WHY DO SOME
CHILDREN ABUSE ANIMALS?
by Miriam Kerins
Recently, I had a conversation with a lady concerning a
small child of her acquaintance whom she suspects may be
displaying cruel behaviour towards animals.
“What should I do?” She asked.
My immediate response was this…“First of all we must find
out if the child is indeed being cruel. And, if they are,
then we must try to ascertain why they are being cruel.
Then, and this is important, we must put in place
intervention strategies as a matter of urgency and stop the
Now, before you read any further, please bear in mind that
the below is written both as a guideline, and as a source of
information only. This is in no way intended to be used,
nor should it ever be used, as a substitute for professional
veterinary and/or dog training/behavioural advice. If you
have any concerns regarding your animal's health or
behaviour, please contact your local veterinarian or dog
training professional without delay. In addition, if you
have any concerns regarding your child’s(ren) behaviour,
please contact your family’s medical practitioner as soon as
There is a strong belief that animal abuse perpetrated by
children is perhaps just an exploratory stage of their
development. Now, while this could be true; it is certainly
my opinion that the intensity and the motivation for any
abuse must be explored without delay! You see, as parents it
is our duty to teach our children empathy. This means
educating the little cherubs that all living creatures
experience pain and suffering, including animals. You could
do this by discussing the similarities between us and
animals, and hopefully this will help them to develop
empathy as well as going a long way towards preventing
future cruelty; if indeed a child does happen to be acting
in an unkind and worrying way towards a family pet or a
If a child grows up in an environment filled with violence,
there could be other reasons behind his/her motivation to
harm animals. For instance, they may be forced by an adult
to abuse an animal and then this may be used to coerce them
into silence about being abused themselves.This can lead the
child to feel powerless and therefore seek out their own
victims in which to exert control over and gain power. They
may well abuse a pet, a sibling or a peer in order to seek
revenge for their own maltreatment. Animal abuse may also be
part of an initiation rite for becoming a gang member.
All animal abuse situations should be taken seriously. We
should never disregard acts of animal cruelty as childish
games; otherwise we may be giving children permission to
inflict pain without fear of punishment!
So, what are the effects of animal abuse on the abuser
themselves? Animal abuse can be an indicator of the
likelihood of future acts of violence. Abusers, and
children who witness abuse, may become desensitised to
violence and may lose the ability to empathise with their
victims. The only way to stop the abuse is immediate
intervention and education. The earlier we intervene, the
higher the rate of success. For example, Dr Randall
Lockwood, Senior Vice President for anti-cruelty initiatives
and training at the American Society for Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals, (ASPCA), is quoted as saying “A kid
who is abusive to a pet is quite often acting out violence
directly experienced or witnessed in the home.”
Based on the above; below, I’ve set out a few questions for
you to ponder: In addition, I’ve supplied you with some of
my suggestions as possible answers:
Q: Do all children explore, and
is this what they’re doing when it comes to harming animals?
Kiddies love to ask questions, explore and experiment, etc.,
however, not all of them torture and kill pets! If a parent
allows a child to harm animals, it’s highly likely that
child will be violent in later life. Animal cruelty should
never, ever be attributed to a stage of development in a
Q: What type of child is
cruel to animals?
Research has shown that it’s usually a male child who
is more likely to hurt an animal rather than a female child.
Now, this is not my opinion, this is what statistics tell
us. Children as young as four may harm animals; however,
this type of behaviour is more common during their teen
years. Animal cruelty is very often associated with those
children who perform poorly at school, have low self-esteem
and have few friends. Children who commit cruelty to animals
are usually classified as bullies and usually have a history
of bad school attendance and anti-social behaviour,
Q: What are the family dynamics
in an animal abuse situation?
Research has found that if a child is committing violent
acts of cruelty toward animals, they are often demonstrating
displaced hostility and aggression stemming from their own
neglect or abuse by another family member. If animal abuse
is being committed by a family member, whether parent, adult
or child, it may often mean child abuse or indeed spousal
abuse is also possibly occurring within the family dynamics.
Q: If I’m concerned, what do I
If you have any suspicions, talk to your child. Discover why
he/she has committed this cruelty. Communicate with your
child’s teachers and friends – investigate; because the more
you know about your child’s activities, the more you’ll be
able to guide your child into making humane choices. Explain
to him/her that animal abuse is a sign there’s usually
another serious problem occurring in his/her life and this
needs to be addressed.
If your child says it only happened the once; it may simply
be innocent exploration. However, this behaviour must be
corrected immediately; and hopefully talking with the child
will sort this out. Please exercise caution and do
understand that you should be very concerned if a child
causes suffering or pain to an animal.
If your child has committed an act of cruelty towards an
animal, you shouldn’t handle this alone. This is a serious
situation and should be treated as such. Seek the help of a
family counsellor, your family doctor, or your district
Q: How will I know the
difference between innocent exploration and calculated
cruelty towards an animal?
Calculated cruelty is motivated be a strong desire to harm.
However, innocent acts of cruelty must also be addressed.
It’s important to intervene when a child acts insensitively
to what you deem is an obviously distressed animal. It’s
important to intervene if the child repeats harmful
behaviour towards them and derives pleasure from causing the
animal pain or seeing that it’s in pain or discomfort.
Please teach your child to respect and to be compassionate
towards all animals through example. Use real-life
situations to instil a sense of respect for all life. Feed
wild birds together, rescue a spider or a bug. Better still,
go to your local pound/rescue shelter and volunteer and, if
you can provide a proper environment for a rescue cat or
dog, then please, adopt one. With an older child, in an age
and ability manner, discuss animal cruelty cases that are
publicised in the media and encourage children to speak up
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