As a teen, Jeffrey Dahmer impaled a dog’s head on a stick. Ted Bundy tortured animals by tearing them open then catching them on fire. Several school shooters not only harmed animals, they filmed and posted the incidents online.

And the list goes on.

After a long history of  treating animal cruelty as isolated, less serious crimes, a growing body of evidence is proving violence against animals and violence against humans often go hand in hand.

In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began collecting specific data on animal cruelty cases from approximately 18,000 participating law enforcement offices. This includes cases of animal torture, organized abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect.

The FBI database has helped confirm that animal cruelty is often a predictor of violence against humans, and that animal torture or killing should be considered a serious crime.

It can also be a sign of serious mental illness.

The American Psychological Association lists cruelty to animals as a symptom of a conduct disorder – “a persistent pattern of behavior that involves violating the basic rights of others and ignoring age-appropriate social standards.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that conduct disorder is a type of antisocial behavior disorder, such as psychopathy or sociopathy, where a person consistently lacks empathy and shows no regard for right or wrong.

While only a small percentage of animal abusers are actually diagnosable sociopaths who go on to become murderers, it does happen.

In a recent instance, for example, a 25-year-old woman in Oxford, England, was arrested for allegedly killing a 30-year-old stranger by striking him in the back of the head, trying to sever his head with a piano string, then dumping his body in the river, according to Central Fife Times.

Four months prior to the murder, the woman is believed to have lured a hungry cat into a crate using food, captured the frightened feline, then tortured and killed the innocent cat on camera.

In this graphic case, both the cat and the man just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

In most instances, however, animal cruelty and violence against humans are not random and hit much closer to home.

“Animal abuse against a helpless household companion animal, or even against livestock is one of the most serious warning signs of potential domestic violence, and one of the greatest dangers for a survivor,” said Phil Arkow, coordinator for the National Link Coalition.

Abusers who harm animals also are often more dangerous.

“They use more controlling techniques, more physical violence, and more hands-on violence than domestic violence abusers who don’t also abuse animals,” Arkow explained.

Abuse – whether physical, emotional, or sexual – is primarily about power. Abusers look for vulnerable victims, which is why animals, domestic partners, and children make easy targets.

Looking at the numbers of recorded domestic violence events in the U.S. is staggering.

Over 10 million women and men are abused by an intimate partner each year, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Over 7 million child abuse cases are reported annually. And over 10 million animals die from abuse and cruelty each year.

For these reasons, law enforcement, animal welfare agencies, veterinarians, social workers, and mental health experts are learning to make the connection between animal abuse and human violence.

With that increased connection comes warning bells alerting these professionals that when animals are abused, they need to be on the lookout for violence towards humans — particularly family members.

Why Children Harm Animals

Multiple studies have found that children who regularly experience violence at home — whether toward animals or humans — are three times more likely to harm animals.

Children who witness abuse often become desensitized to violence and have decreased empathy.

In many cases, children who were abused early in life repeat the pattern by later becoming the abuser — often starting with animals.

Unless a child is properly taught how to treat animals, they may hit their dog or pull their cat’s tail when they are young. But it’s rare for a child to intentionally maim or kill an animal (outside of hunting or farming), especially as they reach ages 10 or older.

When children hurt animals, it is not only a red flag that something is not right psychologically; it can also be a strong indicator that the minors may be experiencing or witnessing abuse themselves.

It’s also a warning that without intervention, the minor may eventually harm humans.

Intervention in youth-related animal cruelty cases is critically important, not only for protecting animals and humans in the future, but for helping protect youth who are possibly being abused themselves.

Animal Abuse and Domestic Partner Violence

Domestic violence survivors are often trapped in relationships where they are too scared, ashamed, or simply unable to turn to others for help. Instead, they look to their companion animals for emotional support.

Abusers recognize the important role that companion animals play in domestic abuse survivors’ lives, and they use these animals as leverage against their partners.

In fact, 70% of survivors entering domestic violence shelters said that their partner had threatened, harmed, or even killed their companion animals — most often in front of them.

But many more do not go to shelters due to concern for their animals’ safety.

According to the Urban Resource Institute and National Domestic Violence Hotline (2021), half of all callers said they would not go to a shelter unless their pet could go with them.

Another 25% return to their abuser because of fear for the companion animals’ safety.

A growing number of domestic violence shelters are making accommodations for companion animals, thanks in part to grants provided through the 2018 Pets and Women Safety Act (PAWS).

“No one should have to make the choice between finding safety and staying in a violent situation to protect their pet,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts told CNN in 2018.

A number of animal rescue groups help also help foster or kennel animals while survivors seek help.

However, the need for help is significant, with tens of thousands living in domestic shelters across America — and tens of thousands more staying in violent situations in order to protect their animals.

Animal Cruelty and Elder Abuse

Of all familial violence, elder abuse is the least reported.

Animals play an especially important role for the elderly — particularly for those who live alone.

“Often the bond between the elder and the pet is the thing that keeps them going,” Attorney Diane Balkin said in The Link between Animal Abuse and Elder Abuse, Part 2. “It’s this unconditional love that they experience from their animal.”

As in domestic abuse, abusers take advantage of the importance of animals to the elderly by blocking access to, threatening to harm, or actually hurting the animals unless the elder does as the abuser asks — which often involves giving the abuser money.

According to the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), over a third of Adult Protective Service (APS) caseworkers have reported that their elderly clients’ companion animals have been “threatened, injured, killed, or denied care.”

While elder abuse can involve physical violence, it also often involves neglect.

As an example, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, police discovered over 50 pit bulls ranging from a few days to two years old, most of which were skin and bones, and several showed signs of injures — likely from fighting with each other.

With no food or water to be found anywhere in the filth-ridden house, the dogs had turned to eating their own feces.

In addition to the animals, though, police also found a severely neglected elderly woman — the alleged perpetrator’s mother. According to local news, she showed serious signs of neglect — including matted hair, soiled clothing, and swollen legs — and had not been given her medications for diabetes or dementia.

Neglected Puppies

Courtesy of Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office

In animal hoarding situations, in particular, elders are often also living in the home and not receiving necessary care from their domestic “caretaker.”

Elders requiring medication or who are experiencing dementia may not be able to ask for help.

The Link: What Can Be Done?

The U.S. Department of Justice’s report called “Animal Cruelty as a Gateway Crime” outlines several recommended steps that need to be taken to help protect both animals and humans from violence.

First, the report calls for more training for animal control officers, first responders, police investigators, and prosecutors so that they can better understand the significance of animal-related crimes.

While free training for these groups often exists, the time commitment required for such training keeps many organizations from participating.

Many law enforcement agencies — including both police and prosecutors — still do not consider animal cruelty crimes to be as serious as human-related violence.

“In addition to training which can be accomplished rather easily, there needs to be a cultural and attitudinal change among mainstream law enforcement officers,” the report states. “Animal crimes must be given the same attention and priorities as non-animal offenses.”

Second, there needs to be a better method for documenting that animal cruelty cases so that other departments can see the violations.

Police, child protective services, animal control officers, and others need to be alerted and have access to animal cruelty reports so that they are made aware that possible domestic abuse is happening as well.

Third, we need stricter animal cruelty laws.

Most animal cruelty laws are determined by the states and can vary greatly.

And while we are slowly seeing some improvements — especially toward companion animals — every state has room for improvement.

For instance, in 2018 in Georgia, teens were charged with five felony counts after ruthlessly beating and killing a mother possum and her babies, posting the incident on social media.

But in a more recent case in Iowa, two teens who allegedly filmed themselves brutally beating a possum to death, using folding chairs and posting the incident on social media, were charged only  with killing a fur-bearing animal out of season — a misdemeanor crime with a small fine.

Until the laws change and take animal abuse more seriously, animal abuse will continue.

Finally, there needs to be increased intervention.

At Lady Freethinker, much of our work revolves around exposing cruelty toward animals.

Many of our petitions are geared toward ensuring that those who commit acts of violence toward animals are held accountable.

In especially heinous instances of cruelty, we also encourage the legal system to prevent perpetrators from owning animals in the future.

But just as importantly, we understand that rehabilitation is essential in preventing these heinous crimes from occurring again — especially for minors.

As this article discusses, adolescents who harm animals often have been harmed themselves.

Without intervention, they will likely repeat the cycle of violence.

“Judges and prosecuting attorneys are playing an increasingly important role in preventing abuse of women, children, and vulnerable adults by focusing more attention on animal cruelty as a warning sign of other family and community violence,” said Arkow.

One way to ensure youth get the help they need is for police to hold them accountable, when applicable, so that a court can order psychiatric counseling.

Our mission is to change the norms and policies that allow animal cruelty. That is how we end human-caused suffering of all species — including fellow humans.

And that’s where you can help.

By signing our petitions, you are telling the justice system that animal cruelty is a serious crime. That animal wellbeing matters.

And just as importantly, you are also helping break the cycle of violence against animals and humans alike.