You are here: American University School of Public Affairs News Exploring “The Link”

Contact Us

Kerwin Hall on a map

AU School of Public Affairs 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20016 United States

Back to top


Exploring “The Link”

SPA professor uses new data to examine the relationships among animal cruelty, domestic violence, and law enforcement outcomes.

“The link” between animal abuse and interpersonal and domestic violence is well-known, even outside the research or advocacy communities. Despite this long-recognized relationship, incident-specific research is missing. In an exploratory study published in January in the Journal of Family Violence, SPA Professor Lynn Addington and coauthor Mary Lou Randour (Animal Welfare Institute) analyzed 278 animal cruelty incidents that occurred with intimate partner (IPV) or family violence (FV), using newly available data from the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS).

“Our study adds to the wealth of knowledge on the link,” said Addington. “Previous research has established . . . the connection between abusing animals early in life and later engaging in violence against others, including romantic partners. What we don’t know a lot about are specific incidents where animal cruelty occurs with IPV or FV. This information is needed, because we know threats by abusers to harm a pet can be a powerful form of control.”

As a result of the efforts of animal advocates, including Randour and the AWI, the FBI added animal cruelty crimes to its NIBRS data collection in 2016 and released initial statistics from law enforcement agencies a few years later. Addington and Randour used these data to identify IPV and FV cases that involved animal cruelty or another crime.

Their key finding was that more cases of IPV that occurred with animal cruelty ended in an arrest than IPV cases that occurred with any other crime.

“Our study is the first to identify this distinct pattern for arrests in IPV cases,” said Addington.

This uptick in arrests raises new questions whose answers extend beyond the NIBRS data, she continued. “A basic question is ‘Why? Why are there more arrests?’ Are these cases more violent overall and that is what prompts the arrest? Are partners more willing to demand an arrest because their pet has been hurt? Is it some combination of those two or something else?”

In addition to highlighting the value of NIBRS animal cruelty data to insights on “the link,” these findings suggest practical implications. One is training law enforcement officers on local victim services including shelters and housing that take pets.

“Victims often cite fear that harm will come to their pets as a reason for not leaving their abuser,” said Addington. “Recent laws and funding have started to address this issue and more pet-friendly shelter options are becoming available and more accessible.” For example, the AWI operates “Safe Havens,” a national database with a searchable list of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters by zip code.

These findings also support the value of interagency collaboration between first responders. For example, animal control officers, who are important partners for identifying possible IPV or FV situations, can be trained to identify markers of interpersonal violence and report it to law enforcement or domestic advocates.

“People may be more likely to get involved and make a call if they witness animal cruelty or are concerned about a pet, rather than something between a couple,” Addington said. 

Addington, who plans additional work in this area, is currently collaborating with AWI with its Center for the Study of NIBRS Animal Cruelty Data. The Center organizes these datasets and makes them freely accessible to researchers and the public.