The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Female Animal Abusers

Are they different?

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It’s hard for me to imagine a woman torturing a helpless animal. This is probably due to a number of reasons; females are much less likely to abuse animals, most animal rescue volunteers are women, and, then there’s my own bias. There’s also the strong link between domestic violence and animal cruelty (men who abuse women are also likely to abuse animals), not to mention the almost inevitable animal abusing back ground of budding serial killers (like the just-arrested Luka Magnotta).

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The Hoarder Run Amok

However, there is an abuser category that is predominantly female; the animal hoarder.  Three fourths of animal hoarders are women, most often over 60 and single.  Many of these women are well-intentioned but in denial about a) the extent to which they are getting their own needs met through their collecting and b) their inability to care the large number of animals they have.  The outcome is often deadly, as evidenced by the Los Angeles woman who had 600 animals in her home, many of them dead or dying from malnutrition.

The Picture of the Psychopathic Female Who Abuses Animals

Brenda Spencer, who opened fire at a San Diego school, killing two children and injuring nine others, had repeatedly abused cats and dogs, often by setting their tails on fire. This is clearly above and beyond the kind of animal mistreatment some “normal” people report, such as impulsively striking a dog that has repeatedly gone to the bathroom in the house.

In fact, studies of both male and female college students indicate that female animal abusers may, in comparison to men, be more deviant than their nonviolent peers.  For example, both male and female animal abusers share criminal thinking patterns (Rules and laws are made for other people; I have my own way of doing things.  I like it when others are fearful or intimidated by me).  This thinking style was much more similar to male animal abusers — and non-abusing males — than other college females.

In contrast to non-animal-abusing female peers, female animal abusers also differed in their experiences with bullying, in that 83 percent were bullies or bully victims as compared to 33 percent of female college students in general.  For college women with these life experiences and thinking styles, there was little difference in terms of the types of animals they abused or what was done to them. What this means to me is that women who repeatedly physically abuse animals are probably very similar to men who do the same — more likely to engage in other illegal or immoral acts, to have a limited capacity for empathy, and to have an exploitive interpersonal style

Environmental Predictors of Animal Cruelty

Girls who abuse animals almost always have a history of victimization themselves. Of course, this is also true for boys. Similarly, children in domestic violence situations (both boys and girls) are three times more likely to hurt animals than peers who are in safer home environments.

There are some differences, though, in what factors are most likely to lead to animal cruelty, particularly among teenagers. For instance, having witnessed an authority abuse an animal is the most common predictor of teenage girls abusing animals. This is not true for boys, where having been a victim of peer bulling is the most common predictor. While we don’t know for sure why there is this difference, it is possibly related to boys’ greater tendency to “take out” their own pain and suffering onto other, more vulnerable targets.

Animal Cruelty:  A Path to Interpersonal Violence?

It was common knowledge, even way back when I was in graduate school, that there was a link between violence towards animals and humans. The theory was that perpetrators tended to practice on animals first, and then “graduate” to humans. Fortunately, recent research is beginning to help us tease out what specific acts of animal cruelty in childhood and adolescence should be the biggest red flags when it comes to later violence against humans.

First of all, some form of animal cruelty is extremely common in a prison population; in a sample of 180 inmates at medium- and maximum-security prisons in a Southern state, four out of five inmates reported hitting animals. Over one third of the sample chose to shoot or kick animals, while one in five had sex with them. Less than one fifth of the prisoners drowned or choked animals, while less than one sixth of the inmates burned animals. As might be expected, the worse the animal cruelty, the greater the likelihood of future violence towards people. In particular, the younger the offender began abusing animals, the use of “hands on” methods like drowning, and sexual abuse of animals were most predictive of later assault, rape and murder.

The link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence is also there for women, although perhaps not to the extent it is for men.  For example, 36 percent of women convicted for assault admitted to animal cruelty (in comparison to none of women convicted of nonviolent crimes) in comparison to 63 percent of men convicted for violent crimes.

The Bottom Line

Women are much less likely to abuse animals than men are. When they do, it's most likely to happen through neglect than physical violence. However, when females do deliberately hurt animals, they can be just as cruel and as calculating as men.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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