The potentially deleterious effects of children's exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) have been well documented and include both externalizing and internalizing problems as well as compromised socioemotional functioning. Recent research suggests that concomitant exposure to animal abuse may occur in families with pets and who have experienced IPV. To our knowledge, no study has compared the mental health correlates of a) exposure to IPV coupled with exposure to animal abuse with b) exposure to IPV absent exposure to animal abuse. We hypothesize, based on social learning, attachment, and empathy development theories, that concomitant exposure to animal abuse may provide children an additional model of antisocial behavior, increase their emotional distress if the animal abuse to which they have been exposed involves pets to which children are emotionally attached, and may affect personal distress and empathy. Using a prospective design, we will assess levels of IPV and the presence or absence of threatened or actual harm of pets and relate these variables to children's behavior problems, including their perpetration of animal abuse. We will use state-of-the- art assessment instruments, a number of which have yet to be used in clinical samples of children. We will also include exploratory analyses of the relation between children's perpetration of animal abuse and their levels of empathy, callous and unemotional traits, and attachment to pet animals. Greater focus on exposure to IPV and animal abuse may enhance our understanding of the processes implicated in the effects of exposure to violence generally and illustrate how addressing human-animal relationships in childhood could inform therapeutic interventions.
Our study will provide a better understanding of potential mental health problems in children (7- to 12-year- olds) associated with living in a home with intimate partner violence as well as abuse of pet animals. Children's attachments to their pets may be an important buffer in circumstances of family distress. When their pets are threatened or harmed, children's coping ability may be compromised.