Children's Experiences of Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse

24% of children whose mothers experience domestic violence also see threats to or abuse of companion animals, research shows.

Children's experiences of domestic violence and animal abuse. Photo shows black and white kitten
Photo: m.sava8/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Every year in the US, 1 in 15 children is exposed to intimate partner violence, according to a national survey. Research by Shelby McDonald (Virginia Commonwealth University) et al finds many also witness abuse of pets in the home, potentially adding to the impacts on their behaviour and mental health.

The researchers interviewed children age 7 – 12 whose mothers had used domestic violence services in the past year. Of 242 children, a quarter had seen someone threaten to or actually injure/kill a pet. They analyzed the data from this group to find out more about the animal abuse these children saw. 

The results show the patterns of animal abuse that children describe as happening in the home, the different family members involved, and the reasons children give as to why it occurs. For children who witness this, it may be especially traumatic, since pets can be a form of social support during difficult times.

Dr. Shelby McDonald told me, “Children experience close bonds with companion animals and rely on pets as a way of managing stress. In the context of high stress, unpredictable environments such as a households experiencing family violence, pets may serve as security-providing attachment figures, offering comfort, consistency, and support to children who are coping with adverse environments. 

“In addition, positive interactions with pets and caring for pets in the home may provide important opportunities for children to build self-esteem, develop empathy, and increase social interactions with peers and members of their community. 

“Thus, the presence of a pet in the home may function as a protective factor that helps buffer the impact of IPV [intimate partner violence] on the child.  Certainly, the protective impact of having a beloved pet in the home would likely be compromised if the pet were being abused in the context of multidirectional family violence.”

The researchers found three contexts in which animal abuse occurred. Most commonly, the mother’s partner threatened or hurt the pet as a way to frighten and control the mother. For example, one boy said, “When my mom and I do not clean well or get up early, he [dad] gets angry and starts kicking the dog with his boot and starts throwing him against the wall time and time again.” 

Children seemed to recognize this kind of behaviour was aimed at upsetting their mother, and sometimes themselves too, as in the example above (‘my mom and I’). For women in these situations, seeing their child upset at abuse of the family pet may add to negative feelings and self-blame. 

At other times, violence was used by the mother, their partner or siblings as a way of punishing the pet for misbehaviour. For example, one girl said, “My dad kicked the dog when it tried to bite visitors to my house.” There was a wide range, from pulling the leash too hard to inflicting serious damage. The authors say that since physical punishment is common for children in households with domestic violence, it is no surprise to see it applied to pets. Also, physically punished pets may become aggressive, potentially leading to more harsh treatment. 

This shows children drawing a distinction between perceived punishment (that they might consider justified) and abuse (that wasn’t justified). This is interesting because at this age children are developing ideas about fairness, and it is believed children’s understanding of interpersonal violence is important for long-term outcomes.

The third context was siblings abusing the animal, for example, “my little brother just got mad and threw the cat down the stairs.” Some children said they had sometimes hurt their pet too.

78% said they had protected or tried to help a pet. Sometimes they took preventive action to keep animals away from their mother’s partner, such as putting the pet in their room. Some children said they directly intervened, e.g. one boy said, “When my dad was trying to hurt my dog, I grabbed my dog and said ‘No, Dad, no.’”

Children’s interventions show pets are important to them, but many domestic violence shelters do not allow pets. The researchers say children may need help in coming to terms with not having been able to help or save their pet, and that humane education programs to teach them how to properly interact with animals may also be beneficial.

This important study shows more research is needed on the effects these experiences have on children. Further research by the same team investigates the risk factors that affect how well children cope with witnessing animal abuse.

The full paper is available via the link below or on researchgate.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

McDonald SE, Collins EA, Nicotera N, Hageman TO, Ascione FR, Williams JH, & Graham-Bermann SA (2015). Children's experiences of companion animal maltreatment in households characterized by intimate partner violence. Child abuse & neglect, 50, 116-27 PMID: 26520828

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