Animal cruelty as an indicator of family trauma: Using adverse childhood experiences to look beyond child abuse and domestic violence

Child Abuse Negl. 2018 Feb:76:287-296. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.11.011. Epub 2017 Nov 22.


Youth who engage in animal cruelty are known to be at increased risk of perpetrating violence on other people in their lives including peers, loved ones, and elder family members. These youths have often been exposed to family violence, including animal cruelty perpetrated on their beloved pets by violent adults. The current study utilizes a data set of 81,000 juvenile offenders whose adverse childhood experiences are known and includes 466 youth who self-report engaging in animal cruelty. Compared to the larger group of juvenile offenders, the children admitting to engaging in animal cruelty are younger at time of first arrest, more likely to be male, and more likely to be White. When looking at their reports of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), they are more likely than other juvenile offenders to have an array of adverse experiences beyond family violence and to have four or more ACEs. Although the youth who are cruel to animals are already troubled, the fact that they present to law enforcement at early ages provides early opportunities for intervention. Service providers outside the law enforcement field, such as teachers, physicians, veterinarians and animal control officers may be able to identify these vulnerable youth, and refer them to needed services before violence is visited on other humans.

Keywords: Adverse childhood experiences; Animal cruelty; Child maltreatment; Domestic violence; Juvenile justice.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Animal Welfare*
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Domestic Violence / psychology*
  • Family / psychology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Juvenile Delinquency / psychology
  • Male
  • Peer Group
  • Retrospective Studies