When a case of animal cruelty appears in the media, most people question why someone would do such a thing, being much more shocking when the author is a minor . So, it is normal that a lot of unknowns appear about the subject. Why do some children mistreat animals? What goes through their minds? Is it a game for them? Is it “stuff” for children?

In the last 40 years many researchers from different parts of the world have tried to answer these questions, partly because of the increased pro-animalist awareness in our society. To tell the truth, many of them still cannot be answered unequivocally, since for the moment the research is insufficient to understand the dimension of the problem, a fact that could be attributed, among other aspects, to the fact that the attacks are specifically directed towards a species different from ours, which can be called specificity .

What do we mean by animal cruelty?

But… what exactly can be described as “animal cruelty”? The most accepted definition in the scientific literature is that of one of the most recognized researchers in this area, Frank R. Ascione: “socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary suffering, pain or distress and/or the death of the animal” .

Therefore, even if they cause unnecessary suffering to animals, more socially accepted behaviours such as intensive farming that ends up in slaughterhouses, legal hunting, breeding animals for their fur, scientific experimentation on animals, animal shows (bullfights, circus, zoos…) are not included. However, the definition of cruelty to animals should also include, according to several authors, acts of maltreatment through negligence when there is an intention to cause harm.

Why do some children mistreat animals?

After having interviewed several adolescent aggressors, the researchers Ascione, Thompson and Black proposed in 1997 different answers to this question based on the underlying motivations that young people may have when they attack domestic or wild animals .

According to these authors, children/adolescents who mistreat animals do so basically for these reasons :

  • To satisfy their curiosity/exploration (e.g., the animal is damaged or killed in the process of being examined).
  • Peer group pressure (e.g., as a ritualistic initiation process to get into a certain group of young people).
  • To raise the mood (e.g. to fight boredom and/or depression).
  • Sexual gratification (known as “bestiality”).
  • Forced abuse (e.g., the child is forced to abuse the animal by another more powerful person, very frequent in cases of Domestic Violence, where the child can become the aggressor of the animal to prevent a more painful/slower death of the animal by the powerful person).
  • Animal phobia (the child kills or injures the animal as a preventive attack).
  • Post-traumatic play (the child recreates scenes of high violent charge as an emotional discharge).
  • Training for interpersonal violence with humans (e.g., the child practices his techniques on animals before daring to harm people).
  • Emotional abuse vehicle (e.g., harming a family member’s pet to scare him/her).

Other explanations

Other authors add some motivations from interviews with inmates in Kansas and Connecticut, who had assaulted animals in their adolescence/youth. All examples are real:

  • To control the animal (the aim is to eliminate unpleasant behaviour from the animal, for example, kicking a dog’s testicles to stop it barking).
  • To get back at the animal (e.g., to get back at a cat that has scratched the couch by burning it alive).
  • To satisfy a prejudice against a particular species or race (very common cat hate).
  • To express one’s own human aggression through the animal (for example, inflicting damage to the animal to prepare the dog for fighting with other animals.
  • For fun and to shock others (e.g., tying two cats to the tail and burning them to see how they run desperately).
  • Unspecified sadism (the desire to hurt, torture and/or kill an animal without having perceived any kind of provocation and without any a priori hostile feeling against the animal; one kills for pleasure, to enjoy the process of death). These children would have the worst prognosis .

Is it “kid stuff”?

On a psychological level, animal abuse is indicating that there are cognitive (wrong ways of interpreting power and control) and/or environmental dysfunctions in the child. Throughout history, several authors have warned of this phenomenon as an indicator of psychological maladjustment (for example, Pinel in 1809, or Margaret Mead in 1964).

In fact, in 1987 the American Psychiatric Association included animal cruelty as one of the 15 symptoms of Child Behavior Disorder. In addition, children who commit acts of cruelty to animals are more likely to have more severe behavioral problems than those with other symptoms.

Animal abuse and other forms of conflict

It is also important to note that cruelty to animals is related to domestic violence, child sexual abuse and bullying, among others.

Children who are exposed to domestic violence and/or who are abused (whether physically, sexually or psychologically) tend to be more violent towards animals than children who have not been through such unfavourable situations. These children may be expressing the pain of their own victimization process through the abuse of more vulnerable victims: animals.

In other words: animal cruelty in childhood can be a warning sign as the family/school environment is being violent or abusive to the child , so it is advisable to pay special attention to the child as soon as a situation of animal abuse takes place.

Therefore, these acts should not be considered as a mere child’s game and should not be minimized; behind these episodes of cruelty many traumatic situations can be discovered in which the child has been the victim.

How can animal abuse be prevented?

Various researches have shown that educating children by transmitting positive values towards all living beings on the planet is a very important element in the prevention of cruel acts against animals and treatment, facilitating the development of empathy even towards humans.

These educational programs help to develop a sense of responsibility and concern for others, as well as helping to develop self-esteem, socialization and cooperation.

Las implicaciones que esto tiene a escala global son claras: si se tuviera en cuenta la crueldad hacia los animales como una forma más significativa de agredir y/o de muestra de comportamiento antisocial, se avanzaría en la comprensión y prevención de la violencia infantojuvenil y adulta.

Enlaces de interés:

“Tres menores se fugan del centro de Abegondo y matan 40 conejos” (La Voz de Galicia)

“Un grupo de menores atemoriza a los vecinos de Marinaleda tras matar a casi 30 animales” (El Correo de Andalucía)

“PACMA denuncia a los chicos que mataron a un gatito a patadas en Cuenca” (Huffington Post)

Referencias bibliográficas:

  • Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C. y Ascione, F. (1999). La relación del abuso animal con la violencia y otras formas de comportamiento antisocial. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963-975. doi: 10.1177/088626099014009004
  • Ascione, F. R. (1993). Niños que son crueles con los animales: Una revisión de la investigación y las implicaciones para la psicopatología del desarrollo. Anthrozoös, 6(4), 226-247. doi: 10.2752/0892793393787002105
  • Ascione, F. R., Thompson, T. M. y Black, T. (1997). Childhood cruelty to animals: Evaluar las dimensiones y motivaciones de la crueldad. Anthrozoös, 10(4), 170-177. doi: 10.2752/0892793977787001076
  • Ascione, F. R. (2001). Animal Abuse and Youth Violence, Departamento de Justicia de los Estados Unidos, Oficina de Programas de Justicia, Washington: Oficina de Justicia Juvenil y Prevención de la Delincuencia.
  • Baldry, A. C. (2005). Maltrato de animales entre preadolescentes víctimas directas e indirectas en la escuela y en el hogar. Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 15(2), 97-110. doi: 10.1002/cbm.42
  • Duncan, A., Thomas, J. C., & Miller, C. (2005). Significación de los factores de riesgo familiares en el desarrollo de la crueldad con los animales en la infancia en adolescentes varones con problemas de conducta. Journal of Family Violence, 20(4), 235-239. doi: 10.1007/s10896-005-5987-9
  • Hensley, C. & Tallichet, S. E. (2005). Animal cruelty motivations: assessing demographic and situational influences. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(11), 1429-1443. doi: 10.1177/0886260505278714
  • Luk, E. S., Staiger, P. K., Wong, L., & Mathai, J. (1999). Niños que son crueles con los animales: Una revisión. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 29-36. doi: 10.1046/j.1440-1614.1999.00528.x