Journal of Family Violence

, Volume 33, Issue 7, pp 469–480 | Cite as

Animal Cruelty among Children in Violent Households: Children’s Explanations of their Behavior

  • Shelby Elaine McDonaldEmail author
  • Anna M. Cody
  • Laura J. Booth
  • Jennifer R. Peers
  • Claire O’Connor Luce
  • James Herbert Williams
  • Frank R. Ascione
Original Article


Despite increased recognition that childhood animal cruelty (CAC) is a risk factor for subsequent interpersonal violence, there is a dearth of research examining motivations for children’s animal cruelty behaviors in the context of violent households. The purpose of this study is to build on prior research in this area using a qualitative child-centered design to explore themes in children’s narratives about harming animals. We were specifically interested in learning: (1) what contextual or situational factors are related to CAC behaviors in the context of adverse family settings? (2) what do children’s accounts of their behaviors reveal about their beliefs about animal minds?, and (3) what are motivations for children’s perpetration of harm against animals? Forty-six children and their maternal caregivers were recruited from community-based domestic violence services. Children were asked to describe times when they had harmed animals; caregivers were interviewed separately about children’s harm to pets, and these data were used to triangulate patterns in the child data. Data were analyzed in Atlas.ti using the qualitative coding process of template analysis. Our thematic findings included: history of witnessing animal cruelty; history of witnessing pet neglect/abandonment; CAC with family members; minimization of animal harm; anthropomorphic beliefs about animal sentience; punishing pets out of anger; and curiosity. Our findings demonstrate that asking about children’s experiences with animals is an important part of the evaluation process for professionals who encounter children exposed to, or at risk for, experiencing family violence. Implications for research and intervention efforts are discussed.


Animal cruelty Aggression Violence Child psychopathology 



This research was funded by Grant 5R01-HD-66503-4 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and Grant 2015-0709 from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or ASPCA. The authors would like to thank the community-based domestic violence advocates for their contribution to this work.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shelby Elaine McDonald
    • 1
    Email author
  • Anna M. Cody
    • 1
  • Laura J. Booth
    • 1
  • Jennifer R. Peers
    • 1
  • Claire O’Connor Luce
    • 1
  • James Herbert Williams
    • 2
  • Frank R. Ascione
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Social WorkVirginia Commonwealth University, Academic Learning CommonsRichmondUSA
  2. 2.School of Social WorkArizona State UniversityPhoenixUSA
  3. 3.Graduate School of Social WorkUniversity of DenverDenverUSA

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