A beastly proposal

The idea that vets should spy on their clients to make sure they aren’t sexually abusing their pets is based on a pretty degraded view of humanity.

Fiona McEwen

Topics Science & Tech

A recent editorial in the UK Veterinary Journal has drawn attention to what the author calls the ‘last taboo’: the sexual abuse of animals (1). The editorial refers to a case report in the same issue of the journal, which describes a sexually motivated attack on five calves by a 46-year-old man, which resulted in the animals’ deaths (2). The man had inserted a glass bottle into the vagina of each calf, causing massive internal bleeding; there was also evidence of more widespread injuries, suggesting a particularly brutal attack. At the time the case report was written, the attacker was undergoing psychiatric evaluation to establish whether he could be punished by law.

The authors of the editorial and case report rightly condemn this horrible attack, but then they go on to discuss animal sexual abuse more broadly. The guest editor of the journal, Helen Munro of the Royal School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, asks why there has been such silence on this issue among the veterinary profession. Do we have difficulty accepting the idea? Do we find it distasteful to talk about? Do we even regard it with bemused tolerance? The implication is that sexual abuse of animals is widespread and that vets and members of the animal protection industry are either choosing to ignore it or simply failing to notice it. One reason we might fail to notice it, apparently, is that in some cases there is no physical damage because the animal has been trained – or ‘groomed’ – to accept human sexual contact. However, Munro suggests that we cannot assume that ‘psychological harm’ does not occur in the animals in these cases (3).

Munro makes clear that the purpose of the editorial is to raise awareness about the sexual abuse of animals. And one reason why vets must be more aware of this, she argues, is that there is apparently a link between sexual abuse of animals and abuse of women and children. In reminding vets that they have wider social responsibilities, Munro argues that signs of animal sexual abuse may be ‘the first piece of “intelligence” that comes to light in such circumstances’ (4). Presumably, vets who are suspicious about clients have an obligation to report them to the police or social services in case someone in their household is also abusing children.

But how much do we know about animal sexual abuse and the ‘link’ with child abuse and violence against women? And how useful are these kind of awareness-raising initiatives?

The scale of the ‘problem’

Firstly, is this likely to be a widespread problem? Currently there is no good research to base precise figures on. However, if animals were frequently being presented with injuries due to sexual abuse it is likely that vets would notice. Despite Munro’s contention that vets choose to avoid the issue, many veterinary staff are more prepared than ever to report cases of suspected cruelty to the animal protection authorities. Suspicious or unexplained injuries attract attention. Members of the public are also increasingly likely to contact the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) if they see animals with obvious untreated injuries.

This argument may be circumvented if we assume that animals are ‘groomed’ to accept sexual contact and so avoid physical harm. But why would we assume that there is widespread, but invisible, abuse when there is currently no evidence to lead us to such a conclusion? It takes a particularly mistrustful and perverted view of humanity to view every pet owner as someone who potentially loves the family dog just a bit too much, or every farmer as a potential abuser.

Social responsibility

Those who support the case for raising awareness about animal sexual abuse may argue that the ‘link’ between animal abuse and child abuse and domestic violence makes it too important an issue to ignore – even if we are unsure about the scale of the problem (5). However, despite strongly worded statements from animal protection groups, the ‘evidence’ for a link is currently thin on the ground. In a pamphlet entitled Animal Cruelty: Family Violence, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals argued that ‘there is a “link”’ (6), but conceded that many of the studies cited as evidence for this link are based on small, often unrepresentative samples, do not have control groups, and are not based on UK samples.

Knowing that people who have committed acts of violence against other people, such as serial killers, have also tortured animals cannot lead us to the conclusion that all those who harm animals go on to harm people. After all, it is also the case that most serial killers are male, but the reverse logic – that most males are serial killers – obviously does not follow (7). Without better research it is impossible to know how many of those who are cruel to animals also abuse people.

The fact is that most of us differentiate between the way we treat animals and the way we treat people. As a vet I have euthanased animals because they have developed expensive and complicated diseases that their owners felt unable to cope with. I would not dream of condoning the same treatment of humans. I suspect that the majority of adults in our society make similar distinctions between their treatment of animals and their treatment of people.

Raising awareness about what?

As vets, we could legitimately ask what we are meant to be raising awareness about? About the possibility that significant numbers of people are sexually abusing their pets? And the risk that these (real or imagined) people are also abusing their children? Surely we should conduct research first, establish whether or not this is a problem, and then raise awareness among vets and animal protection groups on the basis of facts.

Some will argue that the risk of animals or children being harmed outweighs the need to wait until we know all the facts and figures. Surely, they will say, it is better to be safe than sorry? This, however, is to ignore the potential negative effects of this kind of awareness-raising initiative.

Encouraging vets to look for unexplained injuries to animals and inconsistencies in owners’ explanations will create suspicion and mistrust and make a good working relationship with clients impossible. We also run the risk of getting it badly wrong. In recent years, panics about child abuse have resulted in children being taken into care and parents wrongly convicted of abuse and murder (8). ‘Awareness’ about ritual satanic abuse, shaken baby syndrome and Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy led to experts ‘seeing’ these problems, even when the evidence was sparse. Munro claims that vets have a social responsibility to look for ‘intelligence’ related to child abuse (9). It would be more responsible not to make unfounded claims about the ‘link’ between animal abuse and child abuse, especially when the consequences of getting it wrong can be so devastating.

It is entirely appropriate to conduct research into the possibility of a link between animal and child abuse, and of the scale of sexual abuse of animals. However, a widespread ‘awareness-raising’ initiative at this stage is only likely to encourage a perverse view of pet owners and create tension between veterinary staff and clients. We should try to avoid turning a trip to the vet’s into a similarly anxious experience as taking an accident-prone child to A&E.

Fiona McEwen is a PhD student at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and a veterinary locum working in private practice and for a veterinary charity. She wrote about animal and human welfare for the spiked/Orange survey ‘Enlightening the Future’ here.

(1) Helen M. C. Munro (2006), Animal sexual abuse: A veterinary taboo, the Veterinary Journal, 172, 195-197

(2) Anton Hvozdík, Andrej Bugarský, Jana Kottferová, Milada Vargová, Ol’ga Ondrašovičová, Miloslav Ondrašovič, Nad’a Sasáková (2006), Ethological, psychological and legal aspects of animal sexual abuse, the Veterinary Journal, 172, 374-376

(3) Helen M. C. Munro (2006), Animal sexual abuse: A veterinary taboo, the Veterinary Journal, 172, 195-197

(4) Helen M. C. Munro (2006), Animal sexual abuse: A veterinary taboo, the Veterinary Journal, 172, 195-197

(5) Animal Cruelty: Family Violence (2001), the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

(6) Animal Cruelty: Family Violence (2001), the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

(7) Ronald Hinch (1998), Researching Serial Murder: Methodological and Definitional Problems, Electronic Journal of Sociology

(8) A full stop to the Satanic panic, Dolan Cummings, spiked

(9) Helen M. C. Munro (2006). Animal sexual abuse: A veterinary taboo? The Veterinary Journal, 172, 195-197

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Topics Science & Tech


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