Is Cruelty to Animals in Childhood a Predictor of Later Criminal Behaviour?

Does cruelty to animals as a child predict interpersonal violence in adulthood?

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Photo: Rita Kochmarjova / Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

New research by Kelly Knight, Colter Ellis and Sara Simmons (Sam Houston State University) investigates how many children are cruel to animals and whether it persists through generations. The study is especially valuable because it uses a sample that is representative of the US population and tracks families over the years.

There are two main theories about childhood cruelty to animals. One theory is that if children are cruel to animals they will grow up to be violent adults. This is called the “graduation hypothesis”. It rests on the idea that there is something wrong with the individual and that they ‘graduate’ from animal abuse to interpersonal violence. This seems to be the theory we hear about most in the popular press. Although there is some evidence to support it, it may not be the whole story.

An alternate theory is that if a child is cruel to animals, it is a sign they have been subject to maltreatment of some kind and/or live in an environment of domestic violence. In other words, it could be a sign that something is wrong in the child’s life to cause them to behave this way.

It is a difficult topic to research. One of the problems is that many studies focus on a criminal or at-risk population. For example, if you study people who have been in trouble with the law and you find that many of them were previously cruel to animals, it is valuable information. However there might be other people who were also cruel but did not grow up to be criminals, and who would not feature in your sample. Retrospective studies could also miss other important factors, such as the context provided by the family in which the person grew up.

Knight et al’s study uses data from the National Youth Survey Family Study, which ran from 1977 until 2004. There were 12 waves of data collection over three generations.  By the end, the first generation to take part were grandparents. Since they had not been asked about animal abuse they were not included in Knight’s study.

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There were 1,614 participants (1067 children and 547 parents). The children were the third generation in the overall study, and were interviewed in 2003 – 2004. Their parents had been interviewed many times over the years. In 2003, they were asked if they had been cruel to animals when they were children. The study also used data from an earlier interview in the late 1980s, when the parents (then aged 24-30) were asked about interpersonal violence. 

About 3% of the parents said they had abused animals as a child. This number is higher than found in other surveys. The average age at which they said they started was 12. About 3% of the children reported animal cruelty, and 11 was the average age at which they said it began.

The results showed that people who reported being cruel to animals as children were more likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence as adults. This supports the graduation hypothesis. However, and perhaps surprisingly, they were also more likely to be victims of violence than those who had not been cruel to animals. 

At the same time, the results showed that if the parents were perpetrators of violence then, fourteen years later, their children were more likely to say they had been cruel to animals. This supports the idea that the family context plays a role in children’s violence to animals. 

There was no link between the parents’ animal abuse and children’s animal abuse. In other words, cruelty to animals did not continue through generations of the same family.

Other variables such as gender, ethnicity, marijuana use and depression also came into play, showing that the picture is complex.

The researchers say, “The implications of these findings are that early animal abuse is not only a risk factor for later involvement in IPV [Intimate Partner Violence] violent perpetration but also violent victimization.” 

There are some limitations to the study, including the fact that only one question was used to assess animal abuse, and it relied on the person to define their own actions. But the size of the sample, the fact it is representative of the US population, and the way it tracks families across the generations are extremely useful. The results improve our understanding of the links between interpersonal violence and cruelty to animals, and will help design better programs for children and adults who are victims of violence. 

The researchers say, “The practical implications of this research for victim services, specifically, involve improving knowledge of the various pathways to and consequences of IPV [Intimate Partner Violence], which can then be used to inform policy and program recommendations. In addition, there is evidence suggesting that thorough measures of animal abuse are warranted in future studies of problem behavior.”

It seems the links between animal abuse and interpersonal violence are more complicated than previously thought. Developing a better understanding will benefit both children and animals. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Knight KE, Ellis C, & Simmons SB (2014). Parental Predictors of Children's Animal Abuse: Findings From a National and Intergenerational Sample. Journal of interpersonal violence PMID: 24777142

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  1. I have always been a firm believer that harming animals in your childhood is a surefire sign of violence as an adult. However, I do believe there are two sides to this argument. Just because you harm an animal as a child does not mean you will grow up to be a serial killer, however, most serial killers have been shown to have harmed animals in their childhood. This is always been a personal belief of mine and I do stand firm on it.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Angel. You are right, just because someone abuses an animal as a child does not mean they will become a serial killer. As this study shows, we still don't fully understand the links between animal abuse and other personal and situational factors.

  2. I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for bringing forth this study! On the same topic, there was a study a few years back about the relationship between certain personality traits defined as the 'dark triad' and cruelty to animals.

  3. Thanks Jennifer. I enjoy reading your blog too. Thanks for sharing your post - the dark triad study is an interesting one as well. It's a fascinating topic but also a very complex one!

  4. Thank you for your blog. As you stated, It may not mean they will grow up to become a serial killer, but identifying a trouble child is important. A child that harms animals is more likely to be a victim of violence themselves. Early identification of this may be important in ending the cycle of violence.

  5. Seems to me that violence to animals might not be "linked" to violence to humans (or being violently victimized) so much as an indication of a reduced sensitivity to violence in general. If you don't have a negative reaction to the idea of violence, you're more likely to commit it or fail to avoid it, period.

  6. Actually, most serial killers do not have a history of cruelty to animals. Nor do school shooters. Further, most children who are cruel to animals do not become criminals or violent adults. There is a "link" between childhood animal cruelty and adult criminality, but it is not a strong as commonly thought.

    1. Absolutely! And yet, as stated above, the idea of a strong link is the one we hear most about in the press. One of the interesting things about this particular study is that, while it finds a link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, it also shows it's complicated. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - regular readers are familiar with your work and your blog via our twitter feed etc.

  7. I need some advice , my nephew who is a young man, has started to injure animals but keeps denying it and his mother is in denial too - I feel like I am swimming upstream as he is very manipulative and tells lots of lies - where can I go for help

    1. Both of them need psychological intervention...immediately!

  8. The American Humane Association has advice on reporting animal cruelty here: Some animal controls/humane societies have a special animal cruelty hotline.

  9. I abused animals as a child & teenager. For no reason as a child, except the feeling of power over something & out of fear as a teenager. I have also seen it in a friend's young daughter. Both of us grew up to do animal rescue volunteering and won't so much as spank a dog now. Me, because of the guilt I feel & the knowledge I now have to get results through positive methods. I don't even kill spiders. Flies are another story, but I don't like to make any being suffer. Parents need to watch children with animals & teach them to be gentle. Never leave young children alone with animals, that's how most bites likely occur. You never know what a child does to an animal when they are alone, trust me. Mine was not torture, but it was mean and I will never forgive myself.


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