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Discerning the truth about abuse

Jan. 1, 2011
A deadly link exists between human and animal abuse. Many domestic abusers of spouses, children, or elders do not confine the abuse to humans.

The deadly link between human and animal abuse

by Adrienne Lee, RDH, BS

A deadly link exists between human and animal abuse. Many domestic abusers of spouses, children, or elders do not confine the abuse to humans. Likewise, animal abuse and neglect may be a sign of other forms of abuse. Battered women may stay in abusive relationships because of a desire to protect their companion animals. The abuser may threaten the welfare of the animal if the abused woman tries to leave. Battered women with pets may be quite attached to their pets and have difficulty leaving the situation for fear of the animal's safety. If the woman doesn't have any children, she may be very close to her pet who is a constant companion. In cases where children are involved, there are additional concerns. Children who witness the abusive behavior may learn to mimic it. Or the children may become more strongly attached to the household pet and even try to intercede to protect their pet from harm.1

People abuse animals for the same reason they abuse human beings. The abuser gets some sort of fulfillment from the torture of another being that is unable to defend itself. Some people will stop at abusing humans, but many times that is not the case. Not only is there a link between human and animal domestic abuse, but brutal crimes as well. Violence against any living creature should be of concern.

Over the past quarter of a century, numerous social sciences studies have been conducted on the connection between different forms of abuse against human and nonhuman beings. The American Psychiatric Association considers animal cruelty one of the diagnostic criteria for conduct disorder.

"Studies have shown that violent and aggressive criminals are more likely to have abused animals as children than criminals considered nonaggressive."2 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two Columbine students who went on a shooting spree that ended in the death of 12 classmates and the murderers committing suicide, had bragged about mutilating and killing animals. Historically, serial killers, as well as the individuals who have gone on shooting sprees in recent years, started by torturing animals and engaging in other sadistic behavior. Unfortunately, these violent tendencies have largely been ignored until it is too late. Animal abuse should not be taken lightly, as such individuals are likely to be deeply psychologically disturbed.

Neglect is a form of maltreatment. The dog chained to the pole in the backyard with no shelter, water, or food is being neglected. Neglect is frequently carried over to the children in a household. In the case of an Indiana couple charged with felony charges of neglect, a dog was tethered without basic necessities, and inside the yard a three-month-old baby lay next to piles of feces and garbage along with a toddler and two other dogs.3 "Sixty percent of more than 59 New Jersey families being treated for child abuse also had animals in the home who had been abused."4

In cases of domestic violence, the victim of abuse may not leave the situation for fear of what may happen to their beloved companion animal, who may be their only source of comfort. Shelters for victims of domestic violence likely do not accept pets due to space limitations, liabilities, and other potential issues. Currently, there are limited programs across the United States designed to care for the pets involved in domestic abuse situations. Animal shelters and veterinary clinics can partner with domestic violence shelters to provide temporary housing for victims' pets. Safe Havens for Animals is the name of such a program affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States.5

It is essential to determine whether there are pets in the home in the event of animal maltreatment, so both the human victims and their pets can be taken out of the situation. Shelter intake interview surveys, such as the Battered Partner Shelter Survey with the pet maltreatment assessment by Ascione and Weber, can be useful to obtain information regarding whether there are pets involved in the situation. Questions include: "Do you now have a pet animal or animals? If yes, what kind? Have you had a pet animal or animals in the past 12 months? If yes, what kinds? Has your partner ever hurt or killed one of your animals? If yes, describe. Has your partner ever threatened to hurt or kill one of your pets? If yes, describe. Have you ever hurt or killed one of your pets? If yes, describe. Have any of your children ever hurt or killed one of your pets (if client has children)? If yes, describe. Did concern over your pet's welfare keep you from coming to this shelter sooner than now? If yes, explain."6

In a study conducted by Ascione, Weber, and Wood,7 "Fifty-two percent of shelter women reported that their partners had threatened to hurt their pets vs. 16% of the community sample women. The severity of threats was also higher in the shelter sample. The actual hurting or killing of pets was reported by 54% of the shelter women, but only 3.5% of the community women. In the majority of cases, shelter women reported that multiple incidents of hurting or killing pets had occurred. In the shelter group, nearly one in four women reported that concern for their pets had kept them from coming in to the shelter sooner." If victims of domestic abuse have a safe place for both themselves and their pets, they may be more willing to leave the situation if able. In at least three states – New York, Maine, and Vermont – the pets are legally considered part of the family and protected if the abuser tries to stalk the family. Many other states, including Washington, are working on similar laws.

"Police and prosecutors are well aware of the very close link between threats to pets and threats to family members," Maine's public safety commissioner, Michael P. Cantara, said. He cited a 2002 case in which an abusive husband had beaten the family's cats to death, buried them in the backyard, and threatened a similar fate for his wife and children."1

In 2001, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) received a call from someone who witnessed a neighbor's daughter throwing a dead dog into a dumpster. Animal control officers investigated and found a 90-year-old woman who was unwell and living among animal waste, mildew, and refuse. The daughter would leave her elderly mother, who was unable to care for herself or her dogs, alone for weeks at a time. The elderly woman was hospitalized and the dogs taken to an animal shelter.5

Domestic elder abuse is another form of abuse that can be connected with cases of animal cruelty. Elderly persons are often abused by a family member who may be their primary caretaker. Adult children or spouses may be trying to control the other person or could be frustrated with having to care for an elderly family member, so they abuse the companion animal who is a source of comfort. According to HSUS,5 "Cross-reporting suspected abuse of animals or elders is crucial too. Two states have already made cross-reporting a requirement: A California law requires animal control officers to report suspected elder abuse, and Illinois requires the same of veterinarians."

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) said, "According to the National Elder Abuse Incidence Study*, 'approximately 450,000 elderly persons in domestic settings were abused and/or neglected during 1996.' When the cases of elderly self-neglect were added, the numbers rose to more than 550,000."8 Despite the prevalence of elder abuse, there is not enough awareness of the problem. HSUS has teamed up with Department of Health and Human Services' Administration on Aging to share information about the connection between these forms of maltreatment during the month of May, which is National Elder Law Month.

As health-care providers, the more dental hygienists know about different signs and symptoms of domestic abuse, the better prepared we will be to provide the most ethical and holistic approach to care of our patients. Abuse can be against anyone considered weak or vulnerable in the abuser's eyes: children, animals, spouses, or the elderly.

As dental hygienists, if abuse is suspected, one of the questions to ask is whether the suspected victim has any pets. Information such as a current family pet can be given to the authorities when reporting the suspected case of abuse. Often, patients in the dental hygienist's chair share about themselves, and talking about one's pets wouldn't be out of the normal realm of conversation. If a patient says that her boyfriend beats the dog or her adult child caretaker withholds feeding the cat, she may reveal if she is being mistreated as well.

This type of information could be helpful when reporting possible abuse or neglect to the authorities and organizations that help people and their pets in such situations. Not only should we be mandated to report child abuse, but all states should require dental professionals to report any form of abuse.

Adrienne Lee, RDH, BS, is a recent graduate from New York University College of Dentistry. She works in clinical private practice in New York City. Ms. Lee is originally from the Seattle area in Washington State, but currently resides in New York with her husband, Ted, and three cats.


1. Belluck P. (2006, April 1). New Maine Law Shields Animals in Domestic Violence Cases. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www/2006/04/01/us/01pets.html?_r=1.

2. Haden SC, Scarpa A. Childhood Animal Cruelty: A Review of Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Issues. The Forensic Examiner.
2005; 14:23-33. Retrieved from

3. Associated Press (2005, June 17). Police Remove Children from Filthy House.

4. Belluck P. (2006, April 1). New Maine Law Shields Animals in Domestic Violence Cases. New York Times. Retrieved

5. Deviney E., et al. (1983). The Care of Pets within Child Abusing Families. International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems 4,321-9. Retrieved

6. Haden SC, Scarpa A. (2005). Childhood Animal Cruelty: A Review of Research, Assessment, and Therapeutic Issues. The Forensic Examiner. 14, 23-33.

7 Ascione FR, Weber CV, Wood DS. (2007, April 25) Utah State University, Logan, Utah. Originally submitted to Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Retrieved from

8. The Humane Society of the United States (2008). First Strike: The Violence Connection. Retrieved

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