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Pet Abuse: A Comprehensive View

Date: January 12, 2024

How to cite: Barata, R. (2024). Pet Abuse, A Comprehensive View. Human-Animal Science.


Pet abuse, also known as animal abuse or cruelty, refers to the deliberate, intentional, or unintentional acts of inflicting physical or psychological harm, pain, suffering, or death on a nonhuman animal, typically a domesticated one, repetitively and proactively. It can manifest in neglect, violence, coercion, or other forms. The legal definitions and penalties for pet abuse vary depending on the country or jurisdiction.


Human history records a variety of ways in which we interacted with other animals. Our early ancestors saw animals as a resource that provided food, fur, hauling, and other materials and intrinsic values that enabled them to survive in a different environment than we are used to now. The species’ proximity to each other and their characteristics and utilitarian functions created specific relationships among them. 

Sevillano and Fiske (2016) mention the Western world's stereotypes about certain species, primarily dogs and cats, which have now become the main nonhuman species cohabiting with us. Since their domestication, the interaction with humans has changed, and the affective bonds between the species have become very refined so that, through an evolutionary process, a close and intense bond of affection has been established among them.

The biophilia hypothesis describes an innate human emotional affiliation with other living forms. Some empirical studies support this hypothesis. This term was first used by psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1973), followed by biologist Edward O. Wilson in his work Biophilia (1984). Lorenz (1981) suggested that baby animals of many species share a “childishness” with human babies, such as large eyes, protruding foreheads, and small chins. He indicated that this baby-like appearance triggers certain parental behaviors, such as affection for baby animals and human babies.

Urquiza-Haas and Kotrschal (2015) link anthropomorphic behavior to man’s biophilic nature or a more profound fundamental affinity for nature and animals. They suggest that anthropomorphizing is frequently done to creatures who phylogenetically, cosmetically, or behaviorally resemble humans. This explains why people tend to humanize their pets, especially those with close relationships.

According to LoBue (2013), children aged 1–3 years old who could interact with live animals or toys were likelier to choose the animals, talking more about them and asking questions about them. In pet ownership, keeping animals as companions has been a widely practiced human activity throughout history, creating a new biological niche for companion animals that continues to play an important role (Amiot et al., 2016).

There is still considerable debate over whether companion animals benefit their owners. According to Archer (1997), pet keeping appears to be an abnormal activity from an evolutionary standpoint: “I shall argue that none of these provides a satisfactory explanation for the evolution of pet ownership, and I then consider the possibility that pets are, in evolutionary terms, manipulating human responses, that they are the equivalent of social parasites. I conclude that this is the most likely explanation rather than some form of mutual benefit. The precise human mechanisms that allow them to be manipulated in this way are then discussed: they include features that provide the initial attraction to the animal and continuing features of the interaction with the pet that prove satisfying for the owner. The existence of such mechanisms, which have all evolved to enhance fitness within the context of human-human interactions, can, in some circumstances, lead to pet owners obtaining more satisfaction from their pet relationships than from those with humans.”

What Is a “Pet”?

There is no consensus for a standard definition of “pet” in the academic field nor a standard term for human keepers (owners, parents, guardians, etc.). The Encyclopaedia Britannica (2023) defines a pet as “any animal kept by human beings as a source of companionship and pleasure.”

Serpell (1996) delves into the nature of human-pet relationships and the emotional bonds people form with their pets. Serpell observes that pets can serve various functions in human life, including emotional support, social status symbols, and opportunities for recreation and leisure.

According to Mallapur et al. (2008), wild animals kept as pets are typically captured from their natural habitats and confined by humans. Although such animals may exhibit traits and behaviors similar to domesticated pets, it is essential to recognize that they have not been selectively bred or genetically modified over generations to serve as human companions or to provide practical assistance (Clubb & Mason, 2003).

In the academic community, “pet owner” is the most commonly used term for individuals caring for pets. However, some scholars prefer to use the term “pet guardian” or “companion animal caregiver” as an alternative to “pet owner” to reflect a more ethical and respectful approach to the relationship between humans and their pets (Herzog, 2011).

For this entry, I will use the common and popular term “owner.” As a standard definition, I suggest that a pet is a nonhuman animal that is selectively bred and domesticated over time to exhibit traits suitable for living in close association with humans, primarily to provide some degree of companionship, emotional support, social connection, and entertainment.

Human-Animal Coevolution

There are three widely used terms that, even with vague definitions, are used to describe phenomena at the macro (population, group, species, or society level) and micro (individual animals and people) levels: human-animal interactions (HAIs), human-animal bonds (HABs), and human-animal relationships (HARs).

Human-animal interactions (HAIs) are events between two individuals, one an animal (nonhuman) and the other a human. Hinde’s (1974, 1976) conception of work on human-human interaction can apply to human-animal interactions. His conception of an interaction is “a sequence in which individual A shows X to individual B and B responds with Y.”

Human-animal relationships (HARs) are composed of routine and patterned interactions (Sanders, 2003). HAR (individual or generalized) is a consequence of HAI since HAI is the basic unit of the relationship.

A human-animal bond (HAB) is a mutual affective, emotional attachment between two individuals that is relatively long-lasting and survives temporary separations. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA, 1998), “The human-animal bond is a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to both. This includes, but is not limited to, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.”

Some of these phenomena have automated tendencies in how dog owners analyze the behavior of their pets:

Anthropomorphism and Anthropodenial (Waal, 1999; Guthrie, 1997): When human behavior and human mental abilities are used as a reference system to explain the character of an animal or species. Critical (functional) anthropomorphism could be a helpful tool in answering questions about the function or evolution of behavior (Tinbergen’s first and second questions). There are two primary forms of anthropomorphism: categorical and situational. Categorical anthropomorphism refers to inaccuracies in psychological characterization; categorical anthropomorphism assumes that an animal cannot possess a particular psychological characteristic. Situational anthropomorphism refers to an inaccuracy in the psychological characteristic of a particular behavior, even though the species may exhibit that psychological characteristic through another behavior.

Anthropodenial is defined as the a priori rejection of shared characteristics between humans and animals, especially in terms of emotions, cognition, and social behavior, often arising from the desire to maintain a perceived distinctiveness of humans in the natural world. This concept is typically discussed in the context of ethology, psychology, and philosophy, and it challenges the traditional human-centric view of the uniqueness of human cognitive and emotional experiences.

Agnew (1998) and McPhedran (2009) suggested that dysfunctional levels of empathy, attachment, and no tendency to anthropomorphize are related to poor relationships with animals, a higher acceptance of animal cruelty in children, adolescents, and adults, a greater propensity to animal abuse; and reduced concern for animal welfare.

Lupomorphism (Serpell & Jagoe, 1995): A model that proposes that social interactions between humans and dogs should be based on wolf society rules. It is based on the idea that a strong hierarchy is required, which humans should establish, maintain, and control using the behavioral actions and signals that wolf society is based on.

Babymorphism (Meisterfeld & Pecci, 2000): A theory that dogs have the social position of a human child and the mental abilities of a one- to two-year-old. Regarding affiliative interactions and teaching or education, humans are expected to exhibit parental behavior toward dogs. It is not uncommon for people to compare dogs to small children and say that “dogs are just like small children.”

Types of Abuse: How “Harm” Is Harm, and How Does It Become Abuse?

Harm is a complex and multifaceted concept frequently studied in philosophy and psychology (Feinberg, 1987; Gert & Gert, 2020). Harm is commonly defined in philosophy as an action that causes or can potentially cause negative consequences to individuals or society. This definition is based on the idea that individuals have a right to be free from harm and that harm violates that right.

Another definition of harm is “the imposition of unfavorable or undesirable consequences on others” (Scanlon, 1998). This definition is more subjective and considers the individual’s subjective harm experience. It implies that harm can be done even if no rights or autonomy is violated as long as the individual suffers negative consequences.

There is no specific starting point at which harm becomes abuse because it is determined by factors such as the nature and severity of the harm, the context in which it occurs, and the perpetrator’s intent. In contrast, abuse is intentional cruelty or neglect that causes the animal harm and suffering.

The following are the most commonly reported types of pet abuse:

Physical Abuse

Punching, kicking, burning, poisoning, dislocating limbs, shooting, strangling, throwing, restraining, and subjecting pets to inhumane living conditions are all examples of physical abuse. Physical abuse can also include causing harm to pets by throwing them against walls or hitting them with objects. It is frequently motivated by frustration, anger, or the desire to control or dominate the pet. These abusive actions, especially when pets are subjected to abusive training or discipline, can result in injuries, death, or both. Pet owners are sometimes victims of more severe family violence incidents in which pets are also killed. Their owners’ deliberate killing of pets is known as “peticide” (Palazzo et al., 2021).

Even though domestic and wild animals can be abuse victims, legal pet protection varies by country (Mota-Rojas et al., 2022). Animal abusers’motivations vary, ranging from using animals as targets to express aggression or frustration to exerting control (Ascione, 2010).

People mistreat animals for a variety of reasons. Some people intentionally abuse animals, performing overt actions that cause specific harm to the animal. Some animal abusers take pleasure in inflicting pain and suffering on animals. Some people enjoy teasing or torturing animals. This is especially common in cases of domestic violence.

Emotional Abuse

The psychological mistreatment of pets encompasses actions that utilize manipulation or control to induce emotional distress in an animal. Such mistreatment can manifest in various forms, including but not limited to mocking, taunting, or deliberately scaring the animal, depriving pets of social interaction, neglecting to provide affection, and employing fear or intimidation as a means of control over the pet.

Sexual Abuse

Human-animal sexual contact has been depicted in art and literature throughout history, such as in cave drawings and tomb paintings, implying that it has existed in various societies for thousands of years. Despite its historical and cultural prevalence, human-animal sexual contact is generally considered taboo and deviant by mainstream society.

Pets and farm animals are at risk of being used for sexual gratification by humans due to their accessibility, with animals attached to family members more likely to be victimized in family violence cases. Various types of sexual contact, such as human and animal masturbation, oral sex, and intercourse, can occur. Although not all sexual contact may result in physical harm, injuries such as vaginal or rectal tears, discharge or bleeding, and internal trauma are signs of animal abuse. These injuries are consistent with those seen in human sexual assault victims. As a result, many states have passed legislation criminalizing such behavior. Some laws target bestiality, while others fall under broader animal cruelty or sodomy laws. Sexual contact with animals is usually only prohibited if it causes harm or injury to the animal (Miletski, 2016).

Adams (1994) mentioned three primary categories of possible reasons why people sexually abuse animals:

  1. Fixated: Animals are the primary or exclusive focus of a human’s sexual desires in this category of animal sexual abuse. These abusers are frequently referred to as “zoophiles.” Some people may have species or gender preferences and engage in animal pornography. They justify their animal sexual abuse as “consensual,” claiming it benefits their “partners,” and describe their behavior as “loving.” The rationalizations used to justify their actions are the same as those used by pedophiles, and, as with pedophile victims, the claimed motivations are irrelevant to the victims. Ani- mal sexual abusers, like pedophiles, may seek employment in child-related fields to gain access to potential victims.
  2. Sadistic: Batterers, rapists, and pornographers may force women, children, and other vulnerable people to have sex with animals to humiliate, dominate, control, and exploit their human and animal victims. Children who have been sexually abused may try to gain control by acting out their abuse on animals. Some people may find sexual gratification in inflicting pain and suffering on animals while sexually abusing them. The animal will most likely be injured or killed by this sadistic sexual abuser.
  3. Opportunistic: This abuse is frequently viewed as the act of a curious youth or a lonely man. Because animals are accessible, vulnerable, and non-threatening, these people may seek sexual gratification. They may abuse an animal because they are bored, insecure, or curious or as a substitute for a human partner. This type of abuser becomes accustomed to the idea that exploiting and controlling others for sexual gratification is acceptable.

Using animals for sexual pleasure is controversial, and opinions differ on whether any sexual act with an animal harms the animal’s welfare. While some believe that bestiality is always harmful to animals, researchers and clinicians are concerned about the potential for bestiality to co-occur with other problematic behaviors, including interpersonal violence.

Studies have consistently found a relationship between sexual contact with animals and other violent behaviors toward humans, emphasizing the importance of understanding the role of bestiality in interpersonal violence. The terms “bestiality” and “zoophilia,” which are sometimes used interchangeably to describe human sexual activity with animals, are frequently used to describe the issue. However, there is a distinction to be made between the two terms. The term “bestiality” refers to sexual acts with animals, whereas “zoophilia” or “zoosexuality” refers to a broader interest or attachment to animals. Individuals who engage in animal-human relationships, including sexual contact, are called “zoophiles.” Some zoophiles regard their fascination with animals as a way of life or orientation (Beetz, 2002).


The most common form of animal cruelty is neglect, which involves failing to provide adequate animal food, shelter, and healthcare. Neglect also includes leaving animals alone for long periods without adequate exercise or social interaction and using harmful products or materials. Neglected animals can suffer from various health problems, including malnutrition, dehydration, infections, and, in extreme cases, death.

Active neglect is involved in the vast majority of animal cruelty cases brought to court. Animal neglect occurs when animals do not receive adequate food, shelter, or medical care. It could also include failing to euthanize an animal when necessary for medical reasons. In neglect cases, animals suffer physical harm from the animal owner or caretaker’s neglectful or careless behavior (Lockwood & Arkow, 2016).

Animal abandonment is a form of animal neglect that can endanger the health and survival of pets. According to Arluke and Luke (1997), animal abandonment can cause significant emotional and psychological distress, resulting in behavioral issues such as fear, aggression, and anxiety. This distress is frequently exacerbated by a lack of necessities such as food, water, and shelter, resulting in a deterioration in physical health.

Similarly, due to environmental hazards and unsanitary living conditions, abandoned pets are vulnerable to injury and illness. Stray dogs and cats, for example, are more susceptible to infectious diseases such as rabies, distemper, and parvovirus. These diseases affect animals and pose a public health risk to humans, particularly those who live near these animals (Hunter & Thompson, 2005).

Unintentional neglect can occur due to a variety of factors, including a lack of knowledge about the animal’s needs, prior learning at the family or cultural level, misunderstandings or incorrect information from pet professionals or third parties, a lack of time, financial constraints, and changes in life circumstances (Wood et al., 1997).

Animal hoarders are pet owners who fail to provide the bare necessities of care and cannot cope with the negative consequences of living with many animals. Not properly groomed animals may develop matting of the hair coat, loss of hair or feathers, long nails or hooves, decaying teeth, and other dental problems. Furthermore, animals may sustain open flesh wounds due to improperly fitted collars, chains, or harnesses, which can become embedded in the animal’s skin and cause significant pain. Animals who do not have access to medical care suffer severe consequences. Injuries, illnesses, and untreated diseases can result in blindness, limb loss, or death. Animals’ poor living conditions, such as a lack of space, light, and ventilation, poor sanitation, or overcrowding, can aggravate the effects of neglect.

The accumulation of large numbers of animals by animal collectors or hoarders is of particular concern because animals living in such conditions are vulnerable to neglect and can pose a public health risk to those living nearby (Arluke et al., 2017).

Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence

Pet abuse is often linked to other forms of violence, including domestic, child, and elder abuse. Abusers who harm pets and family members exhibit a unique combination of behaviors. These abusers have a history of abusing pets and family members as children, and animal abuse is linked to abusive home environments (Ascione, 1997). Therefore, animal abuse is also more likely to exist in families where any given form of violence exists. Animal abuse and family violence tend to co-occur in the same households, and companion animals are often regarded as family members by those within abusive households (Tiplady et al., 2018).

Abusers often use companion animals as a form of psychological control by threatening to harm or kill the pets if the victim does not comply with their demands. In some cases, abusers may use pets to groom children for sexual abuse. Many victims of domestic violence choose to stay in an abusive relationship because domestic violence shelters do not have the facilities to house their pets (Faver & Strand, 2003). Additionally, an abusive family context may better predict adult violence than childhood animal cruelty. However, some argue that cruelty differs from abuse because cruelty implies the deliberate infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering, whereas abuse does not necessarily suggest deliberate action (Flynn, 2012).

Studies have found that animal abuse is often a precursor to or co-occurs with other forms of violence, including domestic violence, child abuse, and elder abuse (Monsalve et al., 2017; Longobardi & Badenes-Ribera, 2019; Volant et al., 2008).

According to Simmons and Lehmann (2007), individuals who engage in domestic violence and commit animal abuse exhibit a broader range of violent behaviors and more significant controlling behaviors than domestic abusers who do not harm their pets. Furthermore, this study found positive correlations between specific controlling behaviors and animal cruelty.

Ascione et al. (2007) found that women residing in domestic violence shelters were nearly 11 times more likely to report incidents of pet harm or death perpetrated by their intimate partner than a control group of women who had not experienced domestic violence. This study emphasizes the close relationship between intimate partner violence and animal cruelty. It highlights the importance of recognizing pet abuse symptoms as a potential indicator of domestic violence.

DeGue and DiLillo (2008) discovered that animal abuse could be a warning sign of familial violence. Their study found that approximately 60% of people who witnessed or perpetrated animal cruelty as children also reported experiencing domestic violence or child maltreatment. Furthermore, different associations were found between different types of animal cruelty exposure and childhood victimization. This study adds to existing knowledge about the links between human and animal violence and supports cross-reporting legislation.

The link between pet abuse and domestic violence is a serious concern, as it can make it more difficult for victims to leave abusive relationships. Victims may be reluctant to leave their pets behind or fear for their pets’ safety if they go. It can lead to victims staying in abusive relationships longer than they otherwise would or returning to abusive relationships after leaving.

When researching companion animal abuse, the methods used to obtain data from victims’ stories determine how much victims will withhold information due to embarrassment or ethical constraints (Newberry, 2017). For example, questionnaires and interviews limit the quality and depth of the data collected. Using online forums where victims voluntarily share their experiences will provide more background information on the victims’ relationships with their pets. Also, the number of domestic violence victims’ stories that are analyzed using thematic analysis is what determines how many vital themes are revealed about the victims’ relationships with their pets, which in turn will inform the number of policies and recommendations the research has regarding police, DV shelters, child protection organizations, and animal welfare organizations.

Becker et al.’s (2004) findings indicate that family variables increase the likelihood of childhood fire setting and animal cruelty and that these behaviors are related to adolescent delinquency. Animal abuse is often linked to poverty and social problems within inner-city areas.

Exposure to domestic violence can have severe consequences, particularly for children who constantly witness such violence. The behavioral problems it entails can lead to a lack of empathy towards others, and the neurological pathway involving the brainstem, cerebral cortex, and limbic system participates in developing a person’s emotional state and understanding of those of others. The lack of empathy not only represents a social issue but also involves a potential disruption of the neurobiological pathways of empathy development (Decety et al., 2016).

Children who engage in animal abuse are more likely to exhibit violent criminal behavior in adulthood, mainly when acts of animal cruelty are recurrent and involve bestiality, drowning, choking, and burning. The motive behind animal cruelty is fun (Gullone, 2012). Animal abuse has also been empirically linked to a tendency toward the emergence of serial killers (Wright & Hensley, 2003).

Researchers are still debating whether there is a link between pet abuse and domestic violence. While some studies have found a strong correlation between the two, others argue that the relationship is not as simple as it appears and that focusing on the link between pet abuse and domestic violence diverts attention away from other important factors contributing to domestic violence. According to Currie (2006), while there may be a link between pet abuse and domestic violence, it is only one of the many risk factors.

According to Flynn (2011), “Critics of research supporting “the link” contend that it is methodologically and theoretically flawed in multiple ways.” Here is a brief summary of methodological difficulties:

  • Most research is retrospective (. . .). Consequently, confident claims about whether animal abuse in the past is causally linked to subsequent human violence cannot be made.
  • Much of the research is correlational in nature, making it difficult to determine whether animal abuse occurred before or after the interpersonal violence. Similarly, it is also possible that both forms of violence result from some third factor rather than being causally related to each other.
  • In most cases, the samples comprise groups who are not representative of the population as a whole – typically, incarcerated criminals. Moreover, such inmates may have incentive to exaggerate their past violence against animals in order to enhance or reinforce their persona as“tough guys,” thereby further obscuring the data.
  • The studies employ vague and inconsistent definitions of animal abuse.

Likewise, there are conceptual or theoretical objections to “link” research, which include the following:

  • Multiple pathways lead to and from and through animal abuse.
  • Most who abuse animals don’t go on to be violent toward humans, so overemphasizing this relationship may lead authorities to falsely label and stigmatize children as potential abusers or, worse, result in greater deviance, not less.
  • Research on the link has been overly psychological in nature, assuming the animal abuse is pathological. It has ignored the numerous social and cultural factors that contribute to the perpetration of violence against animals, much in the same way that early family violence researchers focused almost exclusively on “characteristics of the individuals involved.”

Therefore, it is essential to address animal abuse not only as a form of animal cruelty but also as a potential indicator of broader social issues and criminal behavior.

Prevention and Addressing Pet Abuse

Jegatheesan et al. (2020) examine the relationship between animal cruelty and family violence using the bioecological systems model. The model explains how different environmental systems, such as the individual, family, community, and culture, can influence the development and maintenance of violent behavior toward animals and humans. The authors argue that animal cruelty can be an essential factor in preventing and intervening in family violence because it can provide early indicators of violent behavior and serve as a warning sign for future violence. The authors advise these professionals to become acquainted with the bioecological systems model, which will allow them to understand better the psychological issues of animal cruelty and family violence, as well as the various bioecological contributing factors.

Preventing pet abuse requires a comprehensive strategy comprising educational initiatives, stringent law enforcement, and victim assistance. The following measures, which draw from the majority of the cited sources, succinctly encapsulate the critical actions necessary to thwart and mitigate incidents of pet abuse:

  • Education: Educating the public about pet care and treating pets respectfully can help prevent pet abuse. It may entail informing people about the signs of abuse and encouraging them to report suspected abuse. Animal abuse is effectively reduced through educational campaigns.
  • Implementation: Pet abuse can be reduced by enacting realistic animal cruelty laws and prosecuting abusers. This necessitates adequate funding and resources for animal control agencies and collaboration among law enforcement agencies. Furthermore, penalties for animal cruelty should be severe enough to deter future abuse.
  • Support for victims: Offering victims of pet abuse assistance, such as shelter and veterinary care for their pets, can assist victims in leaving abusive relationships and protecting their pets. Many domestic violence shelters now provide pet-friendly accommodations to assist victims fleeing abusive situations with their pets. 
  • Collaboration: Cooperation among animal welfare organizations, domestic violence shelters, and law enforcement agencies can aid in addressing the link between pet abuse and domestic violence. It may include cross-training programs that educate professionals on the signs of pet abuse and its relationship to domestic violence.


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