A qualitative study of children’s accounts of cruelty to animals: Uncovering the roles of trauma, exposure to violence, and attachment

Laura Wauthier, Scottish SPCA, Joanne Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Childhood animal cruelty (CAC) is a risk for later interpersonal violence and a red flag for other forms of violence in the household, yet very few studies have spoken to children directly about their cruelty to animals.

Objective: Animal Guardians (AG) is a humane education programme run by the Scottish SPCA for children 5-12 years who have been cruel to animals or deemed at risk. This research investigated how children referred to AG spoke about their experiences of animal cruelty and factors surrounding it.

Methods: Research consent was obtained for 10 children (average age=8.8 years, n=9 males), referred concerning cruel/at-risk behaviour towards their pets. The interview schedule combined techniques such as crafts, vignettes, open questions and standardized measures. Interviews were qualitatively analysed using Content analysis and Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.

Results: Content analysis suggested that referred children: (a) tended to have small attachment networks which often included pets, (b) tended to interpret ambiguous situations predominately negatively, (c) tended to like animals and see them as sentient, and (d) struggled admitting to cruelty. Three main superordinate themes emerged from the IPA: (1) Bonding to Animals, (2) Exposure to / normalisation of violence, (3) Signs of emotional issues/trauma.

Conclusion: Children who were referred for animal cruelty towards their pets were from vulnerable backgrounds, often had complex backdrops to their at-risk or cruel behaviour, and sometimes had trouble regulating their emotions and behaviours. Programmes hoping to address CAC should be aware of these complex emotional, psychological, and behavioural factors, tailoring interventions accordingly.
Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Interpersonal Violence
Early online date29 Jun 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 29 Jun 2020


  • animal cruelty
  • child psychopathology
  • violence
  • attachment
  • trauma


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