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 cruelty.”


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 possible.


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 neighbouring pet/animal.


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?

A: 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 child’s life.


Q: What type of child is cruel to animals?

A: 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, including vandalism.


Q: What are the family dynamics in an animal abuse situation?

A: 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 do?

A: 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 nurse; etc.


Q: How will I know the difference between innocent exploration and calculated cruelty towards an animal?

A: 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 for animals.


©  Miriam Kerins



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