluated as possible sex offenders, Zolondek, Abel, Northey, and Jordan (2001) found that 5% reported sexual behavior with animals. The average age of onset was 10.8 years, and the average number of acts reported was 11.6. In his sample of 5,475 adolescent males who had committed child sexual abuse, Abel (2008) found that 12% of the adolescent abusers who themselves had been sexually abused also sexually abused animals compared to 5% of the adolescent abusers who had not been sexually abused. A study of 141 persistently aggressive and highly sexualized youth in the United Kingdom revealed that 4.3% of the index offenses (the offenses an individual is referred for) involved animals (Bladon et al., 2005). Frazier (1998) found that 37% of her sample of 30 sexually violent juvenile offenders had sexually abused an animal. Estimates of animal sexual abuse among juveniles with (or suspected of) sex offenses, therefore, have been 4.3%, 5%, 12%, and 37%.

(p. 123) Duffield, Hassiotis, and Vizard (1998) examined a select group of 70 juvenile sex offenders with a history of interspecies sexual abuse who were sent to a psychiatric center for juvenile sexual offenders. All had poor relationships with their parents, several of whom were abusive. Many of the youth had been sexually abused by more than one person at a time. They displayed aggressive behaviors, indiscriminate object attachments, isolation from their peers, and in some instances developmental delays. In most cases, their sexual acts with animals were carefully planned: they targeted, isolated, and groomed pets just as they did other children. Violating animals was but one of their sexually abusive behaviors.

Fleming, Jory, and Burton (2002) surveyed offenders from midwestern juvenile institutions. The 24 youth who reported having committed sexual offenses against animals indicated significantly less positive family communication and a less positive family environment than did youth who had sexually offended only against humans. They also had suffered significantly more emotional abuse and emotional neglect than those who had sexually offended only against humans, but not more physical or sexual abuse. The authors suggested that juveniles who engage in sexual activity with animals come from families with more severe problems and more emotional abuse than other sexual offenders. They may consequently be attempting to resolve attachment conflicts and anger problems, release tension, and attain sexual gratification through the sexual abuse of animals.

Wochner and Klosinski (1988) reviewed the histories of 1,502 aggressive children and adolescents who received treatment at a German university’s psychiatry department. Twenty-three of the boys and two of the girls were identified as zoosadists, those who derive sexual pleasure from torturing or otherwise causing an animal to suffer. According to the authors, “the age distribution of the zoosadists showed an increased incidence in 13, 17 and 18 year olds which is connected with problems of puberty, group constraints and proving virility” (p. 59). Compared with a control group of aggressive youth, the zoosadists demonstrated organic brain damage (secondary to pregnancy or delivery complications), an overtaxing upbringing by their parents, and the absence of a positive father figure. One third of the zoosadists presented with additional sexual behavior disorders.

The Relation between Interspecies Sexual Abuse and Interpersonal Offending

Although there is a dearth of research of animal sexual abuse among community-based samples (Beetz, 2004), a few studies have examined sexual experiences with animals among criminal populations. Hensley, Tallichet, and Singer’s 2006 study of 261 adult male inmates revealed that those who acknowledged having engaged in interspecies sexual abuse (n = 16) in childhood were significantly more likely to have committed violent crimes against humans than those who had not engaged in such practices. The authors theorized that these results support studies showing that those who engage in sexual acts (p. 124) with animals demonstrate a tendency to aggress against other humans. They concluded that “the sexual abuse of animals in youth may be predictive of later interpersonal violence in adults” (p. 921), though this assertion is speculative considering their subsample consisted of only 16 offenders. In a replication study, Hensley, Tallichet, and Dutkiewicz (2010) surveyed adult male inmates at one medium- and one maximum-security prison in a southern state. They found that the inmates who engaged in childhood bestiality (n = 23) were more likely to commit adult interpersonal crimes on two or more occasions than those who had not engaged in bestiality in childhood (n = 157). The authors concluded from both sets of results that childhood bestiality may be a potential precursor to adult interpersonal violence, particularly when the bestiality began at a young age (Henderson, Hensley, & Tallichet, 2011). During interviews with 45 violent and 45 nonviolent male offenders in a maximum security prison, Merz-Perez, Heide, and Silverman (2001) found that three of the violent offenders endorsed having had sex with an animal in childhood compared to none of the nonviolent offenders.

In a study mentioned previously, Fleming, Jory, and Burton (2002) surveyed 381 offenders from three midwestern juvenile institutions. One hundred and sixty-one reported committing sexual offenses against humans only, one reported committing sexual offenses against animals only, and 23 reported having committed sexual offenses against both humans and animals. The authors concluded that psychological propensity to coerce an animal into sexual activity is arguably related to the ability to force humans to do the same, explaining why juveniles who abuse animals are more likely to commit interpersonal violence (Duffield, Hassiotis, & Vizard, 1998; Fleming, Jory, & Burton, 2002).

In a study of over 1,000 convicted white male sex offenders, Gebhard, Gagnon, Pomeroy, & Christenson (1965) found that one-third of the sex offenders who had committed non-incestuous sexual abuse of female minors (n = 27) reported having had sexual intercourse with animals after the onset of puberty. The incidence of animal sexual contact among various other types of sex offenders in the study ranged from 8% to 24%. Ressler and colleagues’ 1986 study of 36 sexually oriented murderers revealed that 23% expressed an interest in sexual contact with animals; 40% of the murderers who had been sexually abused in childhood reported having engaged in sexual contact with an animal compared to 8% who had not been abused. In a study of 299 inmates in an Iowa prisoner classification center, most of whom were male, Miller and Knutson (1997) found that 22 (7%) had watched someone have sex with an animal, 16 (5%) had touched an animal sexually, and nine (approximately 3%) reported having had sexual intercourse with an animal. Questionnaires obtained from 5,063 male sex offenders revealed that 8.6% of them endorsed having had sex with an animal (Abel & Osborn, 2000).

Finally, Abel (2008) examined a sample of 44,202 adult males evaluated for sexual misconduct. He found that sex with animals was the single largest risk factor and strongest predictor of increased risk for committing child sexual abuse. It predicted a larger increase in risk of child sexual abuse the younger the (p. 125) offender was when he started engaging in sexual behavior with animals. Abel concluded that both juveniles and adults who engage in sex with animals should be evaluated for sexual interest in children.

In conclusion, extant research suggests that the sexual abuse of animals is an underestimated and often overlooked phenomenon. Longitudinal outcome studies that include normative, clinical, and offender populations are needed before firm conclusions can be reached about whether the sexual abuse of animals in youth predicts later interpersonal violence and/or sexual offending.

Animal Fighting

The practice of causing animals to fight for purposes of entertainment deserves special consideration as a form of intentional maltreatment, largely because the potential motivations for this cruelty to the animals may be quite different from the physical and sexual forms of maltreatment reviewed earlier. A few studies have provided information on dogfighting and cockfighting.


In a dogfight, two dogs, typically pit bulls, are placed in a pit and made to fight until one cannot or will not continue. Spectators bet on which dog will be declared the winner. The fights typically last one to two hours. Dogs suffer injuries including broken bones, puncture wounds, and severe bruising. According to the Humane Society of the United States (2009), many dogs die of blood loss, shock, dehydration, exhaustion, or infection hours or days after the fight. Training dogs for a fight often involves cruelty; it may include putting cocaine on their dogs’ gums, injecting them with steroids, forcing them to run with heavy chains around their necks, using cats or smaller animals as bait, and then abandoning or killing the worst-performing dogs (Hollandswoth, 2009). Variations of dogfighting include “trunking” in which two dogs are placed in the trunk of a car. Fighters close the trunk, let the dogs fight, and bet on which dog will survive. After several minutes, they pop the trunk and declare a winner (e.g., Hartman, 2011). Hog-dog fighting involves siccing dogs on wild boars in closed pens (Green, 2013).

Participating in a dog fight is a felony in every state, but being a spectator is classified as a misdemeanor in some states (Hoffman & McGinnis, 2009). Dogfights often involve other crimes such as illegal gambling, narcotics possession, weapons possession, conspiracy, money laundering, and racketeering (Davis, 1997). Children are sometimes present (Humane Society of the United States, 2009). Due to the underground nature of dog fighting and the lack of enforcement, very little information is available about the actual prevalence of dog fighting. Moreover, little scientific research about the nature, causes, and correlates of dog fighting exists (McClure & Lum, 2011).

(p. 126) In one of the few studies undertaken on dogfighters, Forsyth and Evans (1998) interviewed 31 men who bred and fought dogs in Louisiana and Mississippi. They found that the dogfighters in their sample used some of the neutralization techniques—defense mechanisms used to rationalize and counter the negative impact of deviant behavior—identified by Sykes and Matza (1957): denial of injury, condemnation of the condemners, and appeal to higher loyalties. Specifically, many argued that the dogs were natural fighters who were bred for and enjoyed combat; that people who condemn dogfighting are hypocrites who attend boxing matches and horse races; and that dogfighting is a time-honored tradition carried on by good and respectable people.

According to Gibson (2005), dogfighters come from virtually all walks of life and engage in dogfighting on very different scales. Professional fighters operate on a national or even international level within highly clandestine networks. Many are wealthy, breed generations of skilled “game dogs,” publish trade journals for dogfighting enthusiasts, maintain websites, and organize well-organized, covert fights. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that there are 40,000 people in the United States involved in professional dogfighting (Gibson, 2005; Hollandsworth, 2009). Gibson distinguishes these professionals from mid-level fighters, whom she characterizes as “hobbyists, enthusiasts, or fanciers.” They typically remain within a specific geographic network where they are acquainted with other fighters and return to specific venues repeatedly. They may include respected figures in the community and/or those with extensive criminal backgrounds. The third group identified by Gibson is street fighters whom she characterizes as violent criminals, often gang members, who organize and attend fights to gamble and traffic drugs. Dogs are an extension of each member’s status within the gang. It is important to note that these typologies should be used with caution as they are only conjectures until empirically evaluated (McClure & Lum, 2011).


Like dogfighting, cockfighting is illegal in every state in the United States. Cockfighting is a “blood sport” in which two similarly sized roosters bred for aggressiveness are placed in a small enclosure and encouraged to fight. Cockfights typically take place in cockpits, which are round areas enclosed by wood, plexiglass, or chicken wire (Hawley, 2009). Many cockfighters argue that roosters are naturally territorial and prone to fights with other males, but in nature these fights are usually brief and do not involve serious injury (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, n.d.). Cockfighters sometimes inject birds with illegal drugs, steroids, or vitamins (e.g., amino acids) to increase their aggressiveness. Black salve (a corrosive herbal paste) may be administered to their wounds (Kennedy, 2012).

Most cockfights are bloody affairs that end in the death of at least one of the chickens. Roosters have a hard spur on the back of each leg. Cockfighters trim (p. 127) or cut off these spurs and affix gaffs—artificial metal spurs often made of sharp spikes, knives or razor blades—in their place (Saal, 2014). Knives called “slashers,” which result in quicker and more bloody fights, are sometimes used instead gaffs; it is not uncommon for both birds to die during slasher matches (Kennedy, 2012). Gaff-style fights can take up to 45 minutes, and birds usually suffer deep puncture wounds to the lungs and other internal organs (Kennedy, 2012).

Because of the lack of academic research on cockfighting, very little is known about the “gamers” themselves (Green, 2013). According to Hawley (1993), cockfighters view their birds as symbols of bravery, resistance, and sexual potency, but not as friends or companions. Individuals from all social strata attend cockfights but rural, poor agriculturalists are overrepresented (Darden & Worden, 1996). In general, attendees are thought to be involved in other illicit activities including drugs, weapons possession, and gambling, which begins before the fight and continues throughout. For example, following a 2014 cockfighting bust in New York, the largest in the state’s history, the Press Office of the New York State Attorney General released the following statement:

“These fights can be dangerous for entire communities, as they are often linked to weapons, drugs, gambling and other crimes, and they encourage participants to engage in other acts of animal cruelty and to disregard animal suffering. Disturbingly, children are often present during cockfights. This promotes insensitivity toward animal suffering and enthusiasm for violence” (para. 11).


Perhaps the most basic outstanding question in this field concerns the prevalence of animal cruelty and animal sexual abuse in the general population. Without knowing the general prevalence of such behavior among normative groups of children, adolescents, and adults, we cannot assert that animal abuse in any particular group (e.g., psychopaths, delinquent youth) is elevated. Furthermore, without knowing if the incidence is elevated, we cannot draw firm conclusions about the relation of psychopathy, delinquency, and other phenomenon to animal maltreatment.

Extant research on animal maltreatment offenders is somewhat limited in scope, and few studies have used as their sample those arrested for causing harm to animals. Studies of this nature are useful because some offenders may underreport perpetration of animal maltreatment on self-report measures or during interviews (Jorgenson & Maloney, 1999). Collateral information is important to obtain. Researchers should examine behavioral correlates of animal maltreatment in these offenders, especially those associated with lower self-control such as alcohol abuse, low educational attainment, unstable employment history, and gambling (Green, 2002). Particular attention should be paid to the offenders’ family and relationship patterns (e.g., child abandonment). Animal maltreatment offending among females, and corresponding behavioral correlates, must also be studied. Existing studies have focused almost exclusively on males.

(p. 128) In terms of methods, qualitative analyses of animal maltreatment incidents may highlight themes that have been overlooked. Interviews might be tailored so as to allow for functional analysis of the animal maltreatment incident. The offenders could be queried about their motivations, any precipitating stressors, the possible presence or involvement of peers (Schwartz, Fremouw, Schenk, & Ragatz, 2012) or significant others, and the offenders’ thoughts and emotional state before and immediately following the offense. Interviews with household members would likely elucidate relationships between animal maltreatment and other forms of abuse (e.g., domestic violence) in the home. Prospective longitudinal studies are needed “to investigate the prevalence and frequency of animal cruelty at different ages, the importance of animal cruelty as a risk factor for later violence … and the processes by which animal cruelty may lead to adult violence” (Petersen & Farrington, 2007, p. 38). Such studies should have large representative samples of the population in terms of racial and ethnic origin, geographic location, and other factors; they should use random samples of the general population as well as institutionalized and other clinical samples.

Research examining the relation between animal maltreatment and other forms of violence can also inform treatment. Febres and colleagues (2014) point out that for many assaultive men, aggression is a pervasive way for them to interact with others across settings; that is, they may be physically assaultive towards intimate partners, children, and animals. Recognition that their aggression is widespread suggests that interventions focused on more general cognitive and behavioral propensities including anger control, social information processing, and alcohol use may be more effective than those focused solely on, for example, intimate partner violence.

Animal maltreatment research has focused mainly on animal cruelty offenses. More studies are needed on other forms of abuse including the sexual abuse of animals. Research using clinical, nonclinical, and offender samples that examines motives for animal sexual abuse, types of and relationship to animals abused, and the association (or lack thereof) with other types of criminal offending is needed. Regarding dogfighting, more complex ethnographic and quantitative analyses are needed (McClure & Lum, 2011). Research should also explore the degree to which the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence extends to those involved in dogfighting or cockfighting.

As this review has made clear, much remains unknown about individuals’ intentional maltreatment of animals. Future research focused on their psychopathology might inform treatment. Whether traditional treatment modalities such as those designed for child sex abusers would be effective for perpetrators of animal sexual abuse is unknown. As the well-being and interests of (certain) animals are increasingly awarded consideration in our society, we might expect the scientific community to respond with an increased attention to the causes and dynamics of animal maltreatment, both related and unrelated to interpersonal violence.


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