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Children Who Are Cruel to Animals: When to Worry

Childhood animal cruelty can be normal or a red flag.

Key points

  • Most commonly, children who abuse animals have either witnessed or experienced abuse themselves.
  • Developmentally-related motivations for animal cruelty may include curiosity, peer pressure, forced abuse, and animal phobias.
  • Every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that a person is going to turn out to be homicidal.

Disturbed by a high pitched cry, three-year-old Christopher's mom walks into the living room to find him swinging their new kitten around by the tail. Five-year-old John's babysitter witnesses John repeatedly blowing a loud horn into his dog's ear, laughing at the animal's obvious distress. Ten-year-old Liam's older brother discovers him holding a lighter flame to the family guinea pig's foot.

Since the 1970s, research has consistently reported childhood cruelty to animals as the first warning sign of later delinquency, violence, and criminal behavior. In fact, nearly all violent crime perpetrators have a history of animal cruelty in their profiles. Albert deSalvo, the Boston Strangler found guilty of killing 13 women, shot arrows through dogs and cats he trapped as a child. Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold boasted about mutilating animals for fun.

At the same time, most parents have been upset by some form of childhood cruelty to animals—whether it's pulling the legs off of a bug or sitting on top of a puppy. We struggle to understand why any child would mistreat an animal. But when should we worry? Where's the line between a budding serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer and normal curiosity and experimentation?

Motivations Behind Animal Cruelty

Most commonly, children who abuse animals have either witnessed or experienced abuse themselves. For example, statistics show that 30 percent of children who have witnessed domestic violence act out a similar type of violence against their pets. In fact, the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is so well-known that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors.

While childhood and adolescent motives for animal cruelty has not been well-researched, interviews suggest a number of additional developmentally related motivations:

  • "Curiosity or exploration (i.e., the animal is injured or killed in the process of being examined, usually by a young or developmentally delayed child).
  • Peer pressure (e.g., peers may encourage animal abuse or require it as part of an initiation rite).
  • Mood enhancement (e.g., animal abuse is used to relieve boredom or depression).
  • Sexual gratification (i.e., bestiality).
  • Forced abuse (i.e., the child is coerced into animal abuse by a more powerful individual).
  • Attachment to an animal (e.g., the child kills an animal to prevent its torture by another individual).
  • Animal phobias (that cause a preemptive attack on a feared animal).
  • Identification with the child's abuser (e.g., a victimized child may try to regain a sense of power by victimizing a more vulnerable animal).
  • Post-traumatic play (i.e., reenacting violent episodes with an animal victim).
  • Imitation (i.e., copying a parent's or other adult's abusive "discipline" of animals).
  • Self-injury (i.e., using an animal to inflict injuries on the child's own body).
  • Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i.e., "practicing" violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people).
  • Vehicle for emotional abuse (for example, injuring a sibling's pet to frighten the sibling),"

Animal Cruelty: Are There Types of Abusers?

I'm not aware of any formal typologies that exist for children who abuse animals. However, as a rule of thumb, it may be useful to use the following guidelines in trying to assess whether or not the problem is serious or can be easily addressed. Caveat: These are general guidelines and each situation should be evaluated individually.

The Experimenter: (ages 1-6 or developmentally delayed). This is usually a preschool child who has not developed the cognitive maturity to understand that animals have feelings and are not to be treated as toys. This may be the child's first pet or s/he doesn't have a lot of experience or training on how to take care of a variety of animals.

What to do: To some extent, of course, this depends on the age and development of the child. In general, though, explain to the child that it is not okay to hit or mistreat an animal, just as it's not okay to hit or mistreat another child. Humane education interventions (teaching children to be kind, caring, and nurturing toward animals) by parents, childcare providers, and teachers are likely to be sufficient to encourage desistance of animal abuse in these children.

The "Cry-for-Help" Abuser: (6/7 - 12). This is a child who intellectually understands that it is not okay to hurt animals. This behavior is not due to a lack of education, instead, the animal abuse is more likely to be a symptom of a deeper psychological problem. As previously noted, a number of studies have linked childhood animal abuse to domestic violence in the home as well as childhood physical or sexual abuse.

What to do: Seek professional assistance. While I'm a big believer in parents' abilities to weather many of the normal ups and downs of childrearing without professional assistance, this is an exception. It is not "normal" for a child this age to intentionally mistreat an animal.

The Conduct-Disordered Abuser: (12+) Teens who abuse animals almost always engage in other antisocial behaviors—substance abuse, gang activities. Sometimes the animal abuse is in conjunction with a deviant peer group (an initiation rite or as a result of peer pressure), while other times it may be used as a way to alleviate boredom or achieve a sense of control.

What to do: Get professional help immediately. If possible, enlist the support of friends, family members, even teachers.

The Bottom Line

Every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that a person is going to turn out to be a homicidal maniac. Particularly with young children, whose natural exuberance and curiosity can lead to some unpleasant experiences for their pets, it is fine to shrug off an occasional lapse in judgment while continuing to educate the child about humane animal treatment.

However, locking a pet inside a closed space, violently lashing out at a pet after getting in trouble with a parent, or taking pleasure in watching an animal in pain are all "red flags" that signal the need for professional intervention. This is particularly true when the child has the cognitive maturity to understand that what s/he is doing is wrong, and repeatedly does it anyway.

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