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Pet Abuse and Its Link With Human Welfare


“The child who is empathetic is less likely to become violent or aggressive towards pets.”

As most people are aware, the ownership of status dogs and dog fighting has become a serious environmental issue.  The increase in hospital statistics of humans receiving treatment from dog bite wounds, the frequent occurrence of dog on dog attacks and the soaring numbers of bull breed types that find their way into urban rescue centres all highlight the gravity of the situation.

The government is intent on making changes to the Dangerous Dogs Acts but many of the ideas that have been put forward penalise the responsible dog owner and do not address the crux of the problem. 

In the last decade authorities in the UK have become actively aware of the link between pet abuse and domestic violence and have realised the need for a collaborative approach between welfare societies to combat the problem, however in trying to resolve the current issue of dog fighting, this thought process appears to have been overlooked. 

Pet abuse can be defined as physical violence, mental torture, sexual abuse and organised fighting. Whatever form it takes, it causes deliberate suffering to an animal.  Veterinary surgeons have been aware of non accidental injury (NAI) in pets for many years, and through no fault of their own, these cases have remained buried in veterinary records.  

It may seem surprising that someone could harm a pet and then take it for treatment but a survey conducted within a research by Munro and Thrusfield (2001) showed that 48% of veterinary practitioners were aware of non accidental injury.  There are many reasons why past cases of pet abuse have not been reported:

• The vets fear of breaching patient confidentiality and subsequent legal action
• The vet is concerned that by reporting a case,  it will lead to further abuse to the pet
• The vet fears for his personal safety
• Families of the abuser are afraid of initiating further abuse to themselves, their children or their pets
• Family members who are being abused are fearful that they will lose the pet that has provided them with emotional support.
                                                                                                                    (Godfrey, 2006)

The link between animal abuse and criminal activity was first identified in America when research showed that a high percentage of violent criminals admitted cruelty to animals during adolescence and childhood. Further studies revealed the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence.

When one hears of a particularly sickening way in which someone has treated an animal, it is difficult to understand how that person could have such a lack of empathy; but the question that really needs to be asked is why?  What has caused someone to act in such inhumane way? 

Little research has been carried out on why people abuse animals but in interviews carried out with the abusers the following motivations were revealed:

• To control an animal through training using abuse as a discipline
• To satisfy a hatred of a particular species such as a cat
• To express aggression through an animal (a classic example is dog fighting)
• To retaliate against other people (hurt their pets to hurt them)
• To use an animal as target practice and thus enhance one’s own aggression
• Hostility displacement (taking anger against a person out on a dog)
• Peer pressure
• Mood enhancement ( fighting boredom or anger)
• A child that is a victim of abuse and tries to regain a sense of power by victimising an animal
• Imitating the abusive ‘discipline’ of a parent
• As vehicle for emotional abuse (i.e. threatening a sibling by hurting it’s pet)
                                                                                               (U.S. Department of Justice, 2001)

It can be concluded from studying this list of motivations that nurture and environment are the prime cause of youngsters becoming abusive towards pets. They may be the victims of abuse themselves or witness to members of the family being abused. They may be ignorant about the way in which animals should be treated. They may lack empathy because this emotion is missing from their own experience. They may be bored or angry at the way in which society has treated them.

A dog that is trained to be aggressive and has become dangerous through ill treatment is no more to blame for its behaviour than the owner who has been the victim of abuse, neglect and lacks the appropriate education.

In 2001 an organisation called the Links group was introduced into the UK.  The aim of this society is to encourage collaboration between various societies involved in the protection of people and animals.  The Links Group educates other professional groups into understanding that pet abuse is a human welfare issue.  Vet students are issued with a Guide to Professional Conduct that includes dealing with pet abuse, child abuse and domestic violence and the RSPCA and the NSPCC run a joint training programme that encourages greater cross reporting of suspected violence towards animals or children. A support group known as ‘Paws For Kids’ was set up to protect women, children and pets by providing foster homes and safe houses. It enables owners to remain responsible for their pets and to be reunited once suitable accommodation is found.  Other members of the Links Group include Refuge, the Dogs Trust, the Scottish Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, the Blue Cross, the BVA, the BVNA, Intervet UK, The Royal Victoria Infirmary, Scottish SPCA and the Wood Green Animal Shelter.  Links Groups have been established in the UK, the USA, Australia, South Africa and Canada and there are hopes that Spain, Austria, Italy, Brazil and Japan will soon join the movement.

The realisation of a link between pet abuse and domestic violence has led to many improvements but the dangerous dogs continue to rear their ugly heads.  It would seem that the seed of benefit that the Links Group has planted needs further development and support. 

Educational programmes such as those run on a voluntary basis by animal welfare charities use animal-facilitated techniques that show children how to care for an animal.  Their methods and results suggest that it would be beneficial to introduce this form of education as compulsory in all schools.  Through learning how to care for animal, a child will develop empathy that otherwise might have been sadly lacking.  The child who is empathetic is less likely to become violent or aggressive towards pets.  By teaching children how to recognise and understand dog behaviour, they are more likely to avoid being bitten and will have less fear of dogs. 

Wrexham Council’s policy to persuade tenants to take up a voluntary pet responsibility agreement is further evidence that dealing with the social issue can be effective.  The agreement ensures that dogs are not allowed to be a nuisance and that all dog owners involved have access to free micro-chipping and a reduced rate neutering service.  This policy addresses the root of the problem and profits the housing providers and tenants alike.

In conclusion, juggling with legislation and making changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act may treat the symptoms, but recognising that pet abuse is linked with domestic violence and addressing the social problem may help to eliminate the cause. 

Godfrey A (2006) Human-animal interaction – the place of the companion animal in society. In: Aspinall V (ed.) The Complete Textbook of Veterinary Nursing. Butterworth Heinemann Elsevier, Oxford
Munro HMC, Thrusfield MV (2001) ‘Battered pets’.  Features that raise suspicion of non-accidental injury.  Journal of Small Animal Practice 42: 218-226
U.S. Department of Justice (2001) Animal Abuse and Youth Violence. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Available on line at:

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