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Call it a variation on the old pecking order: Dad hits Mom. She slugs their little boy. And when no one's paying attention, the little boy tries to pull the leg off the neighbor's cat.

According to a psychologist who has studied the issue, cruelty to animals is an indication of violence that may bode badly for future behaviors."We're becoming aware that violence toward animals is imbedded in the framework of family and community violence," said Frank Ascione, psychology professor at Utah State University. "In some cases, it's part of the abuse that children see in their homes, like partner abuse. And in some cases children are witnessing their pets being harmed directly or threats made as a way of frightening them or coercing them to maintain silence about their own victimization."

Ascione will discuss his study of animal abuse during a "Companion Animals in Crisis" conference on Saturday at the Sugarhouse Garden Center. He has addressed child cruelty to animals at several child-abuse conferences as well.

The hard part for concerned parents is determining when animal injuries indicate a serious problem, he said.

"It's complicated and depends in part on the age of the person harming animals and the motivation," Ascione said. "A preschooler is just learning to explore aspects of the physical environment - animals are a part of that and the exploration may be clumsy and hurtful. But there's not an intent to harm there. Children need to be taught how to be careful.

"We must separate developmentally naive behavior toward animals from that of an older child who should know better and yet continues to do that to see the animal hurt."

Ascione's studies have indicated several reasons children deliberately hurt animals. Sometimes it's part of an initiation rite into a gang. Children abuse pets to re-enact what was done to them, possibly as a way to make sense of it and get into a position of control. It can indicate a psychological problem.

Often, a children's treatment of animals mirrors how they havebeen treated, Ascione said.

It's less clear whether cruelty to animals escalates into cruelty to other people, he said. Most of the information on this has been gathered from adults reminiscing about their childhoods. Sometimes the information is inaccurate. But up to half of offenders who have been classified as "especially violent" report they abused animals when they were children and in cases of serial sexual homicide, the numbers are even higher.

"It suggests this is a common feature in the background of violent offenders."

Parents who see children abusing animals need to take it seriously. Parents need to discriminate between cases where education will end the abuse and where a child needs counseling. If initial instruction doesn't divert the child from such behavior or if the child begins to engage in animal cruelty in a secretive fashion, parents may need to seek professional help, he said.