Mental health
'It's not about it being a lizard or dog or cat. It could be a person next.'
Image for representation

How often have we seen children taunting and pestering animals while the adults around them simply look the other way? How often do even egregious acts of cruelty to animals get treated with the seriousness and significance they deserve?

Often cruelty to animals is dismissed as a question of insufficient compassion towards other living creatures. But the problem goes deeper as, over time, various studies have shown that cruelty to animals can be a sign of mental illness and often be followed by more abusive behavior.

“When people are cruel to animals, it means they feel no empathy,” says Dr Jayanthini, a psychiatrist from Chennai. “Usually when we get a case of a child who displays aggressive behaviour, we try to ascertain whether he or she has been cruel to animals also, apart from other people. If he or she hasn’t, there is some semblance of empathy there,” she says.

The American Psychiatric Association classifies animal cruelty as one of the indicators of conduct disorder – “a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior in which the basic rights of others or major age-appropriate societal norms or rules are violated." Simply put, conduct disorder refers to the persistence of behaviours like stealing, lying or aggressive or destructive behaviour.

“Cruelty towards animals is a manifestation of two things – the desire to have control over weaker and smaller creatures and the tendency to derive sadistic pleasure out of it,” says Dr Thara, Director of Schizophrenia Research Foundation in Chennai.  

However, in most milieus in India, not only is the link between cruelty towards animals and mental illness ignored, but often such cruelty is normalised. But the difference between Indian milieus and those in other countries is not necessarily a vast gulf.

“Across religions and cultures, it is okay to sacrifice animals, and not just for food. We grow up with these images so our culture provides sanction to this,” says Dr C Kumar Babu, former Head of Department of Psychiatry at Stanley Medical College, Chennai.

“Acts like attaching a string to a chameleon’s tail and throwing pebbles at strays is considered very normal, childish behaviour. But if you replace the animal with another person, it will create a hue and cry,” he explains, adding that animal life is never considered at par with a human’s.

While liking to inflict pain on another living creature is never acceptable, in such a scenario, not every person who throws a stone at an animal is necessarily mentally ill. “It is when a child or a person has a morbid fascination with picking out small animals to cause them pain and suffering, that it’s a sign of an underlying mental disorder,” observes Dr Babu.

Outside India, many studies have made these connections. A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, found that animal cruelty was associated with antisocial personality disorder and polysubstance abuse. The website of the Humane Society International, USA cites a 2001-04 study by the Chicago Police Department which revealed that of the 65% of those arrested in animal abuse cases were also charged for battery against another person.

Studies have also found that child abusers and domestic abusers also tend to abuse animals and pets, indicating that “animal abuse may be a potential indicator of other family problems”. Even so, there is a lack of Indian studies in this area.

“Our priorities as a society are very different,” says Dr Thara. “It would be ideal if teachers and parents could speak to children about this at an early age and notice signs. But frankly, I don’t see it happening,” she adds, explaining that people will always say we have bigger problems like women’s security and drug abuse to tackle.

“But then it’s not really about it being a lizard or dog or cat,” says Dr Thara, “But it could be a person next.”

But because cruelty to animals is often normalised in India, people hardly see animal abuse as a symptom of mental illness. “Most of the times, people come to us when the violence of the patient has escalated and become unbearable. It doesn’t even cross their mind that cruelty to animals could have been a possible hint,” says Dr Babu.

In countries like the US, demands for having a national registry for animal abusers are gaining ground. In India, a similar prospect, while ideal, seems like a faraway, impracticable to experts.