The Implications and Risks of Animal Cruelty, and How the Criminal Justice Community Can Help


With shrinking budgets, animal cruelty may not be a top priority for law enforcement and court systems, but research indicates that violence against animals should be taken seriously. For decades there has been interest among researchers and animal advocates in understanding the links between cruelty to animals and violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior. For the criminal justice system, the critical questions related to animal cruelty are:

  • What is the relationship between engaging in animal cruelty and other violent or criminal behavior?
  • What is the relationship between observing animal cruelty in the home and risk for later violent or criminal behavior?
  • Are there types of animal cruelty (and by extension, types of perpetrators) that are predictive of violent or seriously delinquent behavior such that the deviant behavior could be interrupted if the animal cruelty were identified and addressed early on?
  • How is animal cruelty, such as dog and cockfighting, related to other criminal enterprises like drug trafficking and human trafficking?

In light of this research, committing additional resources to better respond to these crimes can help protect families and communities. For example, when abusers commit acts of cruelty towards animals within a home, the acts of violence are not limited to animals. Many cases include incidents of domestic violence and other forms of family violence. To control their victims, abusers attack what the victim cares about most – which is often beloved animals. Multiple studies published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that as many as 71 percent of battered women reported their pets had been threatened, harmed or killed by abusive partners. Concerns over their animals’ safety may delay domestic violence victims from leaving their abusers.

While data on animal abuse can be used to identify and respond to domestic violence, it can also indicate risk for future violent behavior. Findings indicate that juvenile and adult animal abusers have an increased tendency to escalate violent behavior, with a significant relationship between childhood cruelty towards animals and later violence against humans. In fact, studies show that animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people than non-abusers.

Despite what the data reveals about the implications of animal cruelty, it is often a low priority for law enforcement and court systems that are required to deal with ever increasing caseloads, including homicide and other violent crimes, and with diminishing resources. To help fill this void, a few programs have been established to provide support to both victims of animal cruelty and to hold abusers accountable. One of these programs, “Safe Havens,” is a group of organizations that provide emergency care and housing for animals when their owners enter domestic violence shelters. The service that “Safe Havens” provides is critical because domestic violence victims are much more likely to leave an abusive situation if they know they can leave their animals in a safe place while they seek shelter, often in facilities that do not allow victims to bring pets. Another program, AniCare, is a program that trains psychologists to appropriately counsel and rehabilitate certain animal abusers. The program uses therapy and direct intervention to help abusers develop respect and empathy for both animals and people, while also acknowledging accountability for his or her actions.

Court systems and law enforcement need to enact policies and procedures to effectively combat these crimes. Since animal abuse is a strong indicator of future violence, it is imperative for law enforcement agencies to appropriately address and accurately document all acts of animal cruelty committed by adults and juveniles as a way to track violent behavior. Beyond building their capacities to collect and use data about these crimes, law enforcement officers and prosecutors should leverage guidance from animal cruelty experts to better understand how laws can be applied to animal cruelty cases to more effectively charge and prosecute abusers. State courts play an important role in protecting both human and animal victims in domestic violence cases by permitting animals to be listed under Temporary Restraining Orders. These restraining orders can help victims of domestic abuse claim immediate custody of their animals in emergent situations.

Animal cruelty is a serious crime. As research indicates broader implications within the home and for the community, law enforcement agencies and policy makers have good reasons to devote resources towards actively enforcing animal cruelty laws.

Proactively identifying and responding to these risks is one way to prevent future violence – not only against animals, who are worthy of protection in their own right – but also against society. Learn more about how The Humane Society of the United States is working to help prosecutors and the criminal justice community achieve progress in addressing animal cruelty by visiting:


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