The Effects of Seeing Animal Abuse on Children's Mental Health

For children who live in a situation of domestic violence, also witnessing animal cruelty may negatively impact resilience.

The effects on children of seeing animal abuse. Photo shows sad pug
Photo: Halizov S/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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New research by Shelby McDonald (Virginia Commonwealth University) et al (2016) looks at the effects of seeing animal abuse on children’s psychological health in a context where they already witness intimate partner violence. Last week I reported on a study by McDonald et al (2015) that found a quarter of children whosemothers experience domestic violence also see their pet threatened or abused, and that most often the child says the motivation is to control the mother.

Since pets are often sources of social support for children, this may be especially traumatic; the effects of this are the focus of the new study.

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at risk of psychological problems, and yet some children are surprisingly resilient. One aim of McDonald’s (2016) study was to explore patterns in how children function when there is a family context of domestic violence. Secondly, they wanted to find out about the risk factors for not doing well, and specifically whether being exposed to cruelty to pets in the home worsens children’s mental health.

An ethnically-diverse sample of 291 children aged 7 – 12 took part. They were recruited through their mother’s use of domestic violence services in one state in the US, and they all had a family pet at home. On average, the women had been experiencing domestic violence for nine years.

Each mother and child completed questionnaires. The child’s exposure to animal cruelty was assessed via questions that asked the mother whether her partner had “ever threatened to hurt or kill a family pet” and if he had “ever actually hurt or killed a family pet.”

The results found that children could be grouped into three categories depending on how well they were coping: Resilient, Struggling, and Severe Maladjustment. Children in the group with the most problems (Severe Maladjustment) were much more likely to have experienced animal cruelty in the home. This shows how important it is to have a better understanding of how exposure to animal abuse affects children. 

Dr. Shelby McDonald told me, “we examined six domains of adjustment among children exposed to intimate partner violence (IPV): social problems, attention problems, internalizing behavior, externalizing behavior, empathy, and callous/unemotional traits. Our results provided support for three distinct profiles of socioemotional functioning in our sample: Resilient (66%; n=191), Struggling (28%; n=83), and Severe Maladjustment (6%; n=17). 

In the context of human-animal interactions research, the most important thing to note is that children exposed to animal cruelty were 3.26 times more likely to be in the “struggling” group and 5.72 times more likely to be in the “severe problems” group compared to the reference group of resilient children (however, these estimates must be interpreted with caution due to the large confidence intervals).  

“This finding pertaining to the significance of children’s exposure to animal cruelty is important and suggests that the identification of animal maltreatment among families receiving IPV services has important implications for the mental health and well-being of children. Including questions about companion animals in assessments for families impacted by IPV may help distinguish children at greater risk for psychological maladjustment. 

“Despite the fact that approximately 68% of households in the United States report owning a companion animal and a notable 85% consider pets to be a member of the family, routine integration of questions about pets in the family are not consistently implemented in clinical settings or community agencies that provide family services. 

“Questions about animals in the household can be easily integrated into intake and assessment procedures in a variety of settings (e.g., child protective services, schools, mental health clinics, crisis hotlines, domestic violence shelters) in order to expand the ecological lens from which practitioners approach working with family systems.”

Although the study does not prove a causal relationship between children's experiences of seeing animal cruelty and poor mental health, it has important implications for practice. The full paper is available via the link below or researchgate and is essential reading for anyone working in this field. 

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:

Reference McDonald, S., Graham-Bermann, S., Maternick, A., Ascione, F., & Williams, J. (2016). Patterns of Adjustment among Children Exposed to Intimate Partner Violence: a Person-Centered Approach Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma DOI: 10.1007/s40653-016-0079-y

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