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The Effects of Witnessing Animal Abuse on the Mental Health of Children

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

By Zazie Todd


(Photo: Keystone/Getty Images)

Recent research from a team led by Shelby McDonald of Virginia Commonwealth University looks at the effects of seeing animal abuse on children’s psychological health in a context where they already witness intimate partner violence. Not long ago, I reported on a related study by McDonald that found one-quarter of children whose mothers 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 more recent study was to explore patterns in how children function when there is a family context of domestic violence. The research team also 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 between the ages of seven and 12 took part. They were recruited through their mother’s use of domestic violence services in one state in the United States, and they all had a family pet at home. On average, the women had been experiencing domestic violence for nine years.

Children who are exposed to domestic violence are at risk of psychological problems, and yet some children are surprisingly resilient.

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.

“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,” McDonald says. “Our results provided support for three distinct profiles of socioemotional functioning in our sample: Resilient (66 percent; n=191), Struggling (28 percent; n=83), and Severe Maladjustment (6 percent; 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 Maladjustment 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,” McDonald says. “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 percent of households in the U.S. report owning a companion animal and a notable 85 percent 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.