Home > Animal Welfare Issues, Pet News > Is someone who kills animals likely to become a serial killer?

Is someone who kills animals likely to become a serial killer?

10917130_1514307598832911_7542187844083024648_nDoes killing an animal mean someone will become a serial killer?

This is the question I have been asking myself for a few days now, ever since I first read the article in The Princeton Union-Eagle (Warning: It is not for the faint of heart) detailing the beating, torture and killing of a dog named Draco by a man named Anthony (Tony) Sather.

I have always assumed that someone who kills or mutilates animals is a serial killer in the making. They have been linked in my mind for as long as I can remember. Killing animals = serial killer. But is it really the case?

Ever since the Justice for Draco Facebook group was created and the petition shared, I have seen comment after comment saying pretty much the same thing:

  • Someone who commits an act like this is a serial killer in the making and they will progress to killing a human being down the road.
  • A person who does this is not normal and never will be.
  • There is just something wrong in the brain of someone who kills animals and they will always want to kill.
  • He will do this again and next time it might be a child.

But is it true? Or, are we just assuming it is because of something we saw on T.V.?

I had to find out if what I thought I knew was accurate. So, I decided to do a little digging.

The first piece I found was about children and animal cruelty (written by Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, in Psychology Today).  It turns out that cruelty against an animal can be caused by more than just a bad person or someone who is evil. In fact, according to Dr. Johnston, there is a common thread between children who abuse animals and those who have “witnessed or experienced abuse themselves.” Children who experience or witness abuse are more likely to reenact that violence on animal or pet either as post-traumatic play or in imitation of something they witnessed or experienced.

Dr Johnston shared 13 possible motives for child or teen violence against animals, including post-traumatic play and imitation, but also curiosity. She also wrote:

Every act of violence committed against an animal is not a sign that a person is going to turn out to be a homicidal maniac. Particularly with young children, whose natural exuberance and curiosity can lead to some unpleasant experiences for their pets, it is fine to shrug off an occasional lapse in judgment while continuing to educate the child about humane animal treatment.

However, locking a pet inside a closed space, violently lashing out at a pet after getting in trouble with a parent, or taking pleasure in watching an animal in pain are all “red flags” that signal the need for professional intervention. This is particularly true when the child has the cognitive maturity to understand that what s/he is doing is wrong – and repeatedly does it anyway. “Children Who are Cruel to Animals: When to Worry”, Psychology Today, Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D,

So, not every child who abuses an animal is necessarily a serial killer in the making. That is reassuring.

So, what about adults who were cruel to animals in childhood and continued on into adolescence, as it has been alleged in Anthony Sather’s case? Are they serial killers in the making? In another piece from Psychology Today, “Do Mass Killers Start Out by Harming Pets?,”, Dr Gail F. Melson (Ph.D.) shares some concerning information.

Like Dr. Johnston mentioned in the above referenced piece, Dr Melson acknowledges that children who experience abuse are more likely to abuse animals, but she also shares some additional data:

“In an assessment of 1433 children ages 6 to 12, Ascione found that among abused children, 60% had abused animals.” “Do Mass Killers Start Out by Harming Pets?,”, Psychology Today, Gail F. Melson (Ph.D.)

She goes further and writes that animal abuse is usually the first tell-tale sign of trouble in “adolescent and adult killers.” Even more disturbing, evaluations conducted at state penitentiaries show that “70% of the most violent prisoners had serious and repeated animal abuse in their childhood histories.”  In other words, our most violent criminals started first with animals.

However, Dr. Melson also cautions us against assuming a single act is a predictor of someone who will kill in the future and to instead consider a “red flag” that should be examined further. Then there was this piece in Psychology today, which completely contradicted what I had read (and assumed) about animal cruelty and serial killers. According to Hal Herzog, Ph.D., our assumptions about animal cruelty and serial killers are incorrect

“… contrary to popular opinion, most serial killers and school shooters do not have documented history of animal abuse.”  “Animal Cruelty and the Sadism of Everyday Life”, Psychology Today, Hal Herzog, Ph.D.

So, being a psychopath (which is often associated with serial killers) does not necessarily indicate prior animal abuse or acts of animal cruelty, but according to a study mentioned by Dr. Herzog, something else does, sadism.


noun \ˈsā-ˌdi-zəm, ˈsa-\

: enjoyment that someone gets from being violent or cruel or from causing pain; especially : sexual enjoyment from hurting or punishing someone

Sadists gain enjoyment from causing pain, but they are not necessarily always a serial killer or vice versa.

So where does this leave us?  Does this mean serial killers are out? Does this mean killing an animal does not create a serial killer? Or, that someone who commits a cruel act against an animal is unlikely to do it again? Not necessarily, as discussed in “What Makes Serial Killers Tick?”, there are a variety of factors at play, including: early development experiences, genetics, and a combination of other personality traits like anti-social behavior. Not every serial killer started with animals and not every sadist ends up becoming a serial killer.

However, one thing seems to be certain, someone who has killed and tortured animals as a child, and continues to do so into adulthood, will continue to do so until he/she is stopped. Whether or not that person goes on to kill people is uncertain, and dependent on a wide variety of factors.

However, sadistic serial killers do exist, so the possibility exists that someone who kills animals could become a serial killer is there. Whether or not that person will be one can only be determined by those who have an expertise in psychological personality disorders.

  1. greyzoned/angelsbark
    January 12, 2015 at 7:51 AM

    Great article! Very compelling! As one who likes to write serial killer fiction, I’ve done a fair share of research on them. One thing that was consistently referenced was the “serial killer triad” aka the “homicidal triad”. In most cases of serial killing, the killers had three things in common: a history of fire starting, a history of bed wetting (long past early childhood) and a history of animal cruelty or torture.

    You might find this piece interesting:

    “The homicidal triad and the Macdonald triad are essentially the same. They both highlight three major personality traits in children that are said to be warning signs for the tendency to become a serial killer. They were first described by J. M. Macdonald in his article “The Threat to Kill” in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

    Beginning from childhood, there are three main signs that denote a killer. Those signs are known as the homicidal triad usually referred to by Criminologists. They are firestarting, bedwetting (after age 15), and cruelty to animals and other children (Douglas and Olshaker, 2000). Firestarting is when a child or adult sets fires simply to watch something burn (pyromania). Pyromania can also be labeled as pyrophillia, because pyromaniacs receive sexual satisfaction from setting and watching fires. Bedwetting after age 15 is another sign of homicidal tendencies. It’s common that burglars will urinate or defecate in houses which they are burglarizing. Killers have been known to urinate or defecate on bodies. This can be accompanied by urophillia (sexual arousal through urine) and urination or defecation in inappropriate places. Cruelty to animals or other children is a sure sign of homicidal tendencies. These behaviors are a warning for possible future actions. Often, animal cruelty reflects future homicidal behavior, the way they kill and torture animals will reflect how they eventually kill and torture people.

    Recently this Triad, developed in 1963, has been called into question by other researchers. They note that many children and teenagers set fires or harm animals for many reasons (boredom, imitation of adult punishment of household pets, exploration of a “tough guy” identity, or even feelings of frustration). It is thus difficult to know whether these variables are in fact relevant to serial murder etiology and, if so, how precisely they matter (Macdonald, 1963).

    One of the homicidal triad signs is discussed in “Cruelty to Animals and Violence to People”. Existing research mentions that there are links between animal and human violence. Children who are cruel to animals are at a higher risk of committing domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse (Petersen & Farrington, 2007). The importance of cruelty to animals compared with other childhood risk factors for adult violence is unclear. Case histories of mass murders and serial killers suggest that many of them were cruel to animals in their childhoods. Studies imply that children who are cruel to animals disproportionally tend to be violent to people later in life (Petersen & Farrington, 2007).

    All three of the signs in the homicidal triad are mentioned in “What Makes Serial Killers Tick”? These secret compulsions are seen as the seeds to greater mayhem. “Violent acts are reinforced, since the murderers either are able to express rage without experiencing negative consequences or are impervious to any prohibitions against these actions (Scott, 2008). Second, impulsive and erratic behavior discourages friendships,” increasing isolation.” “Furthermore, there is no challenge to the offenders’ beliefs that they are entitled to act the way they do.” (Ressler, et al, Sexual Homicide) “All learning, according to Ressler, has a “feedback system.” Torturing animals and setting fires will eventually escalate to crimes against fellow human beings, if the pattern is not somehow broken (Scott, 2008).

    Formative years may play a role in the molding of a serial killer, but they cannot be the sole reason in every case (Scott, 2008). Many killers put the blame on their families for their behavior, seeking sympathy. In true psychopathic fashion, serial killers are blaming someone else for their actions other then themselves who are really to blame. If their bad childhood is the primary reason for their homicidal tendencies, then why don’t their siblings also become serial killers if in fact they do have siblings (Scott, 2008)? We must look at other components to see what controls a serial killer to murder or harm others.”

    Whether those that abuse or torture animals will eventually become serial killers can be debated, one thing cannot: those who abuse and torture animals are lacking in one very important human characteristic: compassion. And anyone who lacks compassion isn’t welcome in my circle!

    Thanks for a very interesting and thought-provoking article!

    • Mel
      January 12, 2015 at 8:37 AM

      Thanks so much for sharing this additional information Michele! I actually did read about the homicidal triad or the Dark Triad as it was referenced in the Herzog piece. I did not include it merely because it was a lot of information to add into a blog post, but you do bring up some great points about killers and animal cruelty. Either way, I think we both agree that continued animal cruelty is a sign of someone who is violent and disturbed and it is likely they will continue this behavior if not treated or incarcerated. Thank you so much for sharing your vast knowledge! I so appreciate it!

  2. January 12, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    Great article, and I have always heard that connection too. Violent tendencies are bad no matter where they lead, but against an innocent animal is deplorable.

    • Mel
      January 12, 2015 at 8:31 AM

      Well-said Mary. I completely agree.

  3. January 12, 2015 at 9:05 AM

    that’s a well written and very good researched post. many thanks!

    • Mel
      January 12, 2015 at 9:13 AM

      Thanks Easy. I appreciate your kind words.

  4. January 12, 2015 at 10:49 AM

    Nicely researched. It’s always more credible when you include both sides of the findings.

    While many psychopaths may have abused animals, not all do. Hitler, for one, was very fond of his dogs. A love for animals, sadly, is not always a sign of a benign nature, either. 😦

  5. jan
    January 12, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Hitler is an example of a psychopath who thinks animals are superior to humans so he felt no compassion toward humans who were evil.

  6. January 12, 2015 at 7:28 PM

    I imagine, like with everything else, such things are likely to escalate.

  7. September 2, 2017 at 2:08 AM

    They will kill in the future because they do not regard animal life. Plain & simple.
    I just listened to the confession of a man who drowned a cat as a child, hung it on a clothesline & thought it was funny.
    He was going to be a priest but instead became a school teacher.
    What he did in his adult life actually terrifies me.
    I am beginning to find out .

  8. Riley
    February 23, 2018 at 12:08 PM

    To ask this, indicates a misunderstanding of what a serial murderer is. No matter human or animal, if you intentionally murder, you have entered that realm. The fact that man humans do not consider (pet/animal) it so, indicates their misunderstanding of what murder is and a lack of respect for life.

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