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Emotional Abuse

Emotional Pain in Animals: An Invisible World of Hurt

Recognizing the psychological effects of animal abuse.

Tomorrow marks the five-year anniversary of the execution of a search warrant that led to the discovery of Michael Vick’s massive dog-fighting operation and the seizure of over 50 dogs from his property. This is a good time to reflect upon the physical abuse suffered by these animals. But even more, it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that animals suffer emotional pain, too, and although the physical cuts and bruises have long healed, the psychological damage can persist.

I listened to a fascinating lecture recently by veterinarian Frank McMillan on psychological aspects of abuse and neglect in animals. It is the obvious physical marks of abuse that tend to get our attention: the scars, the broken bones, the emaciated bodies. The puppy whose mouth is duct-taped shut, because it barks too much. What gets far less attention, if we notice it at all, are the psychological scars and disfigurements that animals bear. Indeed, animal cruelty laws generally recognize only physical harm and suffering. Emotional abuse is far more difficult to see. Yet it may ultimately cause more suffering and do more lasting damage to an animal. McMillan is trying to raise awareness about this less visible, but profoundly important, aspect of animal abuse.

One of the central lessons from the lecture was how very little we really know about the psychological impacts of abuse, and how important it is to come to a better understanding, so that we can better prevent and treat abuse and neglect in our animal companions. We need to better understand the lasting psychological impacts of physical abuse, yet perhaps even more important, we also need to broaden our understanding of what constitutes maltreatment of an animal: a dog who has never been struck with a stick or punched with a fist can still have suffered abuse. What we know for sure is that animals do suffer psychological and not just physical pain, and that emotional abuse and maltreatment may be far more widespread and pernicious than physical abuse.

Based on a range of scientific studies (many of them horrific and unconscionable), we know that emotional harm actually hurts more than physical harm, and that animals will “choose” physical suffering over emotional suffering, if forced to pick. McMillan cites an experiment in which an electrified grid was placed between a puppy and a person to whom the puppy was socially attached. The puppies crossed the grid, despite being shocked the entire way, to be reunited with their social contact. In another electrified grid experiment, mother rats were separated from their infant pups. The mother rats consistently chose to cross the grid and retrieve their pups, one by one, and return them to the nest, despite being shocked the whole way there and back. One mother rat crossed the grid 58 times before researchers terminated the test. McMillan also mentioned the well-publicized case of a cat named Scarlett who ran into a burning building five times to rescue her kittens, despite severe burns to her face and head. These animals are willing to suffer physical pain to alleviate emotional suffering.

What kinds of psychological harm do animals suffer? McMillan describes the following types of emotional abuse:

  • Rejecting: an active refusal to provide emotional support.
  • Terrorizing: the creation of a “climate of fear” or an unpredictable threat or hostility, preventing the victim from experiencing a sense of security.
  • Taunting: teasing, provoking, harassing.
  • Isolating: active prevention of social interactions and companionship.
  • Abandonment: desertion and termination of care.
  • Overpressuring: placing excessive demands or pressure to perform and achieve.

Of course, when it comes to caring for animals, how exactly to determine “emotional abuse” is tricky and often open to disagreement. What some consider normal or even good care will for others look more like abuse. For example, some consider Cesar Millan’s methods of discipline abusive, while others find his methods appropriate and effective. Some consider crating a dog abusive, others do not.

As McMillan notes, woefully little is known about the long-term psychological effects of abuse on animals. Coming to a better understanding is vitally important, particularly when it comes to the large population of animals in shelters. Often the history of an animal is unknown, and obviously we cannot ask them about their past experiences. Yet we still seek clues from an animal’s behavior to determine whether the animal is “damaged” and whether this damage will cause behavioral problems in the future. It is common for pet owners to assume earlier abuse when a dog adopted from a shelter shows certain signs, such as a fear of hands or an aversion to men. Yet we don’t have any empirical studies that link these behaviors with earlier abuse. We also need to develop our understanding of psychological abuse so that legal definitions of animal cruelty and neglect can take into consideration the full range of animal suffering.


McMillan FD. A world of hurts—is pain special? JAVMA Vol 223, No. 2, July 15, 2003.

Scott JP. The development of social motivation. In: Levine D, ed. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln, Neb: University of Nebraska Press, 1967; 111–132.

Weisner BP, Sheard NM. Maternal behavior in the rat. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1933;121–122.

Sigesmund BJ, Namuth T. Kitty badge of courage. Newsweek 1996; Apr 15:59.

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