The (inextricable) Link: Animal abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse


“Over the past 30 years, researchers and professionals in a variety of human services and animal welfare disciplines have established significant correlations between animal abuse, child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, elder abuse and other forms of violence. Mistreating animals is no longer seen as an isolated incident that can be ignored: it is often an indicator or predictor crime and a “red flag” warning sign that other family members in the household may not be safe. We call this species-spanning interconnectedness of different forms of violence The Link.”

So states The National Link Coalition, which was created in 2008. “…Over 100 dedicated authorities, advocates and researchers representing a diverse array of animal protection, domestic violence, child maltreatment and elder abuse disciplines came together at a unique Town Meeting and National Summit in Portland, Maine.”  Their “goal was to build greater awareness of how these forms of family and community violence are interconnected…and to build successful programs whereby agencies in these fields can cross-report and cross-train each other for more effective prevention of violence.”

This relatively new field of research has uncovered some grim statistics. PAWS in Washington State outlines some striking

facts about the animal abuse-human violence connection:

    • More than 80 percent of family members being treated for child abuse also had abused animals.
    • In two-thirds of these cases, an abusive parent had killed or injured a pet. In one-third of the cases, a child victim continued the cycle of violence by abusing a pet.
    • National and state studies have established that from 54 to 71 percent of women seeking shelter from abuse reported that their partners had threatened, injured or killed one or more family pets.
    • The FBI sees animal cruelty as a predictor of violence against people and considers past animal abuse when profiling serial killers.
    • A 1997 study….found that 70 percent of animal abusers had committed at least one other crime. Almost 40 percent had committed violent crimes against people.

It’s no surprise that “abusing pets” is one of the “spokes” on the Power and Control Wheel, the visual model used in domestic violence curricula to illustrate the patterns of actions that an individual uses to intentionally control or dominate his intimate partner. The patterns of actions are quite universal to all forms of abuse though throughout the years different wheels have been customized for specific types of situations and abuse.

Randall Lockwood, ASPCA senior vice president for forensic sciences and anticruelty projects, stated for the New York Times in 2010:

“…I’ve spent a lot of time looking at what links things like animal cruelty and child abuse and domestic violence. And one of the things is the need for power and control. Animal abuse is basically a power-and-control crime.”

In 2012 in the National Link Coalition’s ‘Link Letter’ he elucidated upon the psychological beginnings and processes behind violent and abusive acts:

“… [A]busive behavior is not just learned; it has a deeper, more integral connection…. Children who have witnessed such abuse or been victimized themselves frequently engage in “abuse reactive” behaviors…re-enacting what has been done to them either with younger siblings or with pets. Such children often suppress their own feelings of kindness toward a pet because they can’t bear the pain caused by their own empathy for the abused animal…. Those caught in this vicious abuse-reactive cycle will not only continue to expose the animals they love to suffering merely to prove that they themselves can no longer be hurt, but they are also testing the boundaries of their own desensitization. Such children can only achieve a sense of safety and empowerment by inflicting pain and suffering on themselves and others.”

Developmental psychologist, Frank Ascione, PhD has and continues to research extensively in this area. However last year, the first textbook was published.  Understanding Animal Abuse: A Sociological Analysis was written by Clifton P. Flynn, PhD, professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Criminal Justice, and Women’s Studies at the University of South Carolina Upstate. The publisher’s web site offers a sample chapter: “Why Studying Animal Abuse is Important” and a link to a podcast, “On Human-Nonhuman Relations“, with the author.

In state legislatures, small progressive steps are being made. As of February 2013, the National Link Coalition published “State Statutes in Which Acts of Animal Abuse Constitute Acts of Domestic Violence“. So far, seven states have such legislation.

With the relatively new advent of animal abuse-human violence research, it’s interesting to reflect back on some early history. In a nonintuitive twist, it was actually the SPCA that took the first recorded case of child abuse to the courts:

“In 1866, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) was organized in NYC by Henry Bergh, a wealthy New Yorker who was outraged after witnessing cruelty to working horses….

“In 1874 when the first case of child abuse was alleged a horribly graphic case of a young girl beaten it was the ASPCA that was called to advocate for the child. At the time, children were considered property and there were no laws against their abuse. However, there were animal-protection laws in place and the girl was successfully defended by using the animal protection law, since, her attorney argued, she was an animal. Subsequently, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children rapidly came into existence. The link between violence to children and violence to animals has been studied ever since.”

As is often said, “Abuse is abuse no matter what form it takes.” And our collective goal is to consciously let go of our outmoded, siloed way of thinking about it. I’m reminded of what Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, said during the forum on “The Toxic Stress of Early Childhood Adversity” in 2012:

“…We’re talking about basic biology here so a lot of what we know comes from studies of animals. Comes from studies of non-human primates, comes from studies of mice and rats… and…humans. And this has to do with the extent to which “the body” responds to a sense of threat or stress….From a brain point of view it’s whether there’s a sense of threat and whether something is protecting you or not….Does “the body” sense “safety” or does the body sense “threat”? And we know from a huge amount of research…that good environments produce healthy development and poor environments threaten development….
…Another thing that is new about this science, this says, how about everybody looking at the same science that really relates to all of your worlds and think about how that could change the way we might work together. Rather than think about how we can break down silos…. This science is a new reason. It’s as much about health as it is about education; it’s as much about pediatrics as it is about gerontology….It’s ONE science that doesn’t have a magic answer to everything but it is a new way to start thinking together about different kinds of solutions.”

Written by Chris Engel.


  1. […] Being Vegan for me is a basic philosophy for treating all life with equality. When we teach our children that we eat these animals, and we wear these animals, but we pamper these other animals, it’s undeniable that we are teaching discrimination. Just like the undeniable connection science has proven when a child is abusive to an animal they will soon be abusive to other humans. […]


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