Is childhood cruelty to animals a marker for physical maltreatment in a prospective cohort study of children?

Fiona S. McEwen, Terrie E. Moffitt, Louise Arseneault*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)
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Childhood cruelty to animals is thought to indicate that a child may have been maltreated. This study examined: (a) prevalence of cruelty to animals among 5- to 12-year-old children; (b) the association between cruelty to animals, child physical maltreatment, and adult domestic violence; and (c) whether cruelty to animals is a marker of maltreatment taking into account age, persistence of cruelty, and socioeconomic disadvantage. Data were from the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study, an epidemiological representative cohort of 2,232 children living in the United Kingdom. Mothers reported on cruelty to animals when children were 5, 7, 10, and 12 years, on child maltreatment up to age 12, and adult domestic violence. Nine percent of children were cruel to animals during the study and 2.6% persistently (>= 2 time-points). Children cruel to animals were more likely to have been maltreated than other children (OR = 3.32) although the majority (56.4%) had not been maltreated. Animal cruelty was not associated with domestic violence when maltreatment was controlled for. In disadvantaged families, 6 in 10 children cruel to animals had been maltreated. In other families, the likelihood of maltreatment increased with age (from 3 in 10 5-year-olds to 4.5 in 10 12-year-olds) and persistence (4.5 in 10 of those persistently cruel). Although childhood cruelty to animals is associated with maltreatment, not every child showing cruelty had been maltreated. The usefulness of cruelty to animals as a marker for maltreatment increases with the child's age, persistence of behavior, and poorer social background.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)533-543
Number of pages11
JournalChild Abuse and Neglect
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014


  • Child maltreatment
  • Animal cruelty
  • Animal abuse
  • Domestic violence


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