Childhood cruelty to Animals

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

Q: I am nineteen years old and I have had social phobia and depression off and on since I was a young child. I grew up in a loving and non-violent family and I generally do not consider myself to be a violent person. We had some pets when I was growing up, a rabbit we had when I was seven, a cat when I was ten and another when I was twelve, and several fish in between.

For the first few weeks after we would get a pet everything would be normal. I would love the animal to pieces and constantly spoil them. However, after we had the animal for awhile, I would begin to get the urge to hurt it. More often than not I would act on the urge and do horribly cruel things to the animal that would sometimes put their life in danger. Sometimes I would hurt them when I was angry, but more often it would be when I was not in a bad mood. This sounds terrible but hurting them felt good. This would go on for several weeks then suddenly stop.

After the cat we had when I was twelve, I avoided going near animals for any extended amount of time. I haven’t hurt any animals since then but I also haven’t been around any animals long enough to want to hurt them. My cats are now my best friends and I would like to have pets in the future, but I am afraid that I will still want to hurt them. I am also afraid that if I have a child I would feel the same way towards them. I would like to think that I am now strong enough to resist these urges but that has not been the case in the past. I have done so much damage to my pets as a child that I cannot risk having pets or children until I know that I won’t hurt them but I am afraid to tell anyone about this and get help because what I did was so sick. Is there a possibility these were just feelings that I had as a child and that they have now gone away? Or will I always want to hurt animals?

Thanks for your time

A: Without knowing a whole lot more about you, I can’t make a diagnosis. However, I can tell you that cruelty to animals is one of the symptoms of Conduct Disorder. The central problem in children with Conduct Disorder is that they have little empathy for the feelings and well-being of others.

Most kids with this diagnosis outgrow it because as they mature, they develop more empathy. Some people, however, do develop an Antisocial Personality Disorder as adults.

It certainly wouldn’t hurt for you to do a little therapy around this issue. If you find out that the impulse to harm left you as you matured, you will have peace of mind. If you still have some of those impulses, therapy can help you harness them.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 25 Aug 2008

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2008). Childhood cruelty to Animals. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/08/25/childhood-cruelty-to-animals/