Predisposed to Cruelty
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Emily Patterson-Kane, PhD
American Veterinary Medical Association, Animal Welfare Division, Schaumburg, IL, USA

When assessing abusive or potentially abusive conduct in an individual, it is important to identify whether the person’s attitudes are normative for their community or culture. Animal cruelty is typically defined as “Socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to, and/or death of an animal.” Activities that are socially acceptable are not generally associated with deviant or extreme personalities traits or recognized mental illnesses, suggesting that they do not routinely cause and are not caused by psychological abnormality.

Lobbying to change social norms is itself a complex and contested subject but I am limiting the scope of this discussion to forms of cruelty that are contrary to the mainstream culture in a location. (While acknowledging that there is always a degree of bias present in deciding which cultural norms are privileged and protected by law and which deviations are treated punitively.)

The recurring features of individuals that commit acts of antisocial animal abuse are 1) innate or ontological disruption of empathy either in general or in relation to animals and/or 2) a failure to adopt a constructive social role or identity.

Causes: Moral Disengagement

Empathy is normally the first factor considered when attempting to understand factors that make a person vulnerable to becoming an abuser. However, the overall correlation between empathy levels and violent behavior is often around 10%, suggesting that many other factors modify this relationship. And in any context there is a point at which higher empathy levels cause higher levels of stress and dissociation, suggesting that there is an optimal range that is neither too high nor too low.

Perhaps more important than gross levels of empathy is how we apply or withhold empathy from different populations. Ongoing research has shown that violent offenders often have gross levels of empathy within a normal range and some individuals that they care for. However, they may draw very sharp distinctions between those worthy or care and those deemed to be “fair game” or to “deserve” violence. Social psychologist Albert Bandura termed this effect “moral disengagement” (a.k.a. neutralization).

Disengagement from animals is associated with strong beliefs that humans and animals are qualitatively different and that animals should be primarily conceptualized as personal property.1 Conversely, education about animals and human-animal continuity, even without an explicit humane component, increases pro-welfare attitudes and decreases xenophobia. As such, a commitment to social norms that oppose animal cruelty is at least as important as capacity to feel empathy towards animals when it comes to preventing the development of abusive motivations and behaviors.

Causes: Lack of Socialization

Emotions such as empathy, and its opposing force disgust, have a social regulation function. We are designed to feel empathy for individuals within our moral circle, and to be willing to harm those who threaten us or other in-group members. Attempts to move animals within a person’s moral circle need to use a consistent rule that aligns with their world view. For example, identifying animals as vulnerable and in need of protection aligns with a mature social role which involves protecting vulnerable individuals from “the bad guys” who would victimize them. However, there will always be competing narratives that try to move some types of animals into the role of the villain and so outside the circle of protection (e.g., predators, vermin, dangerous breeds).2

And the protective domain of the moral circle rests upon the person being prosocial and inclined to adopt norms associated with their community or subculture - and the community having anti-cruelty norms. Individuals who are not prosocial may lack motivation to act according to any principle other than immediate self-protection or personal gain. This worldview is likely to emerge when people grow up in or enter a hostile environment where other individuals are largely a source of threat, or self-protection requiring that they obtain violence-based status. For this reason, it is logical to find that abusive attitudes to animals are more common in people that have been exposed to frequent and severe adverse experiences, especially during childhood. Observing animal abuse at a young age is a particular risk factor3 especially when the behavior is being modelled by a family member or friend4.

Animal cruelty is more likely to be found in a context of conduct disorder or antisocial personality disorder reflecting a general failure to find a healthy social role and identity. Unsurprisingly this is often in a wider context of antisocial behavior in the family5 and community. However, it should be noted that individuals with a better grasp of social norms are probably not well represented in the research as they are more likely to conceal and deny involvement in animal abuse. For this reason, one of the more effective humane education programs, Anicare, focusses on getting perpetrators to admit responsibility for their actions.

Intervening Motivations

Table 1 shows some common schemes for categorizing the diverse types of specific motivations that might be the immediate cause of abusive behavior towards animals. In addition, the simpler three-part summary provided by Robert Agnew in the 1990s is also just as relevant today “Animal abuse is said to result from ignorance about the abusive consequences of our behavior for animals, the belief that abuse is justified, and the perception that abuse is personally beneficial.”6

Table 1.7

Kellert & Felthous (1985)

Hensley & Tallichet (2005) 8

Weinshenker & Siegel (2002)9

Patterson-Kane (2011)


For fun

Reactive, affective, hostile and/or impulsive violence






Dirty play








Shock people

Shock people




Fear of animal

Negative affect


Displacement hostility from a person to an animal

Out of anger

Frustration and anger


Retaliate against an animal

Dislike for the animal





Proactive, predatory, instrumental and/or premeditated violence

Personal gain, general deviancy

Control an animal

Control the animal



Express aggression

Impress someone



Enhance one’s own aggressiveness




Retaliate against other people

Revenge against someone



Satisfy a prejudice


Category error







In recent years, progress has been made in the study of a range of antisocial behaviors by appreciating that they include a range of severity and a spectrum of motivations (e.g., juvenile fire setting, abusive partners, assaults by psychiatric patients, and general aggression). While there are some commonalities in cause and outcomes, reversing violent or antisocial tendencies often requires determining and engaging with the particular form they are taking regarding the person’s internal feelings and rationales.

For example, a person with an innate difficulty to feel immediate emotional empathy may not be able to acquire this reaction, but can be taught cognitive empathy, a conscientious care ethic, or even a self-interest-based reason for kind conduct that includes private conduct (e.g., the Goldiamond paradox). The person may then develop and commit to personal process rules that achieve similar outcomes to innate empathetic responses.

Understanding intervening motivations avoids using messages or treatments that may cause potentially dangerous internal or interpersonal conflict. For example, a person acting cruelly largely due to the influence of a powerful subculture membership or authority figure needs some method to contextualize or modify their attachment to that model. Providing competing models without this guidance can produce rejection of the humane message or place the client in a stressful or even dangerous position.

Cruelty Exposure as a Stressor for Adults

People who are attracted to work that assists animals are exposed to some unique stressors that may impair their wellness. It is well documented that veterinarians, shelter workers, and other animal professions experience higher than average levels of stress which can result in self-harming behaviors and burnout. Shelter workers who perform euthanasia often experience long-term unresolved stress, exacerbated by a lack of support from family and their workplace management. Veterinarians have been shown to be at higher risk of substance abuse and suicide, partly due to the animal suffering they are exposed to on the job. These professions while potentially a source of great meaning and personal satisfaction may also expose individuals to repeated adverse experiences.

It is important that those of us most directly or even indirectly involved in animal rescue and animal welfare recognize that exposure to animal cruelty is an event in our lives that should be presumed harmful regardless of our own role in relation to that event. Therefore, we should also participate in programs that prevent ameliorate this harm and teach us how to prevent it from negatively affecting how we interact with people and animals. Modeling this approach to wellness helps remove the stigma from acknowledging vulnerability and the links between being stressed and behaving inappropriately. Violent animal abuse is an extreme outcome but it exists in a continuum of harmful behavior such as rough animal handling, discussing clients in judgmental terms, valorizing working to exhaustion, or drinking to cope. Addressing these general expressions of strain assists in establishing a bright line between acceptable behavior and abusive behavior without stigmatizing help-seeking.


1.  Vollum S, Buffington-Vollum J, Longmire DR. Moral disengagement and attitudes about violence toward animals. Society & Animals. 2004;12(3):209–235.

2.  Enticott G. Techniques of neutralising wildlife crime in rural England and Wales. Journal of Rural Studies. 2011;27(2):200–208.

3.  Hensley C, Tallichet SE. Learning to be cruel?: exploring the onset and frequency of animal cruelty. Int J Offender Ther Comp Criminol. 2005;49(1):37–47.

4.  Thompson KL, Gullone E. An investigation into the association between the witnessing of animal abuse and adolescents· behavior toward animals. Society & Animals. 2006;14(3):221–243.

5.  Vaughn MG, Fu Q, DeLisi M, Beaver KM, Perron BE, Terrell K, Howard MO. Correlates of cruelty to animals in the United States: Results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. J Psychiatr Res. 2009;43(15):1213–1218.

6.  Agnew R. The causes of animal abuse: a social-psychological analysis. Theoretical Criminology. 1998;2(2):177–209.

7.  Patterson-Kane EG. The causes of violence towards animals: a review. In: Cunningham HR, Berry WF, eds. Handbook on the Psychology of Violence. Hauppauge, NY: Nova Science Publishing. 2012.

8.  Hensley C, Tallichet SE. Animal cruelty motivations: assessing demographic and situational influences. J Interpers Violence. 2005;20:1429–1443.

9.  Weinshenker NJ, Siegel A. Bimodal classification of aggression: Affective defense and predatory attack. Aggression Violent Behav. 2002;7:237–250.

Speaker Information
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E. Patterson-Kane, PhD
Animal Welfare Division
American Veterinary Medical Association
Schaumburg, IL, USA

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