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(Updated 19/7/01)

Animal Cruelty: the loop of abuse

by Nick Mays

CRUELTY TO animals is often part of a “loop of abuse” which has its roots in an individual’s personal history, often as part of a culture of abuse within the family unit. These are the stark conclusions reached by the accumulated research published in the Scottish SPCA’s shocking leaflet “Animal Cruelty: Family Violence”, published in conjunction with their FIRST STRIKE campaign to seek the causes of animal abuse and to set up procedures between multi agencies to deal with such cruelty (see OUR DOGS July 13th).

The campaign began just over five years ago. Veterinary pathologist Helen Munro approached the Scottish SPCA. Munro was already working on a study, examining the clinical features and the pathology of what she terms the “Battered Pet” - the animal which has suffered a non-accidental injury - also known as physical abuse.

It is important that the four types of abuse are recognised. Whether the word is being used in relation to child or animal abuse the definition has to be clear. The four types are:
physical abuse - also known as “non-accidental injury or NAI for short - or the Battered Child or Pet Syndrome
sexual abuse - we also use this term in relation to sexual abuse of animals. Bestiality has mediaeval connotations.

Emotional abuse and neglect are self explanatory.

Helen Munro used information from the Society case-files and other sources and with her other research with the American Humane Association, the only organisation in the world to have child and animal protection divisions, the features of cases of animal abuse and child abuse were remarkably similar.

There is some debate about what constitutes animal cruelty, as such definitions are affected by religious, cultural and societal norms. The SSPCA’s research indicates that, although any form of cruelty inflicted on an animal is worrying, it is of particular concern if the actions include the following criteria:

Direct involvement in cruelty, rather than witnessing the act.
Lack of self-restraint.
Lack of remorse.
A variety of cruel acts.
A variety of species victimised.
Actions directed at ‘socially valuable’ animals (for example dogs, not rats)
(Felthouse and Kellet, 1987).

A few studies have sought to discover if children who are cruel to animals have been victims of cruelty and neglect themselves:

A great deal of research, many of it dating back to the late 1970s have explored the extent to which individuals who are cruel to animals are also cruel to their children and/or partners.

In relation to domestic violence and animal cruelty, many different studies have shown clear proof of a definite link between the two:

Finally, in relation to the effect of cruelty to animals on children and partners, the following statistics make grim reading:

Amongst 35 adolescents in an in-patient adolescent psychiatry unit, losing a favourite pet was cited as “very difficult” by 66 per cent of respondents and was amongst the six top trauma events in frequency.

Excerpts taken from “Animal Cruelty: Family Violence”, (c) SSPCA. To obtain a copy, contact the SSCPA at: 603 Queensferry Road, Edinburgh, EH4 6EA. Tel: 0131 339 0222, Fax: 0131 339 4777. Website: