It seems that not a day goes by without the media reporting on yet more cases of animal cruelty. Cruelty towards animals includes, but is not limited to, neglect, willful neglect, beating or torturing an animal, and killing an animal.

Unintentional Neglect and Intentional Cruelty

Some cruelty is unintentional neglect, for example, failing to provide proper medical care or housing for an animal.

Other cruelty is deliberate and intentional, for example the type of animal abuse associated with domestic violence.

Studies Find a Link

Recent studies have identified a strong link between domestic violence and cruelty to animals. A number of studies have investigated the link between these two forms of abuse, and found that a strong correlation exists.

Animals are a huge part of many people’s lives, and social science is starting to look into the effect of this on both the humans and animals involved.

The majority of pet owners consider their animals to be a part of the family. Some may consider them to be substitutes for children, whereas others consider them to be like an extra sibling for existing children.

Being considered an important part of the family may seem like a positive move forward for animals, but it does come with one major drawback. Being considered a family member in a violent home puts animals at risk of suffering from cruel treatment at the hands of the abuser.

This link highlights the fact that animal cruelty is often a precursor for violence towards humans. It also draws attention to the welfare risk for animals living in violent homes.

Animal Abuse as a Form of Control

For some abusers, animals are simply a tool to be used in their campaign of manipulation and control. Some victims of abuse have reported the threat of violence towards much-loved pets as part of the abuse.

Violence towards animals is used as a way to force victims to stay with their abuser, and to keep quiet about the abuse. This is true for victims of all ages, including children who may be told that their beloved pet dog will come to harm if the child speaks out about any abuse taking place at home.

In some cases, this threat is realized, with the animal being abused as a way of hurting the human victim. Sadly, a number of much-loved family pets have been beaten, tortured, sexually abused and killed at the hands of abusers.

According to a 1998 study published in the Journal of Emotional Abuse, around 68% of female abuse victims who owned pets, reported that their pets were also victims of the abuser. Of these acts of violence towards animals, the overwhelming majority took place in front of the women.

Victims Delay Leaving to Protect Their Pet

A 2004 study into domestic animal abuse found that almost half of the abuse victims who own pets delayed leaving their abuser for fear of what would happen to their pets. It is not uncommon for abusers to threaten to kill pets and livestock should the victim ever leave them. This threat holds many victims hostage with their abuser.

Many shelters offering refuge to domestic abuse victims and their families cannot offer space for pets. Frequently, victims are unable to find refuge to keep their entire family safe. Thankfully, some shelters are starting to offer pet fostering for families in need. It makes it easier for victims to keep themselves, their families, and their pets safe from harm.

The Cycle Continues

A 1999 study found that around three quarters of domestic incidents of violence towards animals take place in front of children.

Witnessing animal cruelty can be traumatic for children of all ages, and may also impact on their future interactions with animals.

Children who witness acts of animal cruelty have an increased risk of abusing animals themselves, with almost a third of pet-owning domestic violence victims reporting that their children had abused or killed animals.

Children may harm or kill animals because they are copying behavior learned through witnessing abuse in the home, or as a way of releasing aggression. Cruelty to animals during childhood has been linked with an increased risk of violence towards humans in adulthood.

How to Help Both the Victims

In a violent home, it is important to help both the human and animal victims.

Shelters can help victims to escape their abusers, and make it possible for people to seek refuge with their pets. By removing the pet from the family home, this may also relinquish one aspect of control that the abuser has over the victim.


Ascione, Frank R (1998) Battered Women’s Reports of Their Partner’s and Their Children’s Cruelty to Animals

[online] (first published in the Journal of Emotional Abuse)

Carlisle-Frank, P. & Flanagan, T. (2004). Selective battering of the family pet. Anthrozoos

Flynn, Clifton P (2000) Battered Women and Their Animal Companions: Symbolic Interaction Between Human and Nonhuman Animals [online]

Quinlisk, A. (1999) Animal abuse and family violence. In: F. R. Ascione and P. Arkow
(eds) Child abuse, domestic violence, and animal abuse: linking the circles of
compassion for prevention and intervention. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

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