The Link Between Animal Cruelty and Human Violence

By Charlie Robinson, M.A., M.S., and Victoria Clausen, M.A.

A stock photo of a chained dog.

Photo on the homepage was provided by Commonwealth Media Services, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The roles animals play in society are widespread, ranging from beloved family pets providing comfort, to law enforcement dogs tracking missing persons, to service animals providing critical assistance. Animals are part of nearly everyone’s life in some aspect. Unfortunately, as seen with children, without a voice of their own, animals are among the most vulnerable in society. This vulnerability places them at high risk for animal cruelty — intentional, harmful behavior such as neglecting or killing an animal.

Historically, animal cruelty has been considered an isolated issue, but recent research shows a well-documented link that it is a predictive or co-occurring crime with violence against humans (including intimate partners, children, and elders) and is associated with other types of violent offenses. Increased awareness of this linkage and a collaborative approach to these investigations strengthens the identification and reduction of such crimes.1

Recognizing animal cruelty as a serious violent offense has slowly developed over time. In the late 19th century, child abuse and animal welfare were closely associated within independent programs. However, during the 20th century, the government began to oversee child protection services, and private humane societies undertook animal welfare.2 This separation hindered the acknowledgement of the correlation between animal cruelty and domestic violence. As time has progressed, an increasing number of fields have acknowledged the correlation and seriousness of these crimes.3

Interpersonal Violence Implications

Many people frequently assume individuals begin hurting animals and then progress to humans. While this may be true in some instances, it is not the case for all offenders. One study found that 16% of offenders started abusing animals and graduated to violent crimes against humans. However, in many circumstances, offenders start by hurting other humans and then progress to harming animals.4

Companion animals can be a source of comfort to victims of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, the abuser often exploits this bond to manipulate, control, and punish victims. To create fear and control, the abuser may threaten, hurt, or kill the animal. Cruelty to the animal may be used to convince the victim to return to a violent relationship, keep the victim isolated, financially control the victim, or coerce the victim into staying. Further, the offender may physically harm the animal to psychologically punish the victim or to remind the victim that the abuser can assert physical force to maintain dominance and control.5 Often, the abused partner will choose to stay in the violent situation out of concern for the pet’s safety.6

Seventy-five percent of abused women who have companion animals report a history of their companion animal being threatened or intentionally harmed by their intimate partner, with children being present and witnessing the violence over 90% of the time.7

Other studies have shown that half of all children are exposed to animal cruelty at some point in their lives.8 Children who are exposed to interpersonal violence (IPV) at home are 60 times more likely to suffer emotional maltreatment and physical abuse or neglect. These circumstances place children at an increased risk of perpetuating the cycle of violence in the future due to desensitization and the belief that violence is an acceptable way to resolve interpersonal conflict.9

Domestic violence offenses not only occur in an intimate partner setting but often occur simultaneously or are precursors to other types of violent offenses. Animal cruelty is a predictor of current and future violence, including crimes of assault, rape, murder, arson, domestic violence, and sexual abuse of children.10 For example, the majority of IPV victims who report co-occurring animal cruelty are also concerned the abuser eventually will kill them and should be considered at extremely high risk of suffering severe injury or death.11

Further, animal cruelty is a better predictor of sexual abuse compared to a history of homicide, arson, or weapon convictions.12 Being cognizant of this link allows for law enforcement to recognize that animal cruelty indicates other possible offenses are occurring in the household.13

Significant Legislation

Victims fearing their animals will be harmed or killed is a significant factor in keeping them stuck in the cycle of violence. To help remove this barrier, the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act was signed into law in December 2018. The PAWS Act aims to help domestic violence shelters by providing housing assistance to the human and animal victims of domestic violence.14

This legislation empowers the victims of IPV by giving them an opportunity to protect their companions. Further, it involves protection of animals in interstate stalking, protection order violations, and restitution as well as allows victims to include pets in protection orders. The PAWS Act also increases the number and capacity of safe havens to meet the needs of domestic violence survivors.15

" ... law enforcement leaders ... should ensure officers understand the broad scope of these cases and engage specific entities that work crimes possibly associated with animal cruelty. ... "

Safe Havens

Safe havens are shelter services that assist victims and their companion animals. Depending on the safe haven, victims and animals stay together in the same space or the animals are housed through local humane societies in a kennel or temporary foster care. Locating a safe haven can be the key to assisting victims of domestic violence. The Animal Welfare Institute developed a mapping resource to locate safe havens across the United States:

In 2010, the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act banned the distribution of animal “crush” videos that show the torture and killing of animals. Crush videos often feature a provocatively dressed woman crushing, stomping, or impaling small animals for the sexual pleasure of the viewers. However, the act did not outlaw the underlying cruelty itself. This changed in November 2019 with the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act.16

The PACT Act is a federal law that prohibits the purposeful crushing, burning, drowning, suffocation, impalement, or other violent acts committed against animals, allowing the prosecution of crimes that affect interstate commerce or occur under federal jurisdictions. This is the first federal animal cruelty law giving law enforcement another tool to stop brutality by building upon the existing animal cruelty laws available at the state level.

Each of the 50 states currently have a felony animal cruelty law, but the definition of animal cruelty and the penalties for violent offenses vary from state to state. Most of these laws focus on companion animals, such as dogs and cats, but some states include birds, horses, and other animals.17

Animal Fighting

Animal cruelty is a multifaceted issue with a wide range of potential offenses, one of the most prominent being animal fighting. It is important that law enforcement leaders bring awareness to the various dynamics of animal cruelty and animal fighting. To that end, they should ensure officers understand the broad scope of these cases and engage specific entities that work crimes possibly associated with animal cruelty (e.g., drugs, money laundering, and weapons violations).

Dogfighting is one of the most serious forms of animal cruelty that occurs throughout the country. An average dogfight lasts 1 to 2 hours, ending when one of the dogs is not able to continue. Most of the dogs used in fighting are pit bull terriers, which can be bred for their stamina and ability to fight with dogs, compared to the majority of breeds that stop fighting once they reach exhaustion. In addition, this breed is not prone to aggression against humans and is intensely loyal, which contributes to their willingness to withstand abuse and neglect from their owners.18

Cockfighting is another type of animal fighting spectator “sport.” Razor-sharp steel blades, or “gaffs,” are attached to the bird’s legs prior to the fight. These blades are so sharp and dangerous that bird handlers have accidently been killed by their own birds. During a cockfight, gamecocks are placed into a fighting pit until the death of one or both birds. While the average free-range or domesticated bird will fight over necessities, those fights rarely result in serious injury. Within the world of cockfighting, the birds are bred specifically for aggression and forced to fight.19

The participants drawn to the thrill of animal fighting are axiomatically woven into the world of drugs, money laundering, illegal weapons, and illegal gambling. Nearly every dogfighting raid involves the discovery and seizure of illegal drugs, and two-thirds of cases involve the seizure of illegal weapons.20 In addition, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has prosecuted various cases involving drug cartels trafficking narcotics though dogfighting and cockfighting enterprises.21

The 1966 Animal Welfare Act prohibits the selling, buying, transporting, delivery, exhibiting, or sponsoring of an animal for the purpose of animal fighting.22 Upgraded to a felony offense in 2009, animal fighting and the possession of an animal for the purpose of fighting is illegal in all 50 states.

Additionally, the Farm Bill, signed into law in 2014, amends the existing law and not only targets those responsible for putting the fights together but also contains the elemental Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act. This act made it a federal offense to knowingly attend an animal fight anywhere in the United States and instituted additional charges for bringing a child under the age of 16 to an animal fight.23

Financial gain frequently lures individuals to dogfighting. During major dogfight raids, law enforcement has seized more than $500,000; it is not unusual for $20,000-$30,000 to change hands in a single fight.24 In addition, the potential exists for thousands of dollars in profit from breeding and selling the dogs.

Dogfighting rings are often built with the goal of developing a bloodline that accentuates aggression and vigor.25 Out of these top bloodlines, one puppy alone can be sold for up to $5,000.26 Dogfighting tends to lure juveniles as part of gang involvement and draws many offenders seeking power and control to dominate an aggressive dog or use the animals to show their own perceived power over others. When faced with defeat, the owner loses money and social status, which sadly often leads to aggression being taken out on the losing dog.27 The losing dog may be thrown out, left to die, or killed by the owner.28 Officers armed with an awareness of these various dynamics of animal fighting can more thoroughly address investigations and report case information as appropriate.

National Incident-Based Reporting System Data

In 2016, the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) began collecting detailed case information on animal cruelty incidents from participating law enforcement agencies.29 Designated as a Group A Offense, animal cruelty is defined as:

Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly taking an action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as torturing, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning, or abandonment. Included are instances of duty to provide care, e.g., shelter, food, water, care if sick or injured; transporting or confining an animal in a manner likely to cause injury or death; causing an animal to fight with another; inflicting excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering, e.g., uses objects to beat or torture an animal. This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing, or trapping.30

The definition highlights animal cruelty crimes as an independent category, emphasizing the importance of investigating and charging these offenses.31 Within NIBRS, animal cruelty encompasses the following four categories: simple/gross neglect, intentional abuse and torture, organized abuse, and animal sexual abuse. While the definition and categories of animal cruelty are meant to encompass all state statutes, if an incident within the local jurisdiction meets the definition and criteria for animal cruelty, it should be submitted to NIBRS.32

Prior to 2016, animal cruelty was grouped within “All Other Offenses” in NIBRS, which did not allow for specific analysis of the animal cruelty data.33 While it may take several years, the data will provide integral insight to law enforcement and other stakeholders. For instance, the data will be able to clarify who is committing animal cruelty offenses, the most common jurisdictions in which animal cruelty is occurring, and associations with other types of crime. By answering these questions, stakeholders can identify areas to expend resources and improve law enforcement training.34

Based on preliminary analysis of NIBRS data from 2018, there were 4.43 animal cruelty incidents nationally per 100,000 of the population, compared to 106.68 for assault, 65.77 for robbery, and 799.40 for drug offenses.35 However, not every law enforcement agency reports data to NIBRS, and animal control agencies or humane organizations not recognized as law enforcement agencies often investigate animal cruelty, resulting in unreported data. To ensure availability of the most accurate data in NIBRS, law enforcement should develop relationships with these entities. The National Council on Violence Against Animals provides a sample memorandum of understanding for law enforcement to assist in building those relationships.36

While the data from NIBRS will be imperative in studying animal cruelty, current research studies have used other data sources. For example, researchers examined the demographic and criminal characteristics of 150 adult males arrested for animal cruelty. The mean age of the offenders included in the study was 37, with 41% arrested at least once for interpersonal violence, 18% for a sex offense, and 28% for different interpersonal crimes (e.g., violating a restraining order or harassment).37

"Having background knowledge of the link between animal cruelty and violence can make a considerable difference in an investigation. ... "

Investigative Considerations

In 2010, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) conducted a research study focusing on law enforcement and its role in animal cruelty investigations. The study found approximately one-fifth of law enforcement officers stated they had received animal cruelty training. Less than half were familiar with animal cruelty laws, and only one-third said they knew the penalties of those laws. Further, the study identified three obstacles law enforcement professionals face when involved with animal cruelty cases.

  1. Dearth of knowledge regarding animal cruelty cases
  2. Leadership seeing animal cruelty cases as a low priority
  3. Lack of facilities for housing animals kept as evidence38

As it pertains to dogfighting, the ASPCA conducted an additional study in 2015 that found while half of law enforcement officers reported they encountered dogfighting, only 23% said their department had the resources and training necessary to investigate those cases.39 More than half surveyed stated they received no training on investigating dogfighting cases, and 40% said limited resources are a factor in investigating dogfighting.

Multidisciplinary, Cross-Reporting Approach

Having a thorough understanding of animal cruelty, the associated investigations, and the applicable codes is essential — not only for the success of animal cruelty cases but other cases as well. Officers will possibly encounter multiple moving parts and overlapping investigations when they suspect animal cruelty or another crime that indicates animal cruelty. A multidisciplinary, cross-reporting approach to animal cruelty as well as to other crimes involved with animal cruelty creates an opportunity to save lives.40

Having background knowledge of the link between animal cruelty and violence can make a considerable difference in an investigation, and several key agencies can work together in a multidisciplinary team to achieve this goal. Child protective services, animal protection groups, veterinarians, domestic violence shelters, medical providers, and law enforcement share a unique opportunity to create an integrative approach to investigations and the link. Establishing relationships will help with educating each other, being proactive, and identifying resources.

Dogfighting cases often require considerable resources and collaboration between law enforcement, animal protection, and forensic animal welfare specialists. Several states have assembled multidisciplinary task forces to combat animal fighting.41 The ASPCA has developed a Blood Sports Unit, and the University of California-Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory has developed a canine CODIS system to assist in identifying and connecting DNA evidence to build stronger dogfighting cases for law enforcement investigations and prosecutions.42

Agencies must investigate claims of animal cruelty because if not taken seriously, they have the potential for an adverse ripple effect. Law enforcement and child protection service employees often are the ones who see animals and children in neglectful situations. Cross-reporting statutes and training are being implemented throughout the country to enable those in a multitude of fields to report abuse.43 Moreover, some states have cross-reporting laws permitting or even requiring adult and child protective services to report suspected animal cruelty or signs of it. These statutes permit sharing information between law enforcement, social services, and animal care providers that pertains to animal or human abuse.44

For those interacting with victims of abuse, asking about animals and the welfare of those animals allows these parties to discover other types of family violence. Victims of abuse may be hesitant or reluctant to talk about their own abuse. However, they may be willing to talk about the abuse their pets have experienced.45 When talking with victims of abuse, officers should be specific when asking questions, such as “How are the animals treated?” and “What happens if the animal gets in trouble?” Officers should observe how those in the household interact with the pets and how the pets behave. In addition, they should ask the children indirect questions about their experience with the animals.46

Additional Resources

Numerous training courses and materials are available to law enforcement, many of which are free. The National District Attorneys Association created a guide titled “Investigating and Prosecuting Animal Abuse” that provides extensive information for law enforcement officers.47 In addition, the ASPCA worked with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office to create an online course on dogfighting as well as additional guides for law enforcement and investigators on the topic. Similarly, the Humane Society of the United States offers a course titled “Investigative Considerations Concerning Animal Crime Violations” to law enforcement departments across the country.

  • NIBRS User Manual:

  • ASPCA online courses:

  • The Justice Clearing House online courses:

  • National Link Coalition: 

  • Animal Fighting Resources:
    • Janette Reever, Senior Specialist, Global Anti-Dogfighting Program
    • Doug Bridges, Special Agent, USDA-Office of Inspector General
    • Ethan Eddy, Trial Attorney, U.S. Department of Justice Environmental Crimes Section

  • Animal Welfare Institute guidelines for speaking with children:

"Agencies must investigate claims of animal cruelty because if not taken seriously, they have the potential for an adverse ripple effect."

Veterinary Considerations

Law enforcement agencies should consider building relationships with veterinarians and their staff because they are in a unique situation to observe neglect and abuse in both animals and clients who bring the animals in for evaluation. Veterinarians subsequently will know who to contact within law enforcement when they see instances of animal cruelty. Likewise, they may be able to alert authorities of specific circumstances within the family.

Veterinarians may see clinical signs that indicate abuse in their animal patients, such as varying states of healing fractures after performing an X-ray, and it is their duty to evaluate if the injury matches the explanation of the client. While assessing animals, veterinarians are also evaluating family dynamics, the home environment, and concerns of the clients. They can identify red flags and implement protocols to assist those in need, both animal and human. However, not all practices have protocols in place for these instances.48

Currently, 20 states have mandatory reporting laws pertaining to animal cruelty, while the rest recognize it as a moral duty within the code of Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics. Most states either require mandatory reporting, have a voluntary reporting law that allows veterinarians the authority to break patient confidentiality, or provide companion immunity to protect against civil, sometimes criminal, liability from reporting the cruelty.49


Law enforcement has the capability to strengthen investigations by developing and maintaining relationships across a diverse range of disciplines that encounter animal cruelty. Creating a multidisciplinary team allows law enforcement to examine situations from numerous perspectives elemental in identifying, preventing, and stopping animal cruelty and criminal activity. Understanding the correlation between animal cruelty and violence brings law enforcement one step closer to saving the lives of both animals and humans.

"Understanding the correlation between animal cruelty and violence brings law enforcement one step closer to saving the lives of both animals and humans." 

Additional Investigative Strategies

Law enforcement can employ additional investigative strategies when investigating animal cruelty and other crimes that may occur with animal cruelty. Dr. Melinda Merck, a forensic veterinarian, outlined several items to consider.

  • Use what is in plain sight as probable cause for a search warrant. For example, are there devices indicative of dogfighting?
  • Use animal cruelty charges as a “strike” or as leverage.
  • Keep in mind that within domestic violence situations, the offender can be charged with animal cruelty as a separate offense.
  • Based on their training and experience, veterinarians will see crime scenes differently than law enforcement. For example, they will be more familiar with what should or should not be present when it comes to animals. Without proper training, items may be missed. Officers who encounter a suspected animal cruelty crime scene should consider contacting a veterinarian or animal control officer for assistance. The Humane Society of the United States has a representative in every state who can assist in locating a veterinarian or forensic expert.50

Ms. Robinson, a family nurse practitioner, previously served as a research fellow with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. She can be reached at

Ms. Clausen serves as a crime analyst with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. She can be reached at


1 Phil Arkow, “Recognizing and Responding to Cases of Suspected Animal Cruelty, Abuse, and Neglect: What the Veterinarian Needs to Know,” Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports, no. 6 (November 2015): 349-359, accessed January 26, 2021,
2 Catherine A. Faver and Elizabeth B. Strand, “Domestic Violence and Animal Cruelty: Untangling the Web of Abuse,” Journal of Social Work Education 39, no. 2 (2003): 237-253, accessed January 26, 2021,
3 Ibid.
4 Arnold Arluke et al., “The Relationship of Animal Abuse to Violence and Other Forms of Antisocial Behavior,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 14, no. 9 (September 1999): 963-975, accessed January 26, 2021,
5 Harold Hovel, The Connection Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence (Kingston, NY: New York State Humane Association, 2019), accessed January 26, 2021,
6 “Facts and Myths About Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse,” Animal Welfare Institute, accessed January 26, 2021,
7 Shelby McDonald et al., “Intimate Partner Violence Survivors’ Reports of Their Children’s Exposure to Companion Animal Maltreatment: A Qualitative Study,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 34, no. 13 (July 2019): 2627-2652, accessed January 26, 2021,
8 Clifton Flynn, “Examining the Links Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence,” Crime, Law and Social Change 55, no. 5 (June 2011): 453-468, accessed January 26, 2021,
9 Andrew M. Campbell et al., “Intimate Partner Violence and Pet Abuse: Responding Law Enforcement Officers’ Observations and Victim Reports from the Scene,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 36, no. 5-6 (March 2018): 1-20, accessed January 26, 2021,; and Hovel.
10 Hovel; and Amber R. Macias-Mayo, “The Link Between Animal Abuse and Child Abuse,” American Journal of Family Law 32, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 130-136, accessed August 2, 2021,
11 Campbell et al.
12 National Link Coalition, The Link Between Violence to People and Violence to Animals (Stratford, NJ: National Link Coalition), accessed January 26, 2021,
13 National Sheriffs’ Association, Animal Cruelty as a Gateway Crime (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2018), accessed January 26, 2021,
14 “Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act,” Animal Welfare Institute, accessed January 26, 2021,
15 Ibid.
16 “Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act,” Animal Welfare Institute, accessed January 26, 2021,
17 “Laws That Protect Animals,” Animal Legal Defense Fund, accessed January 26, 2021,
18 Hovel.
19 “Cockfighting Fact Sheet,” The Humane Society of the United States, accessed January 26, 2021,
20 U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Dogfighting: A Guide for Community Action, Randall Lockwood, November 2012, 7, accessed August 4, 2021,
21 “Dogfighting,” Humane Society International, accessed January 26, 2021,
22 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Welfare Act, 2020, accessed August 2, 2021,
23 “Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act,” Animal Welfare Institute, accessed August 2, 2021,
24 Lockwood.
25 Wethal.
26 James M. Lewis, “The Violent Underworld of Dog Fighting,” DVM360, July 1, 2007, accessed August 2, 2021,
27 Lockwood.
28 Hovel.
29 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Tracking Animal Cruelty: FBI Collecting Data on Crimes Against Animals,” February 2016, accessed January 26, 2021,
30 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reporting Program, National Incident-Based Reporting System, NIBRS Offense Definitions, 2018, accessed January 26, 2021,
31 Mary L. Randour et al., “Animal Abuse as a Type of Trauma: Lessons for Human and Animal Service Professionals,” Trauma, Violence, & Abuse 22, no. 2 (May 2019): 277-288, accessed January 26, 2021,
32 National Coalition on Violence Against Animals, NIBRS User Manual for Animal Control Officers and Humane Law Enforcement (Alexandria, VA: National Coalition on Violence Against Animals), accessed January 26, 2021,
33 Randour et al.
34 Greg Cima, “FBI Gathers Animal Cruelty Data, But Patterns Have Yet to Emerge,” American Veterinary Medical Association, March 2019, accessed January 26, 2021,
35 “Animal Cruelty Reporting Scorecard,” Animal Welfare Institute, accessed January 26, 2021,
36 DeSousa.
37 Lacey Levitt, Tia A. Hoffer, and Ann B. Loper, “Criminal Histories of a Subsample of Animal Cruelty Offenders,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 30 (2016): 48-58, accessed January 26, 2021,
38 “ASPCA Announces Groundbreaking Research Study Underscoring Importance of Animal Cruelty Law Enforcement,” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, December 2010, accessed January 26, 2021,
39 “ASPCA Poll Reveals Law Enforcement Officers Lack Resources, Training to Properly Address Dog Fighting,” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, April 2015, accessed January 26, 2021,
40 Olivia S. Garber, “Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence: Why the Connection Justifies Increased Protection,” The University of Memphis Law Review 47 (2016): 359-389, accessed January 26, 2021,; and Charlotte Lacroix, “Another Weapon for Combating Family Violence: Prevention of Animal Abuse,” Animal Law 4, no. 1 (1998): 1-32, accessed January 26, 2021,
41 Lockwood.
42 Wethal.
43 Garber.
44 Michigan State University, Animal Legal & Historical Center, Cross-Reporting Laws for Child Abuse and Animal Abuse, accessed August 4, 2021,; and Garber.
45 Garber.
46 Alberta Girardi and Joanna D. Pozzulo, “The Significance of Animal Cruelty in Child Protection Investigations,” Social Work Research 36, no. 1 (July 2012): 53-60, accessed January 26, 2021,
47 Allie Phillips and Randall Lockwood, Investigating and Prosecuting Animal Abuse: A Guidebook on Safer Communities, Safer Families and Being an Effective Voice for Animal Victims, National District Attorneys Association, 2013, accessed January 26, 2021,
48 Arkow.
49 Rebecca F. Wisch, “Table of Veterinary Reporting Requirement and Immunity Laws,” Michigan State University College of Law, 2020, accessed January 26, 2021,
50 M. Merck, personal communication, May 28, 2020.