Mental health practitioners can gain valuable clinical data by learning about the roles and relationships of animals in their clients’ lives. Clients’ experiences with animals may be related to patterns of violence, patterns of animal maltreatment, traumatic events and experiences, grief and loss issues, and diagnostic features. In some cases, experiences with animals may be related to their presenting problem behaviors. Mental health practitioners are encouraged to be mindful of the following Link related issues:
Child Development Issues. Violence toward animals among children is of particular concern. Clinical studies indicate that children who are cruel to animals are more likely to engage in aggressive or violent behavior toward humans and commit violent crimes. Additionally, animal cruelty by children may be indicative of mental illness, conduct disorder, dysfunctional family systems and/or abuse. Children who witness animal cruelty may suffer significant trauma, recreate violence on animals, learn to model behaviors of violent caretakers, develop callousness and have reduced empathy toward others.
Depression. Relationships with companion animals are a strong source of comfort and well-being for many people. Life events that disrupt or end relationships with animals can trigger sadness, grief and depression. These issues may be profound when animals have been the sole source of companionship for an individual. When people need to relinquish their animals or can no longer adequately care for them, they may experience significant shame and guilt. Such feelings may be overwhelming for clients whose decisions or choices have resulted in an animal being harmed or killed. Normative loss issues related to aging and physical health may be exacerbated by the loss of companion animals or the ability to care for them.
Fears, Phobias and Anxiety. The prevalence of animals in our society underscores the reality that the majority of our population has interacted with animals at some point in their development. Mental health practitioners may observe a variety of symptoms related to a client’s beliefs about or experiences with animals at some time in their lives. Some individuals may develop animal based anxiety, fears or phobias that hinder their daily functioning and may, in some cases, affect relationships negatively.
Impairment of Caretaking Capacities. Individuals with unmanaged debilitating mental health conditions often may experience impaired capacities to care for not only themselves, but their animals as well. Psychosis, obsessive-compulsive disorder and major depressive disorder are examples of mental health conditions that may impair caretaking capacities. Unintentional behaviors can lead to acts of commission or omission resulting in endangerment and/or extreme harm to those in their immediate environment.
Trauma. Animal related trauma is quite common and may manifest in a variety of ways for clients. The level of trauma can be compounded when the client has a significant bond with the animal involved. Individuals who have experienced or witnessed attacks by animals may be severely traumatized. Those who have witnessed animals being harmed, either accidentally or intentionally, are often traumatized as well. When an animal has been harmed by an intimate partner or family member, the trauma is often compounded and complicated by relationship variables.
Violence. Understanding the connection between violence toward animals and violence toward humans is vital for mental health and family workers. Since most people in the U.S. view their animals as family members or close companions, violence toward animals is perhaps best considered a form of family or interpersonal violence. People who engage in violence toward animals may have a propensity for violence that extends beyond animals. The violence graduation hypothesis describes the phenomenon whereby animal abusers graduate to inflicting violence on humans over time. The hypothesis suggests that brutality toward animals in childhood may be predictive of interpersonal violence in adulthood. As such, consideration of the violence graduation hypothesis should be a part of mental health evaluation and treatment.