What kind of treatment is required for persons engaging in animal abuse?
Every perpetrator of animal cruelty presents with unique diagnostic factors and typologies. An animal cruelty offender’s potential risk to public safety risk may vary from little to none to extreme. The Colorado LINK Project recommends that animal abuse by adults and children be examined carefully through comprehensive and developmentally sensitive evaluation to help determine the context and seriousness of the abuse, causative factors and the perpetrator’s level of blameworthiness for their actions. Given that treatment interventions are directed at the underlying causative factors for each individual, treatment providers do not always need to have specialized training in animal abuse to be effective.
Some considerations regarding common practices in Colorado:
- Colorado’s animal cruelty statute overtly identifies anger management as a likely treatment method of choice. In fact, unregulated anger is only occasionally the cause of the animal abuse.
- Many courts have perhaps inadvertantly minimized animal cruelty and established a precedent that animal cruelty can be “treated” by performing community service at the local animal control agency/shelter or by attending anger management classes.
- Community service with exposure to animals may be contraindicated. It should not be assumed to be useful or effective unless this intervention is directed at the type of animal abuser who would be influenced by this experience (for example, a naïve and uninformed abuser type). In addition, the agency supervising this intervention should be equipped to deal with the presenting problems of animal cruelty.
- Many shelters and animal control agencies don’t have the resources to keep track of or rehabilitate an animal abuser.
- It is a faulty assumption that forcing someone to care for animals as a punishment will cause them to have an opportunity to reflect on their actions and develop empathy.
- Formalized humane education programs or specialized therapists with Animal Assisted Intervention (AAI) training would be more appropriate for the development of empathy.
It is suggested that treatment interventions:
- are directed at the clinical and diagnostic findings of individualized animal abuse evaluations
- focus on underlying causative factors and dynamics
- match the developmental and cognitive capacity of the client
- utilize evidence based and research supported approaches when possible
- include multidisciplinary groups to enhance public safety when indicated
The following general catergories can be used as a framework for intervention:
- Personal responsibility/accountability to others
- Cognitive behavioral learning
- Consequences (teach cause and effect)
- Criminal justice oversight and supervision
- Improved self-mastery/self-concept
- Therapeutic oversight
- Structured routines
- Repetition/learning and life management
- Therapeutic and psycho-medical oversight
An animal hoarding client may be suffering from substantial mental illness with psychotic features, have memory impairments and experience physical limitations on their ability to care for themselves and any dependent animals. In addition, this individual may have financial difficulties, be socially isolated and lack any significant support system to assist them with activities of daily living, medication management and animal care.
Appropriate treatment interventions might include:
- specialized mental health care performed by a psychiatrist
- community support involving specialized case management services
- restrictions on access to animals
- addressing unresolved issues of trauma
- possible referral to adult protective services to assess issues of self-neglect and capacity to care for self
A domestic violence (DV) offender may present with few overt mental health issues but have a significant history of anti-social behaviors, violence and callousness. This individual may have patterns of difficulty getting along with others and have familial and intimate relationships with histories of threats, coercion and violence.
Appropriate treatment interventions might include:
- compliance with the current treatment requirements listed for all DV offenders as established by the Domestic Violence Management Board
- accounting for the animal abuse as part of this formalized intervention
Best practice encourages use of evidence supported methods with treatment interventions tailored to the identified strengths, needs and issues of individual offenders. The use of “one size fits all” approaches to the treatment of animal cruelty is not recommended.
The AniCare and AniCare Child Models of Treatment for Animal Abuse provide a comprehensive approach to the assessment and intervention of animal cruelty. AniCare uses a cognitive-behavioral approach with direct interventions emphasizing the client’s need to acknowledge accountability for their behavior. It can be used to assess the quality of any individual’s attachment to animals and is an important vehicle for teaching self-management and for fostering empathy. The program uses assessment activities to assist the clinician in determining the likely treatment priorities and making some determinations related to causation. The program also places emphasis on supervision, insight and personal accountability by the animal cruelty perpetrator. The AniCare models indicate several important identifiers including accountability, respect/freedom, reciprocity, accommodation, empathy, attachment and nurturance.
Promising interventions for children and youth:
There is strong evidence to support the increased use of humane education as a violence prevention strategy.
- It may be productive to examine the different models used with childhood firesetters. For example, curiosity firesetters are likely respond to education interventions while pathological firesetters likely require more intensive therapy interventions combined with significant supervision elements.
- Reports indicate correlations between bullying and animal abuse, suggesting that effective bullying prevention/intervention models may also reduce animal abuse.