Childhood animal cruelty can be normal or a red flag.

Since the 1970″s, research has consistently reported childhood cruelty to animals as the first warning sign of later delinquency, violence, and criminal behavior. In fact, nearly all violent crime perpetrators have a history of animal cruelty in their profiles. Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler found guilty of killing 13 women, shot arrows through dogs and cats he trapped as a child. Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold boasted about mutilating animals for fun.

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At the same time, most parents have been upset by some form of childhood cruelty to animals – whether it’s pulling the legs off of a bug or sitting on top of a puppy. We struggle to understand why any child would mistreat an animal. And when should we worry?

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Where’s the line between a budding serial killer like Jeffrey Dahmer and normal curiosity and experimentation?

Motivations Behind Animal Cruelty

Most commonly, children who abuse animals have either witnessed or experienced abuse themselves. Psychology today reports that statistics show that 30 percent of children who have witnessed domestic violence act out a similar type of violence against their pets. In fact, the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence is so well-known that many U.S. communities now cross-train social-service and animal-control agencies in how to recognize signs of animal abuse as possible indicators of other abusive behaviors.


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While childhood and adolescent motives for animal cruelty has not been well-researched, interviews suggest a number of additional developmentally related motivations:

“Curiosity or exploration (i.e., the animal is injured or killed in the process of being examined, usually by a young or developmentally delayed child).

Peer pressure (e.g., peers may encourage animal abuse or require it as part of an initiation rite).
Mood enhancement (e.g., animal abuse is used to relieve boredom or depression).

Sexual gratification (i.e., bestiality).

Forced abuse (i.e., the child is coerced into animal abuse by a more powerful individual).

Attachment to an animal (e.g., the child kills an animal to prevent its torture by another individual).

Animal phobias (that cause a preemptive attack on a feared animal).

Identification with the child’s abuser (e.g., a victimized child may try to regain a sense of power by victimizing a more vulnerable animal).

Posttraumatic play (i.e., reenacting violent episodes with an animal victim).

Imitation (i.e., copying a parent’s or other adult’s abusive “discipline” of animals).

Self-injury (i.e., using an animal to inflict injuries on the child’s own body).

Rehearsal for interpersonal violence (i.e., “practicing” violence on stray animals or pets before engaging in violent acts against other people).

A vehicle for emotional abuse (for example, injuring a sibling’s pet to frighten the sibling)