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Animal Cruelty

Guide No. 65 (2012)

by Kelly Dedel

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The Problem of Animal Cruelty

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide begins by describing the problem of animal cruelty and reviewing factors that increase its risks. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local animal cruelty problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about these from evaluative research and police practice.

Animal cruelty is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to animals. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by animal cruelty. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which requires separate analysis, include the following:

Nuisance or Hazardous Animals

  • Stray animals
  • Noisy animals
  • Animal waste
  • Animal bites
  • Animal-vehicle crashes
  • Dangerous or feral animals

Harm to Animals Incidental to Other Motives

  • Overworking farm animals
  • Animal theft
  • Dog fighting or cockfighting
  • Capturing and harming protected animal species
  • Hunting out of season
  • Smuggling and selling exotic animal species
  • Puppy mills

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org

General Description of the Problem

Animal cruelty includes many kinds of mistreatment, from temporarily failing to provide essential care to the malicious killing or repeated torturing of an animal. Every state defines animal cruelty differently, both in terms of the specific actions that are prohibited and the categories of animals that are protected. For example, hunting is exempted from animal cruelty laws and livestock are not protected, even though in both cases the animals are killed and quite often suffer. Laws in some states protect wild animals from frivolous harm (e.g., "thrill killing"), although most animal cruelty laws are designed to only protect "companion animals" or pets.

Animal cruelty cases tend to span the jurisdictions of several state and local agencies and departments, and the agency officially responsible for handling animal cruelty cases varies. Some jurisdictions have sophisticated programs within animal welfare organizations (e.g., Humane Societies, Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Animal Control) with specially trained staff who respond to all complaints of animal cruelty. They may be called animal cruelty enforcement agents, humane law enforcement agents, cruelty investigators, or animal control officers, and while they may have the legal authority to investigate and enforce animal cruelty laws, the public often grants them less legitimacy than police.1 In some jurisdictions, animal cruelty enforcement agents collaborate with police. In places without local animal welfare organizations, police may be solely responsible for enforcing all animal-protection laws.2 Where local humane agencies exist, police tend to refer complaints of animal cruelty to these agencies, even though they often lack the funding, expertise, and resources to investigate animal cruelty cases.3

The intense public reaction to animal cruelty cases covered by the media suggests that the public is concerned about the treatment of animals and believes animal cruelty to be a social problem worthy of police attention.4 Because police routinely come into contact with people at their homes where their animals are ordinarily kept, the officers are in an ideal position to identify warning signs of animal cruelty and neglect. While some cases will be arduous, involving lengthy investigations, search warrants, and complex crime scenes, most cases of animal cruelty are not particularly complicated. Particularly in cases of simple neglect, police who identify the signs of animal cruelty can offer information, suggestions for improving animal care, or warnings, which will usually rectify the situation before a serious tragedy occurs.5

Types of Animal Cruelty

The following types of animal cruelty exist:

  • Neglect occurs when an owner fails to provide the animal with adequate food, water, shelter, or veterinary care. Severely restricting an animal's movement full-time by tethering it to a stationary object or keeping the animal in a cage is the most common, and most visible, type of neglect. Neglect is the most common type of animal cruelty.6
  • Hoarding is a severe form of neglect in which the owner accumulates an excessive number of pets, is unable to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, or veterinary care, and houses the animals in extremely overcrowded conditions. Such neglect results in illness and starvation and may even lead to the death of the animals.
  • Physical abuse refers to intentional acts that cause the animal pain, suffering, or death. Abusive behaviors include beating, burning, choking or suffocating, dragging, drowning, hanging, kicking or stomping, mutilating, poisoning, shooting, stabbing, and throwing, among others. Abuse also includes sexual contact with animals, particularly contact that causes injury or severe distress such as vaginal or anal penetration, or ligature or lacerations to the animals' genitalia.

Warning Signs of Animal Cruelty

While specialized training is desirable, particularly for complicated hoarding cases or cases of physical abuse that will be prosecuted, most police officers need only a basic familiarity with animals' health and normal states of being to identify the warning signs of animal cruelty. These signs may include the following:7

  • Animals in poor physical condition (e.g., skinny or emaciated, open sores, dirty, foul odor, excessive head shaking or scratching, excessively matted coat)
  • Excessively aggressive animals (e.g., lunging, snarling, snapping, growling)
  • Excessively submissive animals (e.g., no eye contact, cowering, shaking, backing away)
  • Poor general sanitation (e.g., urine or feces in the home, no access to clean water or food)
  • Exposure to extreme weather without proper shelter
  • Insufficient space, lighting, or ventilation for the number of animals present
  • Cruel confinement (e.g., short tether, small cage, hot car)
  • Lack of necessary medical care (e.g., animal is diseased, injured, or dying)
  • Cruel or inappropriate training methods (e.g., suspended with front legs off the floor to punish, weighted down and thrown into water, forced to run alongside car)
  • Tight collars or harnesses that are embedded in the animals' flesh
  • Dead animals on the property

Prevalence of Animal Cruelty

National crime-reporting systems do not monitor animal cruelty. Doing so would be very difficult, because enforcement authority is scattered across thousands of state and local agencies, laws vary across states, and standardized reporting structures have not been developed. The two major efforts to collect data on the prevalence of animal mistreatment rely primarily on media reports, rather than enforcement records, as the source.†

† Until 2004, the Humane Society of the United States collected data on animal cruelty cases covered in the media. It discontinued the project because of excessive demands on staff (Lockwood 2008). Press clippings were also used build the Animal Abuse Registry Database Administration System (AARDAS), a private system which was launched in 2002. While the website includes a search engine and crime-mapping capabilities, it includes only those cases with a media reference or that proceeded to court. As of April 18, 2011, the database included over 17,000 cases in six countries. 

One survey of school-aged children in the United States found that 30 percent admitted to committing some form of animal cruelty.8 Another survey found that 14 percent of the population had witnessed someone "intentionally or carelessly inflicting pain or suffering on an animal in the past year."9 This translates to over 15 million incidents of animal cruelty in a single year. Over half of the respondents stated they reported the incident to a law enforcement or humane organization. One study estimated that approximately 5,000 cases of hoarding are reported each year, with roughly 40 animals involved in each case.10 

Despite the lack of national data, most researchers agree that cases of neglect constitute the vast majority of animal cruelty cases.11 However, unless the neglect is extreme or involves a large number of animals, these cases are rarely discussed by the media. As a result, the public may not fully understand the prevalence and nature of animal cruelty.12  

Harms Caused by Animal Cruelty

The most obvious harm caused by animal cruelty is the pain and suffering endured by the animal. In contrast to what is often presented by the media, happy endings in cases of physical cruelty are rare: the abuse is often ghastly and victim animals are rarely returned to good health or adopted by a loving family.13 Particularly in hoarding cases, severe crowding and a lack of socialization create health and behavior problems that may leave animals unadoptable and at risk of euthanasia.14 One study of animal cruelty cases in the media in 2003 found that 62 percent of the animal victims were either killed by the perpetrator or euthanized because of their injuries.15 Long-term outcomes are better for victims of mild neglect, provided their owners change their approach to the animal's care.

In addition to the animal suffering inflicted in even the least sensational cases, the more complicated hoarding cases also generate significant public health concerns. Homes of hoarders are generally filthy, with an accumulation of animal feces and urine on the floor, sometimes several inches deep. The resulting ammonia gas creates toxic air. Utilities and major appliances usually do not work, and most of the basic activities for a functional and sanitary household (e.g., showering, sleeping in a bed, preparing food) are impaired. Carcasses of dead animals are often found in hoarding locations, many of which are eventually condemned.16

While animal cruelty is a serious social problem in its own right, interest in its association with other forms of violence has motivated a great deal of research. Groups of researchers in both the United States and the United Kingdom assert that people who harm or kill animals are at high risk of interpersonal violence.17 These researchers assert that people who mistreat animals will do so habitually and are likely to be violent to their partners and children. Further, they claim that victims of child abuse are likely to harm animals and are more likely to be violent toward humans as they mature. Most of these studies examined the prevalence of animal cruelty among incarcerated, violent offenders.

However, citing methodological flaws in the research and overly broad generalizations, a few researchers believe the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence has been overstated.18 Given that most people who have been cruel to animals have not gone on to commit increasingly violent acts towards humans, these researchers worry that assuming a direct link will cast the net too wide and result in misdirected resources.19 The same set of external factors (e.g., stress, poverty, substance abuse) may underlie multiple forms of violence. However, cruelty to animals, alone, is not a particularly influential predictor of interpersonal violence, and animal cruelty may precede or follow other types of violent offenses.20

Factors Contributing to Animal Cruelty

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine effective measures in response, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Animal Victim Characteristics

Dogs and cats are the most frequent victims of neglect and physical cruelty, although birds, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits, and reptiles are sometimes abused. Most victims of animal cruelty are pets, not wild animals.21 A survey of veterinarians' experience with abused animals and suspected abusers revealed that offenders may physically abuse younger animals (age 7 months to 2 years), who are full of energy and sometimes difficult to train.22

Wild animals (e.g., raccoons, possums, deer) may be brutally attacked by poachers who intentionally hit the animal with a car or beat them with a club or bat.23 The animals are killed not for their meat, but rather for sport or the thrill of causing harm.

Hoarding cases usually involve dogs and cats and most involve multiple species.24 These cases typically involve dozens of animals, or in extreme cases, hundreds.25

Offender Characteristics

Neglected animals are often found in households where residents have alcohol and drug problems and where residents are overwhelmed and have difficulty meeting their own basic needs.26 Further, some pet owners are simply ignorant of animals' basic needs and how to train them effectively.27 Even though their cruelty is unintentional, owners who lack this essential knowledge may severely neglect their animals.

Although a few studies have shown that a small proportion of violent adult criminals were chronic animal abusers as children, most children who are cruel to animals commit mild, infrequent acts of cruelty and eventually grow out of it.28 Their cruelty is motivated by curiosity, peer pressure, boredom, or a lack of knowledge about animals.29

Perpetrators are most likely to be older adolescents or young adults. Males commit intentional acts of cruelty toward animals more often than females.30 While abuse occurs at all socio-economic levels, it is concentrated in lower socioeconomic households.31 Physical cruelty is often motivated by unrealistic expectations about how animals should behave, and offenders cause pain and distress in an effort to control or retaliate against the animal. They may also express anger about other situations by abusing the animal.32 In domestic violence situations, offenders may abuse animals in an effort to intimidate or control their human victims.33

Although far less common than physical abuse or simple neglect, hoarding has attracted a disproportionate amount of research. As a result, the profile of a typical hoarder is far more specific. Hoarders are most frequently single females who live alone, do not work outside the home, and are socially isolated. However, hoarding cases also involve single males and couples of varying ages and living arrangements. Research has identified several types of hoarders, including the following:34

  • Overwhelmed animal caregivers' patterns of neglect are triggered by a change in circumstances or resources (e.g., loss of spouse or partner, onset of illness, loss of job). They have a strong attachment to their animals and may recognize they are not taking good care of them but are overextended and cannot address it.
  • Rescuers have a strong personal mission to "save" animals, believe they are the only ones who care about animals' well-being, and actively acquire animals. They deny their behavior is problematic and believe their animals are happy and healthy.
  • Exploiters collect animals to serve their own needs and usually have a serious mental illness. They are indifferent to the harms they cause and generally reject all attempts to assist them.

Regardless of the motivation, without adequate treatment and limits on future pet ownership, nearly all hoarders reoffend.35

Times of Year and Locations Where Animal Cruelty Occurs

Research has not examined the specific locations where physical abuse or simple neglect occurs. We do know that although animal cruelty occurs at all socioeconomic levels and in all communities, it is concentrated in households of lower socioeconomic status.36 Media accounts suggest that animal cruelty occurs in or around private residences (when a pet is the victim) or in isolated public spaces (when the victim is a wild or stray animal). Although research describes the characteristics of the households in which hoarding occurs, we do not know the geographic concentrations of hoarding cases.37

Although the seasonal patterns of animal cruelty have not been researched in depth, the research implies that simple neglect (e.g., inadequate shelter) may be more prevalent during seasons with extreme temperatures.

Co-occurring Problems

The co-occurrence of animal cruelty with other forms of violence compounds the harms associated with it. Although the link between the physical abuse of animals and interpersonal violence is unlikely to be as causal as some research suggests, the occurrence of either type of violence should cue police to check whether other forms of mistreatment may also be present.38 The underlying conditions that create the opportunity for animal cruelty to occur (e.g., stress, deprivation, aggression, mental illness, prior victimization, drug and alcohol use) mirror the risk factors for interpersonal violence. As a result, people who abuse animals may be at risk of committing interpersonal violence, and vice versa. While presuming that people who abuse their pets also abuse their children or spouses is inappropriate, being vigilant about the potential co-occurrence of various forms of violence is only prudent.

Women in domestic violence situations may delay leaving a violent partner, in part because they are concerned about pets that would be left behind.39 Most domestic violence shelters do not accommodate animals. The social isolation and limited financial resources of domestic violence victims can prevent them from leaving their pets with family members, friends, or at a kennel. Many women in shelters report that their pets have been threatened, injured, or killed by their abusive partners. Batterers harm pets to exert control, prevent the victim from leaving, or coerce the victim to return.40

Finally, the chaos and filth that characterize hoarding locations have grave consequences for the health of the human inhabitants. Hoarders generally have poor hygiene and limited access to a sanitary environment for eating, bathing, and sleeping. These problems with self-care are often compounded by untreated mental illnesses.

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