Children and Animals At Risk

Guidelines for Human Service Personnel

Mary Lou Randour, PhD, Animal Welfare Institute

Children may witness violence in the home, such as the abuse of one parent by another, of a grandparent by another adult, or of the family pet. Many times the child also is a victim of abuse. Identifying animal abuse in the home can be the first opportunity to save an animal and intervene with a family at risk. When speaking with children, it is advisable to ask them questions about their experience with pets and other animals. By asking about animals in the home, family violence can be identified earlier, making intervention more likely to succeed and safeguarding children, pets, and their families.

Asking Children about their Relationship with Animals:

  • Have you or your family ever had any pets? What happened to them?
  • Do you have a pet or pets now?
  • Have you ever lost a pet you really cared about? What happened?
  • Has your pet ever been hurt?
  • Have you ever felt afraid for your pet or worried about bad things happening to your pet?
  • Has anybody ever tried to make you do something you didn’t want to do by threatening to hurt your pet? What happened?
  • Have you ever seen someone hurt an animal or pet? Tell me what happened.
  • Have you ever hurt an animal or pet? Tell me what happened.
  • Have you ever been frightened or hurt by an animal or pet? Describe what happened.
  • What happens when your family pet misbehaves?
  • Have you ever been punished for something your pet did, like getting into the trash?
  • Or has your pet ever been punished for something you did, like not doing the dishes when you were told to?

*Source: “Animal-Related Experiences” Inventory by Barbara Boat, PhD and AniCare Child: An Approach for the Assessment and Treatment of Childhood Animal Abuse, by Mary Lou Randour, PhD, Susan Krinsk, LMHC, and Joanne Wolf, MA.

If a Child Witnesses Animal Abuse in the Home:

Children who witness abuse are at greater risk for becoming either victims or perpetrators. One form of abuse that children too often witness is toward the pet in family violence situations. When there is knowledge that a child has witnessed animal abuse, the following information should be obtained from the child or his or her caretaker:

  • The relationship of the child to the abuser; if it was a family member, do a thorough assessment of other abuse that may be occurring in the family and take appropriate action
  • The relationship of the child to the animal
  • The type and severity of the abuse and who was involved
  • How many times it occurred
  • The type of victim(s), and the victim(s)’ response, as well as the response of the perpetrators and other witnesses
  • The child’s role in witnessing animal cruelty—active or passive, encouraging or discouraging, coerced (real or perceived)
  • Ask the child, “What was the hardest thing for you about what happened; or what bothers you the most about what happened?
  • Assess the child’s immediate and long-term emotional response to being a witness.
    • Does the child exhibit any of the following?
      • Anxiety
      • Nightmare or frightening dreams
      • Difficulty sleeping or eating
      • Withdrawal
      • Problems concentrating
      • Repetitive play with themes or aspects of the trauma
      • Disorganized or agitated behavior
    • Does the child feel any of the following?
      • Shame
      • Guilt
      • Remorse
    • Does the child experience either of the following?
      • Numbing or feelings of detachment
      • A restricted range of affect
  • Is the child fearful of reprisal?
  • Did the child speak about the abuse to anyone?
  • What was the response of the person to whom the child spoke about the abuse?

Getting Help for Children Who Witnessed or Engaged in Animal Abuse:

Children who witness violence should be evaluated by a mental health professional and a treatment plan developed. Most trained mental health professionals have the necessary skills and training to do this; however, they must be aware of the need to ask questions directly about the child either witnessing or engaging in animal abuse. At times, the evaluation and/or treatment plan will include some type of animal-assisted therapy.

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