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Research Into How Children Experience Animal Abuse Shows Why Domestic Violence Shelters Should…

Twenty-four percent of children whose mothers experience domestic violence also see threats to or abuse of companion animals, research shows.

By Zazie Todd


(Photo: Marianne Todd/Getty Images)

Every year in the United States, one in 15 children is exposed to intimate partner violence, according to a national survey. Research from a team led by Shelby McDonald of Virginia Commonwealth University finds many also witness abuse of pets in the home, potentially adding to the impacts on their behavior and mental health.

The researchers interviewed children between the ages of seven and 12 whose mothers had used domestic violence services in the past year. Of 242 children, one-quarter had seen someone threaten to or actually injure or 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.

“Children experience close bonds with companion animals and rely on pets as a way of managing stress,” McDonald says. “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.”

This shows children drawing a distinction between perceived punishment (that they might consider justified) and abuse (that wasn’t justified).

“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,” McDonald says. “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. One boy said, for example, “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 behavior 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 misbehavior. One girl said, for example, “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. “My little brother just got mad and threw the cat down the stairs,” for example. Some children said they had sometimes hurt their pet too.

Seventy-eight percent 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; 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.