It has been suggested many times over in recent years that there is
a link between those who harm animals and those who harm people.
While carrying out
research1 we became
sceptical about such claims.
A few years ago, the notion that abused children were likely to
become abusers was common. This is no longer accepted as true. In
this case the dominant view is that harming animals is directly
linked to, or can be treated as part of a cycle leading to,
violence towards people. It is suggested that the relationship is
clear cut, consistent and predictable. This argument suggests that
harming animals can be a predictive variable in indicating future
harm to people.
There are serious flaws in this argument. Although there may be
some disturbed individuals who are cruel towards both animals and
people, extreme cases do not provide the basis for generalised
Some links can be demonstrated, but we suggest that the current
arguments lead to closed thinking about causes. Problems such as
poverty are displaced by more tractable problems such as animal
abuse, which are more easily identified as individual pathology. We
suggest that the situation is more complex than is admitted by
those who argue for links and cycles. There are several problems
with the argument.
This issue is laden with historical, moral, cultural and social
values. The issue of harming animals is morally complex and
culturally ambiguous, but mainstream research treats it as simple.
What counts as unacceptable treatment of animals varies between and
within societies. Some animals live in our homes, others do not;
some are eaten, others are not; some are hunted, others are not.
All this indicates that there are few absolutes.
Few studies adequately define what is animal abuse or violence or
harm. Does cruelty include pulling the legs off spiders, or only
those of vertebrates? Does it matter that one society eats dogs and
another keeps them as pets? Richer children may legally kill
animals through fox hunting, whereas poorer ones are prosecuted for
similar behaviour towards a cat or a dog. In our research many
young people and adults (as children themselves) admitted to using
straws to blow into frogs until they burst. This rarely appears in
official statistics. Does UK society sanction blowing up frogs with
straws, or is harming frogs merely less visible than harming
Research supporting the supposed links is based mainly on extreme
and non-representative samples. Accounts suggesting links between
those who have harmed animals and later violence towards humans
often rely on the same small sample of extreme criminals in the US.
Researching a limited population to produce a broadly applicable
generalisation is problematic. Any number of life experiences could
also be shown to correlate with the behaviour.
A further problem is that much of the research tends to suffer from
fallacies of logic. Just because some serial killers have harmed
animals, this does not mean that all or even the majority of those
who harm animals will become serial killers. Yet this stance is
taken in much of the literature.
The psychological approach of most of this research leads to
explanations of individual pathology. The socio-economic context of
violence to animals is minimised and the fact that most people
known to animal protection agencies – and to child protection
agencies – are poor is masked.
There are major problems with the coherence of the argument for a
close link between harming animals and people, and the nature of
the supporting evidence.
Practitioners need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of
the problem. We do not know how much cruelty there is, and
accurately measuring it is difficult. Harming animals is a largely
invisible form of violence and abused animals cannot tell us.
During our research, several adults (including social workers) said
that, when younger, they had been cruel to animals. These
experiences had not apparently adversely affected them. Given the
proportion of children and young people who admitted harming
animals or knowing others who have harmed animals, this is welcome
Social workers should not uncritically accept the arguments that
have been put forward about linking animal and human violence.
Rather we should consider lessons from other areas of social work.
Heather Piper is a researcher and Steve Myers is a senior
lecturer on social work at Manchester Metropolitan University
1 H Piper, M Johnson,
S Myers and Pritchard J, Why Do People Harm Animals? The Children’s
and Young Persons’ Perspective, Manchester Metropolitan University
and the RSPCA, 2001