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The Role of Emotional Harm in Animal Cruelty

Emotional suffering is now being taken into account in cases of animal cruelty.

In a court case in Nova Scotia last week, a man was sentenced for animal cruelty after it was judged he had caused his dog “undue anxiety.” CBC reports that the man repeatedly whipped the dog with a leash, and although there were no physical injuries, the court’s judgment rested on the psychological harm caused.

Jo-Anne Landsburg of the Nova Scotia SPCA told CBC,

"This particular case is unique because it's taken into account the suffering and anxiety that the animal endured during this incident."

Although this was a first for the courts in Nova Scotia, in the last few years, there have been several other convictions of animal cruelty in Canada based on the emotional harm caused to a dog. The recognition that animals’ emotional states can be taken into account in cruelty cases is based on scientific research on animal sentience and updates to models of animal welfare. This approach is explained in a paper by Dr. Rebecca Ledger and Prof. David Mellor published in the journal Animals last year.

Lynette C/Pixabay
The case in Nova Scotia involved a husky, like this
Source: Lynette C/Pixabay

In the past, approaches to animal welfare were based on the biological state of the animal and were largely focused on preventing negative states. In the '80s, Ledger and Mellor (2018) write,

“...scientists were strongly discouraged from inferring that animals could experience subjective mental states such as emotions, feelings, moods, or motivations, collectively known as affects or affective states. This was because such experiences were considered to be anthropomorphic speculations that lacked scientific support.”

In contrast, it is now recognized that animals are sentient beings; in other words, they experience things through their senses and can have positive and negative experiences, such as happiness and pain.

Research in what’s known as affective neuroscience has investigated the neural pathways in the brain that are linked to emotions in animals. So we know that animals do actually experience both positive and negative emotions, and this is now widely recognized.

This is reflected in scientific research on animal welfare (Mellor and Beausoleil, 2015). The Five Domains model of animal welfare provides a useful framework for assessing whether or not an animal is suffering. The model has four physical domains (nutrition, environment, health, behavior), and the fifth domain relates to the mental state of the animal.

When thinking about animal welfare generally, this model encourages us to think about positive experiences as well as negative ones—for example, ways in which we can increase the animal’s experiences of positive emotions.

When thinking about animal cruelty, it is the negative experiences that are considered. Animals can have negative experiences that relate to their internal states, such as feeling pain or thirst. But negative experiences can also relate to the animal’s perceptions of their situation: for example, feelings of fear or panic due to the perception of a threat.

Ledger and Mellor’s paper lists examples of neglect of and cruelty to dogs, including the dog’s likely behavior in that situation and what can be inferred about how the dog is feeling. These examples include drowning, dog fights, shooting, burning, prolonged tethering, being caught in a trap, and lack of veterinary care. Physical harm is not a defining characteristic.

The list also includes “exposure to social threats without physical harm,” which applies to “Interactions with humans that involve yelling, shouting, and other forms of intimidation, as may occur during training and restraint; threatening interactions with other dogs.”

In this example, the dog’s behavioral response is defensive: “avoidance, retreating, cowering, trembling, appeasement gestures, tucked tail, distress calls.” In turn, it can be inferred that the dog is experiencing fear, anxiety, or panic.

The wording of the law is important. In jurisdictions where it refers to suffering (or a similar negative state) as well as pain, then emotional suffering can be considered by the courts.

Three court cases are given as examples in Ledger and Mellor’s paper. One of these, in 2015, involved video evidence of someone in an elevator kicking a Doberman puppy and suspending it by its leash. Although there were no physical injuries, the dog’s response showed fear and pain, and the accused pled guilty in court.

In the case in Nova Scotia, too, behavioral signs allowed an expert to tell the court the animal was suffering. The CBC reports, “From watching security footage of DeCoste whipping the animal with a leash, the expert could tell that the dog, Sophie, suffered fear, anxiety and physical discomfort.” Sophie has since been adopted into a new family.

The recognition that animal cruelty can involve emotional as well as physical harm is an important step in protecting animals from abuse.


Ledger, R., & Mellor, D. (2018). Forensic use of the Five Domains Model for assessing suffering in cases of animal cruelty. Animals, 8(7), 101.

Mellor, D. J., & Beausoleil, N. J. (2015). Extending the ‘Five Domains’ model for animal welfare assessment to incorporate positive welfare states. Animal Welfare, 24(3), 241-253.

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