One in six American children is exposed to physical violence at home by the time they are 17. It is a disturbing statistic, and one that underlies a growing awareness of serious emotional and behavioural issues among affected individuals.
Such incidents are bad enough, but many children from households where partner abuse takes place also witness violence directed at family pets. These pets often serve as important emotional and social supports in the lives of young people. Children experience close bonds with companion animals and rely on them as a way of managing stress. So if they see their pets in distress, it can have profound consequences for their own mental wellbeing.
Relatively little research, however, has looked in depth at the link between violence directed against pets and wider issues of domestic abuse. Now a new study, supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health-Mars/WALTHAM public private partnership, recently published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, has attempted to shed some light on this relationship to see how this association might affect households with abusive individuals.
“In this initial study we wanted to find out how mothers recounted children’s exposure to animal maltreatment,” says Shelby McDonald of Virginia Commonwealth University, USA, who lead the research. “This would help us to begin to better understand the relationship between wider patterns of home based violence and pet abuse. We were also curious as to the effects of violence directed against animals on vulnerable children.”
Sixty-five women with at least one child (age 7-12 years) were recruited from domestic violence shelters. Each was asked to describe their children’s experiences of animal maltreatment in the home.
Nearly two-thirds of the women surveyed reported that their children had heard or seen pet abuse in the home.
Some descriptions of what the children had seen were horrific. In the most extreme cases children had even seen their pets killed.
Three themes emerged related to children’s experiences of animal maltreatment: direct exposure, emotional and behavioural responses to the exposure and animal maltreatment used as a threat to coercively control the child.
“The results suggest that children’s exposure and reactions to animal maltreatment are multifaceted,” says McDonald. “Intervention programs designed to assist children who witness this kind of violence should consider the extent of children’s awareness of the abuse of their pets and their strong reactions to it.”
Other studies have suggested that childhood exposure to maltreatment of companion animals is associated with emotional problems well into adulthood.
“Our findings also suggest that future research should explore the type of animal maltreatment to which children are exposed,” says McDonald. “Research is needed to examine how children are affected by the proximity, severity, and frequency of such episodes.”
The team would also like to see future research exploring the meaning children attach to animal abuse incidents and how this moderates or mediates socioemotional outcomes among children in households characterized by family violence. The current findings indicate that safe sheltering for family pets and the ability of a child to have access to a family pet after entering a shelter have significant implications for keeping families safe and fostering children’s coping and adjustment.
“These findings suggest that clinicians need to explore the extent to which children witness the harm or injury that is done to pets,” says McDonald. “Children’s coping responses also need to be addressed, to assess for the effects of such exposure on their well-being.”
2017 McDonald, S. E. et al Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Reports of Their Children’s Exposure to Companion Animal Maltreatment: A Qualitative Study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence