Maltreatment of at-risk adults

Significant findings associate maltreatment of at-risk adults, self-harming behaviors by at-risk adults and animal maltreatment. The diminished capacities of these individuals also places them in jeopardy of victimization by others through neglect, abuse or exploitation. Additionally, at-risk adults with diminished capacities may be more prone to injuries or harm in relation to animals in their homes.


At-risk adults may have a variety of physical, emotional, psychological and/or cognitive issues impacting their functioning and their ability to take proper care of themselves and/or animals in their care. Examples of the conditions that at-risk adults may present include but are not limited to:

  • anxiety disorders
  • dementia
  • depression
  • diminished cognitive capacity
  • diminished physical capacity
  • traumatic brain injuries
  • post-traumatic stress
  • memory impairments




  • Individuals that harm animals may also have patterns of emotional, physical and sexual abuse to humans.
  • Abused or neglected animals present a higher safety risk to at-risk adults than animals that receive humane and proper care.
  • At-risk adults with diminished physical or cognitive capacities have greater potential for maltreatment of animals in their care.
  • At-risk adults with diminished capacities may be more prone to injuries or harm from animals.
  • The presence of animal maltreatment in a home environment may be an indicator of underlying behavioral or emotional issues with at-risk adults and/or caregivers in that home.
  • The presence of animal maltreatment by the caregiver of an at-risk adult may also be an indicator of the caregiver’s maltreatment of the at-risk adult.
  • Harm or threat of harm to an at-risk adult’s companion animal may be used to coerce and intimidate them to comply with abuse and to not report abuse.
  • The presence of animal abuse may also be related to other forms of criminal behaviors, exposing at-risk adults in the environment to potential harm.
  • Companion animals may be one of the only consistent sources of non-conditional love and support for at-risk adults.
  • At-risk adults may be reluctant or unwilling to ask for assistance for fear of losing or being separated from their animals.
  • Grief and loss issues regarding beloved companion animals may be substantial for at-risk adults.
  • The presence of a calm, safe animal may provide comfort, support and health benefits for many at-risk adults.
  • The strategic use of animals (or talking about them) can yield valuable risk assessment data for investigators.

Selected Research Findings

A 2001 survey conducted by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the National Center on Elder Abuse and funded by the Dr. Scholl Foundation demonstrated the urgent need for this kind of cross-agency cooperation. Sent to 500 individuals working in adult protective services, the survey elicited 170 responses from 40 states and demonstrated the following results:

  • More than 35% of respondents said that clients talk about pets being threatened, injured, killed or denied care by the caregiver.
  • More than 45% reported seeing evidence of animal abuse or neglect during visits with clients.
  • Fewer than 25% said their agencies maintain policies for reporting suspected animal cruelty, and just 19% participate in cross-reporting and/or cross-training.
  • An overwhelming 92% reported the coexistence of self-neglect and neglect of animals.

Implications for Families, Communities and Professionals Working with At-risk Adults

  • Being Link informed increases the ability to identify and intervene with the maltreatment or self-harming behaviors of at-risk adults and animal maltreatment.
  • Family members and neighbors that are vigilant regarding the condition of animals in a home may increase the safety for the at-risk adult and their animals.
  • Home health care providers or other in-home service providers are in a vital role to observe and report Link issues related to at-risk adults and their animals.
  • Interagency cross-reporting can improve human welfare, animal welfare and public safety, and may prevent future neglect or abuse.
  • Interagency coordination and resource sharing can increase the capacity for at-risk adults to provide a safer environment for themselves and their animals.
  • The incorporation of animals (or discussion of them) by Link informed individuals and professionals can strengthen investigative outcomes with at-risk adults.
  • Use of animal-assisted interventions may be beneficial for at-risk adults during investigations and/or courtroom testimony.

Comprehensive assessment is necessary to determine causal factors for their condition and to clearly determine if maltreatment is present. When concerns are noted it is in the best interest of potential victims and the community to notify the appropriate investigative agencies or individuals.