Article: Christina Vaizidou

Psychiatrist – Psychotherapist

Translation: Evelina Koutsikopoulou

Revised by  Harriet Spala

Violent acts against animals have been recognized a long time now as an indication of dangerous psychopathology not limited to animals only. It’s no coincidence that the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual DSM of mental and emotional disorders refers to violence against animals as one of the diagnostic criteria for disorders, like antisocial-aggressive behavior (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders DSM–5).

There are many theories and researches about people’s psychological background who abuse animals. Two categories stand out: the first consists of people with mental and emotional immaturity which in many cases, just like children cannot understand, they are not aware of the extent of damage they cause to the animal  which they abuse, because they lack the level of maturity demanded (Dr. George Simon, Abusing Animals: Some Psychological Reasons Behind Animal Abuse, 2009).

The second category consists of people who derive satisfaction from abusing or even killing animals. The basic source of this satisfaction according to psychiatry is the sense of power, control and authority. Some of these people lack the feeling of power and control in other areas of their life and they seek vulnerable targets, in order to balance this insufficiency. Others enjoy the feeling of power in every area of their life and they exercise it in every opportunity that occurs, so that their sense of superiority can enhance (Dr. George Simon, Abusing Animals: Some Psychological Reasons behind Animal Abuse, 2009).

The deepest reason for this behaviour is analyzed both in the person’s mentality as well as the collective principles of our society. Naturally, certain people assume consciously that they have the right to abuse or kill animals and that whenever a society doesn’t show enough respect to animals and uses them as living objects. Man is a being that likes to stand out and dictate. This impulse is tamed through social and legal rules, which we learn to obey, in order to survive as society. Whenever these incidents repeat, it means that there is no sufficient informal social rule to prohibit such a behavior, thus to force from the start the person to consider this action as prohibitive and immoral. The first problem is therefore the lack of social consciousness towards animals.

The problem shows that it is about people with a sense of superiority and at the same time, as mentioned previously, with a great sense of insecurity and lack of control. In their efforts to keep control over something (since it’s not  a part of their current lives), they resort to acts of violence, releasing in a way their inner aggression and often acting on retaliation actions against  for example pet owners, as they are not able to turn against themselves (Ascione, 1998). Their feelings turn against an object that the perpetrator can easily control.

This aspect shows that the psychological profile of an animal abuser is similar to a wife or child-beater. Many studies occurred under this assumption correlating acts of animal violence to similar or subsequent acts of violence against people, especially by younger perpetrators. The concluded result stated that a child’s violent behavior towards animals can be treated as an early predictive factor of violent behavior of any kind occurring in the future, because the violent behavior against animals arises in early stages of child development, ages 6,5 on average (Frick et al., 1993).

As for psychological-social causes that may lead a person to abuse or to kill an animal, a correlation to domestic violence, abuse or neglect from their parents in childhood is often mentioned. Furthermore, indirect violence experiences contribute for example an incident of animal abuse by a parent, as a display of power and authority in the family (Widom, 1989).

Animal abusers may show further characteristics, as limited social capabilities, difficulty to empathize with others and create relations of trust, low self-esteem, feelings of unworthiness and insufficiency, and generally deviant behavior.

Certain writers mention the “black triad”, the personality characteristics of animal abusers, these being narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychiatric disorder. Narcissism equals to the sense of satisfaction and superiority, Machiavellianism to the lack of any moral restrictions and psychiatric disorder to egoism, compulsive behavior and lack of remorse.

Apart these traits, researchers often add more traits such as detectable sadism, i.e. the pleasure that someone derives through someone else’s pain (Paulhaus & Williams, 2002).

Since 1757, the British artist William Hogarth created a series of etchings titled “The Four Stages of Cruelty”, depicting the story of Tom Nero, who begins in the “first stage” to abuse various animals, mainly cats and dogs, and ends up raping and murdering people. Obviously the function is not that simple and violent animal treatment doesn’t always lead to further acts of violence. Even more so, is the fact that this isn’t a single act without a respective psychological background and its significance ought not to be downgraded nor from individuals nor society in total.

Suggested Bibliography

Felthous, A.R. Aggression against cats, dogs, and people Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 1980.

Herzog, Η. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, Harper Perennial, 2011, ISBN-10: 0061730858.

Cavanaugh, P. S., Signal, T. D., & Taylor, the Dark Triad and animal cruelty: Dark personalities, dark attitudes, and dark behaviours, Personality and Individual Differences, 2013.