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News Item: Animal-Cruelty Syndrome

Domestic Violence & Animal Abuse:  A Vicious Cycle

In a violent home, the family pet can become one more target—threatened, beaten, killed or disappeared.  One more way for abusers to exercise power and control over the household, animal abuse leaves its mark on not just the immediate victims but also on the children who witness it.

In a recent report in the Sunday Times Magazine, Charles Siebert gathered together some of the latest research and thinking on the subject of animal cruelty, describing a continuous loop that, once begun, cycles through domestic violence and animal abuse to children’s abuse of animals to criminality and back again to domestic violence.

Research sited in the article, The Animal-Cruelty Syndrome [1], revealed that households with child abuse, while containing far more pets than others in the same community, had very few pets older than two, the result of a high turnover rate;  animals died, were discarded or ran away, not unlike what can happen to children in the same situation.  Similarly, 90 percent of families with spouse and/or child abuse showed evidence of animal cruelty.

Of particular interest was the finding by a 1995 study that “…nearly a third of pet-owning victims of domestic abuse…reported that one or more of their children had killed or harmed a pet.”  Literature on hard to place young children from abusive households has described youngsters who set fires, attack other children and harm animals, behaviors categorized as “abusive reactive” in the article.

Children do what they know, emulating the actions of those around them.  When adults have carte blanche to rage, hit and murder, children learn to deal with their feelings in the same ways.  To accomplish that, they often have to cancel their naturally occurring empathic feelings—to kill their empathy to survive emotionally.

Unable to rescue their beloved pets, children have to stop caring, which they do by disconnecting from their loving feelings.  To gain some kind of control over the situation, and perhaps to get it over with for once and for all, they might even kill the animals they love.  Or they behave cruelly to animals in an attempt to gain mastery over their own vulnerability, as if to prove their pets’ pain no longer affects them.  Similar processes might be operating in the development of antisocial personality disorder, the hallmark of which is an absence of conscience.  Brutalized children often grow up to become antisocial adults engaging in criminal behavior.

These children are also prone to self-injury, the motivation for which might be to test the limits of their sensitization, as suggested by one of the researchers interviewed for the article.  But self-injury is also present in children who have been incested and has many other functions, including to feel something and/or not feel anything (dissociation).

In research that used brain imaging on older adolescents with “aggressive-conduct disorder” and an age and sex matched control group, videos were shown of accidentally experienced or intentionally inflicted pain.  While fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) of both groups showed similar activation of their empathic neural circuitry in response to the accidental pain (with some conduct-disordered boys showing more), the aggressive boys responded to watching intentionally inflicted pain with heightened activation of the reward center of the brain.

Studies have already determined that this reward center is activated when witnessing punishment of wrongdoers (see blog entry Brutality & the Brain [2]).  Perhaps these aggressive boys enjoyed identifying with the aggressor in the videos, preferring the role of power associated with hurting another person rather than that of victim.

The good news comes from the treatment sector, where other brain imaging studies reveal that empathy can be fostered, perhaps more readily in younger children but still possible later on because of the brain’s plasticity.  Children open up to animals in ways they won’t with humans.

The opportunity to take care of horses, like in the increasingly used equine therapy, or to teach a dog tricks, provides an experience of a different kind of mastery.  Rather than the immediate gratification of running after birds to make them scatter, these programs attempt to teach the participants a kinder way of relating to animals, which will hopefully, over time, translate into a kinder way of relating to their own pets and their own children.