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Unmasking cruelty: Decoding some common traits in animal and human-directed abuse

A recent news report highlighted that a 28-year old woman from Tasmania filmed herself holding a native animal (a pademelon, a small furry marsupial) by its tail while she deliberately let her dog attack and savage the terrified animal. The woman then proceeded to uploaded the video to Tik Tok because she thought it was "funny". She was subsequently ordered to pay a $4,000 fine by a magistrate.

Stories like this are unfortunately common.

Animal abuse can be defined as an action or actions which intentionally cause harm, pain, or suffering to animals (Petersen & Farrington, 2007).

People who abuse animals may not necessarily harm human beings, but there is a large body of evidence which highlights the relationship between animal-directed abuse and human interpersonal violence (Arluke et al., 1999; Ascione, 1993; Faver, 2010; Kellert & Felthous, 1985; McDonald et al., 2019; Petersen & Farrington, 2007) including child abuse. Moreover, acts of deliberate animal harm have been found to be a risk factor for school-based violence and criminality later on in life (Parkes & Signal, 2017).

Those who abuse animals might not exhibit the same traits, but there are patterns and common characteristics which have been noted in several studies. Some of these are as follows:

Limited capacity for empathy:

Animal abusers may often lack the ability to empathise with pain and suffering they inflict. They may also fail to recognise or care about the emotions and needs of the animals they harm. Several studies have noted a well-established link between animal abuse and the lack of empathy (Parkes & Signal, 2017). On average, individuals with empathy deficits tend to be more prone to engaging in animal abuse. Moreover, there has also been a link established between human-directed callousness and animal-directed callousness (Kavanagh et al., 2013) – with callousness being defined as behaviour that is unkind, cruel, and without sympathy or feeling for the other.

Holding worldviews of power and dominance:

Some use violence against animals (and human beings) as a way to assert power and control. They may feel powerless in other aspects of their lives and may compensate by dominating animals. In fact, term ‘dominion’ is synonymous with “control” and “supreme authority”. Similarly, dominionism is an ideology which emphasises a social hierarchy of living beings in which humans are at the top (Jackson-Schebetta, 2009). It promotes the ideology of supremacy over animals and nature (Yates, 2009) and is also referred to as human chauvinism (Fox, 2018). Note: 'Dominionism' is a term originally coined by author Jim Mason who has published extensively on the topic of human-animal relationships, together with ethicist Peter Singer. You can read more about their work here.

A history of violence and desensitisation:

Perpetrators of abuse tend to also have a history of violence or aggression, either towards animals or humans. This could include bullying, domestic violence, or a criminal history involving violence. Studies have found that parental abuse tends to be a common explanatory factor among children with a history of animal abuse (McPhedran, 2009). Other studies have found that paternal violence and alcoholism was another contributing factor amongst men who admitted to childhood acts of animal abuse (Gullone & Robertson, 2008). Experiencing abuse or trauma in their own lives can lead to a desensitisation to violence and an increased likelihood of engaging in abusive behaviour themselves.This may contribute to the development of violent tendencies and the desire to harm animals.

Antisocial behaviour traits:

While not every individual with antisocial traits will engage in animal abuse, there is a documented correlation between the two. Antisocial behaviour traits are characteristics or behaviours that deviate from social norms and often involve violating the rights of others or causing harm to society (van Wijk et al., 2018). Such individuals might struggle to form healthy relationships and may have a history of rule-breaking or criminal activity. Studies show that episodes of animal cruelty during childhood and adolescence tend to co-occur alongside other forms of violent and antisocial behaviours such as bullying, behavioural problems and juvenile delinquency (Becker et al., 2004; Longobardi & Badenes-Ribera, 2019). Recurrent animal cruelty during adolescence tends to be a significant predictor of the future adult perpetration of interpersonal violence. More alarmingly, drowning animals or committing sexual acts with animals has also predicted future adult violence directed against other humans (Henderson et al., 2011).

Substance abuse:

Some animal abusers struggle with substance abuse issues, which can impair their judgment and exacerbate violent tendencies towards both animals as well as humans.

It is important to remember that not all individuals with these traits will engage in abusive behavior. However, understanding some documented common characteristics can be helpful in identifying and addressing potential cases of animal abuse.

As part of our core work in the animal care sector, our team at Sentient work with pet owners, veterinarians and animal care workers seeking support for anxiety, depression, burnout, grief and trauma. For more information, please contact us.

Subject matter specialist on human-animal interactions: Dr Tani Khara


Arluke, A., Levin, J., Luke, C., & Ascione, F. (1999). The relationship of animal abuse to violence and other forms of antisocial behavior. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14(9), 963–975.

Ascione, F. R. (1993). Children Who are Cruel to Animals: A Review of Research and Implications for Developmental Psychopathology. Anthrozoös, 6(4), 226–247.

Becker, K. D., Stuewig, J., Herrera, V. M., & McCloskey, L. A. (2004). A study of firesetting and animal cruelty in children: Family influences and adolescent outcomes. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 43(7), 905–912.

Faver, C. A. (2010). School-based humane education as a strategy to prevent violence: Review and recommendations. Children and Youth Services Review, 32(3), 365–370.

Fox, M. (2018). The Ideology of Meat-Eating. The Harvard Review of Philosophy, 25, 37–49.

Gullone, E., & Robertson, N. (2008). The relationship between bullying and animal abuse behaviors in adolescents: The importance of witnessing animal abuse. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(5), 371–379.

Henderson, B. B., Hensley, C., & Tallichet, S. E. (2011). Childhood Animal Cruelty Methods and Their Link to Adult Interpersonal Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 26(11), 2211–2227.

Jackson-Schebetta, L. (2009). Mythologies and Commodifications of Dominion in The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Millan. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 7(1), 107–131.

Kavanagh, P. S., Signal, T. D., & Taylor, N. (2013). The Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviors. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 666–670.

Kellert, S. R., & Felthous, A. R. (1985). Childhood Cruelty toward Animals among Criminals and Noncriminals. Human Relations, 38(12), 1113–1129.

Longobardi, C., & Badenes-Ribera, L. (2019). The relationship between animal cruelty in children and adolescent and interpersonal violence: A systematic review. In Aggression and Violent Behavior (Vol. 46, pp. 201–211). Pergamon.

McDonald, S. E., Collins, E. A., Maternick, A., Nicotera, N., Graham-Bermann, S., Ascione, F. R., & Williams, J. H. (2019). Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Reports of Their Children’s

Exposure to Companion Animal Maltreatment: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(13), 2627–2652.

McPhedran, S. (2009). Animal abuse, family violence, and child wellbeing: A review. Journal of Family Violence, 24(1), 41–52.

Parkes, D., & Signal, T. (2017). Revisiting a Link: Animal Abuse, Bullying, and Empathy in Australian Youth. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, 2017.

Petersen, M. L., & Farrington, D. P. (2007). Cruelty to animals and violence to people. Victims and Offenders, 2(1), 21–43.

van Wijk, A., Hardeman, M., & Endenburg, N. (2018). Animal abuse: Offender and offence characteristics. A descriptive study. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 15(2), 175–186.

Yates, R. (2009). Rituals of Dominionism in Human-Nonhuman Relations: Bullfighting to Hunting, Circuses to Petting. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, 7(1), 132–171.

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