Animal Cruelty among Children in Violent Households: Children’s Explanations of their Behavior

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Graduate School of Social Work


Despite increased recognition that childhood animal cruelty (CAC) is a risk factor for subsequent interpersonal violence, there is a dearth of research examining motivations for children’s animal cruelty behaviors in the context of violent households. The purpose of this study is to build on prior research in this area using a qualitative child-centered design to explore themes in children’s narratives about harming animals. We were specifically interested in learning: (1) what contextual or situational factors are related to CAC behaviors in the context of adverse family settings? (2) what do children’s accounts of their behaviors reveal about their beliefs about animal minds?, and (3) what are motivations for children’s perpetration of harm against animals? Forty-six children and their maternal caregivers were recruited from community-based domestic violence services. Children were asked to describe times when they had harmed animals; caregivers were interviewed separately about children’s harm to pets, and these data were used to triangulate patterns in the child data. Data were analyzed in Atlas.ti using the qualitative coding process of template analysis. Our thematic findings included: history of witnessing animal cruelty; history of witnessing pet neglect/abandonment; CAC with family members; minimization of animal harm; anthropomorphic beliefs about animal sentience; punishing pets out of anger; and curiosity. Our findings demonstrate that asking about children’s experiences with animals is an important part of the evaluation process for professionals who encounter children exposed to, or at risk for, experiencing family violence. Implications for research and intervention efforts are discussed.

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