An inclination and willingness to abuse animals may suggest a person is more likely to be violent toward humans as well.
Recent research by Frank Ascione, a psychology professor at Utah State University, and others in the field indicates the two behaviors are closely tied.
Ascione, who spoke Tuesday during the American Veterinary Medical Association's annual conference at the Salt Palace, believes society must regard animal abuse as an indicator that an individual is capable of extremely violent behaviors.
If incidents of animal abuse are considered warning signs, society may be able to identify and treat individuals before they explode into violence as Luke Woodham did, Ascione suggested.
Woodham is serving three life sentences for stabbing his mother to death, then taking a gun to school and killing two teenagers and wounding seven other students in October 1997.
Ascione said in April of that year that 16-year-old Woodham, of Pearl, Miss., tortured, killed and burned his own dog in full view of other children and at least one neighbor. The neighbor did not report the incident, he said.
"What if someone had taken the time to call somebody in on the animal abuse prior to the October killings?" Ascione asked.
Ascione gave other examples, some of them graphic, of people who have abused animals and later resorted to violence against people.
Case studies of women in shelters for battered women show many of the men who abused them and their children also abused or even killed family pets or other animals.
A study Ascione and an associate conducted in Massachusetts revealed men convicted of some type of animal abuse were three to six times more likely to be arrested later for violent crimes against people.
In a study of victims of physical abuse, 54 percent of battered women reported their batterer had also hurt or killed a pet. Sixty-two percent of the women said their children had witnessed the animal abuse.
"For many of these children, the animal abuse has been extremely frightening," Ascione said.
Ascione said organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization have been slow to recognize animal abuse as a form of violence, although both now have. Animal abuse was previously viewed simply as destruction of property.
"You smash a windshield, the windshield doesn't cry out in pain," Ascione said of the inappropriateness of the earlier definition. "When you graffiti a wall, the wall doesn't cry out."
Ascione gave several examples from Utah, including the 13-year-old boy who beat two birds to death at the Tracy Aviary, then showed up in the news years later as an adult rape suspect.
Just last week, children in Salt Lake County discovered a cat that had been tortured and tied to a tree.
Ascione's research discovered that about a quarter of the women in shelters delayed leaving their homes because they were afraid of what the battering husband or boyfriend would do to their pets. Many batterers have killed or injured pets as a way to inflict pain upon those in their household, Ascione said.
What does it all mean for the veterinary medical community?
Ascione said shelters for women and their families, law enforcement, animal shelters and the psychiatric community must work together to identify and treat both the abusers and those who have been abused.
That includes the family pets, which themselves are often strongly affected by domestic violence, even when it does not directly involve them, Ascione said.
Ascione recently authored "Safe Havens for Pets — Guidelines for Programs Sheltering Pets for Women Who Are Battered."