While many people consider animal abuse and family violence to be two separate issues, studies suggest that they are actually linked.
Although animal protection agencies and social care workers often coordinate with each other to prevent various forms of abuse, animal abuse and family violence are generally considered to be two separate issues. However, professionals working in these fields will tell you that it is often the same families (or perpetrators) involved with the same overarching problems.
In the past couple of decades, official bodies have recognised a link between cruelty to animals, domestic violence and the maltreatment of children. While both the NSPCC and the RSPCA have highlighted this troubling link, the two forms of abuse are still often thought of as unconnected.
The Links Group has brought together representatives from the family safeguarding and animal welfare fields to end violence against people and animals. In order to spot signs of animal cruelty, which could indicate the abuse of family members, practitioners must receive the correct training.
In this article, we take a look at what animal abuse involves, how animal abuse and family violence are linked, and how to report animal abuse if safeguarding professionals believe the mistreatment of an animal presents a risk to other people as well.
In order to properly understand the link between animal abuse and human violence, you first need to know what constitutes animal abuse and the different types of abuse that animals may be subject to.
Animal abuse is also often referred to as animal cruelty and is classed as a criminal offence in the UK. It can involve a range of different behaviours, the most common of which include physical violence towards an animal, inflicting suffering on an animal or neglecting an animal by depriving it of its basic needs.
If you want to be able to spot and report cruelty to animals, you need to understand the different types of animal cruelty and what each of them involves. Below are the four most common types that you are likely to encounter in a domestic environment.
Physical abuse towards animals involves deliberately hurting and/or injuring them outside the bounds of necessary discipline. This behaviour is usually malicious and may involve kicking, hitting, slapping, throwing or burning an animal.
Animal neglect involves depriving an animal of its basic needs and failing to take care of it. All animals need food, water and shelter as basic necessities, but modern animal neglect may also look like withholding necessary medical treatment from an animal, failing to keep it clean or keeping it inside all day.
Animal hoarding is sometimes classed as a type of neglect and involves someone keeping a large number of animals that they are unable to properly take care of. These animals may all be kept in a small space, may not be given enough food or may all be subject to a lack of care, leading to multiple cases of neglect and failure to have their basic needs met.
Exploitation involves humans using animals for their personal gain. A severe example of this is animals being forced to fight for entertainment, but exploitation may also involve someone using an animal to make money on social media and neglecting their basic needs as a consequence, breeding them excessively or using them to test new products.
Abuse of any form should be taken seriously, and sometimes the maltreatment of animals can indicate a person or family may be at risk. By understanding that these two areas are linked, safeguarding and animal protection agencies must fully understand their role when it comes to working together.
Animal abuse in itself is a crime that needs to be dealt with, but various studies have also found a link between animal abuse and domestic violence. In households where abuse towards an animal is discovered, there is also a higher chance that domestic violence has or will take place.
There are a range of theories as to why animal abuse leads to human violence, but many people believe that those with an inclination for abuse will often start on animals because they are smaller and less able to retaliate. If someone is cruel towards an animal, they may also be abusive towards other people or be more likely to become abusive in the future.
The National Link Coalition is an organisation working to increase awareness of the connection between animal cruelty and domestic and community violence. Their research summary highlights a range of key domestic violence and animal abuse statistics, including the following:
Multiple studies have identified that animal abuse is one of the key indicators that a person will commit domestic violence or physical abuse. Domestic abuse should never be instantly assumed, but animal protection officers should be aware that households in which animal abuse has taken place may require further investigation from social services.
Animal abuse can often become part of an inter-generational cycle of violence, where households with a violent member experience domestic and animal abuse. Children that grow up in these households learn this behaviour through exposure and become more likely to fall into the same patterns when they grow up.
Research into the link between animal abuse and child maltreatment by Simon Hackett, of the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, and Emma Uprichard, from the Department of Sociology at the University of York, is often cited as a key piece of evidence supporting this correlation. The study found that, while the correlation between animal cruelty and family violence should not be exaggerated, children that experience abuse were more likely to perpetuate abuse themselves, with cruelty towards animals often one of the first steps towards this behaviour.
It’s very important not to be deterministic when it comes to the correlation between animal abuse and violence, as you cannot use animal cruelty as a certain prediction that other abuse has or will take place. Instead, an awareness of the links means that you can spot the potential indicators of abuse earlier and also ensure that support or further investigation is set up so that cases of abuse aren't missed.
“When animals are abused, people are at risk. When people are abused, animals are at risk.”
Many animal cruelty investigations often involve unintentional neglect, but there are also cases that uncover intentional neglect and other forms of abuse. Professionals working in these areas must understand that all cases have the potential to be connected to other forms of violence in the home and that they are often the first responders or first point of contact for a family in need.
We know that in family violence cases, actual or threatened animal abuse can be a way for the abuser to silence their victim about the incident or to prevent them from leaving a violent relationship. They can hurt animals to exert power over their human victims, potentially threatening them with what could happen to them.
Some of the main signs of cruelty to animals include:
If you spot any of these signs of animal abuse, they should be reported immediately, no matter your profession. If you work in social services and suspect that an animal is being mistreated, you should flag this and consider whether the same violence could be extended to other members of the household.
If you suspect or have seen someone committing animal abuse, you should contact the RSPCA. The charity has a cruelty helpline that anyone can ring to share their concerns, which will then be followed up and dealt with when necessary.
Local police services work with the RSPCA in cases of animal abuse to investigate the behaviour and check for other criminal behaviour. If you work in social services and suspect animal cruelty, you can refer any concerns straight to the RSPCA to make them aware of any potential abuse.
Animal abuse or neglect is constituted by any behaviour that deliberately harms an animal or deliberately withholds care that an animal needs to survive. This includes violent acts towards animals, refusing to feed them, keeping them outdoors in unsuitable conditions, or leaving medical problems untreated.
The RSPCA, which is the world’s largest animal welfare charity, has revealed that it receives over 1 million reports of animal abuse every year. Dogs are the animal most often reported as victims of abuse, with 56,563 incidents reported in 2020.
Since June 2021, the maximum penalty for animal cruelty has been a sentence of five years in prison. This sentence can be given for causing animal suffering, involvement in an animal fight, poisoning an animal, conducting non-exempted mutilation or docking a dog’s tail without permission.
Cases of animal abuse leading to human violence are more common than you might initially think. The involvement of animal protection services in safeguarding is an important way to ensure that animals are protected from abuse as much as people, and also so that social services can be notified of any cases where abused animals may indicate that other violent behaviour is taking place.
If you’re looking for more information about the relationship between animal abuse and human violence, we offer an online ‘Understanding Animal Welfare in Violent Homes’ course as part of our safeguarding collection.