Measurement of cruelty in children: the Cruelty to Animals Inventory

Measurement of cruelty in children: the Cruelty to Animals InventoryCruelty to animals has been part of the criteria for conduct disorder (CD) in the last two editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM; American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1987, 1994) and there is evidence that it may be a particularly pernicious symptom. Frick et al.'s (1993) meta-analysis of 60 studies found that cruelty to animals was useful in discriminating between children with severe conduct problems (destructive subtype) and mild conduct problems (nondestructive subtype). Luk, Staiger, Wong, and Mathai (1999) also found that children described as cruel to animals by their parents were more likely to experience severe conduct problems.

Very few prospective studies are available, however, the weight of evidence indicates that cruelty to animals may be stable and prognostic through childhood and adolescence. Tapia (1971) showed that of a small sample of cruel clinic-referred 5- to 15-year-old children, 62% were reported to still display cruelty to animals years later (Rigdon & Tapia, 1977). Adolescent forensic samples show high rates of torturing or hurting animals in the last 12 months (The Utah Division of Youth Corrections, 1992--data presented by Ascione, 1993; Lewis. Shanok, Grant, & Ritvo, 1983; Wochner & Klosinski, 1988). Retrospective research on incarcerated adults (Felthous & Kellert, 1986, 1987; Kellert & Felthous, 1985) has also been consistent in demonstrating links between childhood cruelty to animals and later violence and aggression towards humans (see also Arluke, Levin, Luke, & Ascione, 1999; Ressler, Burgess, & Douglas, 1988; Tingle, Barnard, Robbins, Newman, & Hutchinson, 1986).

One factor limiting progress in this area is the absence of measures that are both theoretically astute and readily usable in clinical and research settings. The single item "cruel to animals" on the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL; Achenbach, 1991) has been used by researchers to estimate the prevalence of cruelty (Achenbach & Edelbrock, 1981; Achenbach, Howell, Quay, & Conners, 1991; Offord, Boyle, & Racine, 1991), and to look at the factor structure of conduct problems in children (e.g., Frick et al., 1993). As no definition of cruelty is provided by the CBCL item, it is difficult to interpret these results. Other researchers have used structured interviews to measure cruelty (e.g., Boat, 1995; Kellert & Felthous, 1985). These are useful in that they allow for the collection of information about multiple aspects of behavior that are held to underlie the cruelty construct. For example, Ascione, Thompson, and Black (1997) developed the Cruelty to Animals (Children and Animals) Assessment Instrument (CAAI) which provides information on types of cruel acts and animals, estimates of frequency and severity of cruelty, motives and social context of the cruelty, and degree of remorse shown. Evaluations of the CAAI are positive, however it is a lengthy interview, greatly limiting its use in clinical settings and research projects in which multiple constructs need to be assessed.

Guymer, Mellor, Luk, and Pearse (2001) produced a parent-report questionnaire version (the CABTA) of Ascione's measure. Psychometric properties of their measure were encouraging, however, the study was limited by the use of small, highly selective samples. Further, their measure was only developed for parents. Given that acts of cruelty would be expected to occur under a level of secrecy, parental reports of children's cruelty may not be reflective of actual levels of cruel behavior. Prevalence rates for child cruelty increase dramatically when based on children's self-reports rather than parental reports on the CBCL (Offord et al., 1991). It would therefore seem helpful to design a questionnaire that could be administered to both parents and children. Finally, the CABTA refers specifically to intentional behavior in one item only, with the possibility that high scores on the CABTA may reflect other nonintentional maladaptive behaviors in children.

Hence, while Guymer et al. (2001) took an important first step in developing a questionnaire measure of childhood cruelty to animals, it is clear that further development is necessary. The aim of the first study was thus to build on the work of Ascione et al. (1997) and Guymer et al. (2001) by developing a valid and reliable questionnaire measure of children's cruelty to animals. The measure was constructed such that it was expected to display strong internal consistency, good test-retest reliability, and some convergence between child and parent reports. As with measurement of other constructs in children (e.g., Mesman & Koot, 2000), child and parent reports were expected to show a low but statistically significant correlation.

The second and third studies used the Cruelty to Animals Inventory with larger sample of children and their parents to further examine reliability and validity, and to examine age and gender trends in the development of cruelty to animals. It was hypothesized that boys would show more cruelty overall owing to observed gender differences in aggressive and nurturing behaviors, and that cruelty would decrease with age in line with decreases in general behavioral dyscontrol up until the adolescent years. The final study aimed to assess whether self- and parent-reports of cruelty are predictive of actual behavior. Cruelty is generally a low-frequency secretive behavior that would be difficult to observe; however, it is likely that a propensity to cruelty may be manifest in common interactions with pets. If cruelty does manifest at a more observable level of interaction, this raises the possibility that interventions can be designed to improve the quality of these and perhaps reduce isolated acts of cruelty in the meantime.


The Children and Animals Inventory (CAI: Appendix A) was developed for this study. It includes parent and child self-report forms based on the Children and Animals Assessment Instrument (CAAI; Ascione et al., 1997), a semistructured interview for children. Nine theory-driven aspects of cruelty are assessed as follows: severity (based on degree of intentional pain and injury caused to an animal), frequency (the number of separate acts of cruelty), duration (period of time over which the cruel acts occurred), recency (the most recent acts), diversity across and within categories (number of animals abused from different categories and the number of animals harmed from any one category), sentience (level of concern for the abused animal), covertness (child's attempts to conceal the behavior), isolation (whether the cruelty occurred alone or with other children/adults), and empathy (the degree of the child's remorse for the cruel acts).

To develop the CAI, scoring criteria for the CAAI were converted to Likert scales. Each item offered a negative response such as "I have never hurt an animal" to allow a total score of 0 for children who reported never having displayed intentional cruelty to animals. In addition to the nine Likert-type items, a free-response question (item 10) asked the reporter to describe an incident or pattern of cruelty. Responses to this item were scored from 0 to 3 according to a specified coding system to obtain a score for severity (see Appendix B for more information on scoring). Total possible scores for the CAI range from 0 (no instances of animal cruelty) to 39 (severe, chronic, and recent cruelty to a range of animals with the child showing no empathy). Two versions of the CAI were developed to create a child report and a parent report of cruelty to animals. Both versions use the same items but the wording is slightly different. For example, "Have you ever hurt an animal on purpose?" is phrased "Do you know of, or have you witnessed your child deliberately treating an animal in a cruel or troubling way?" in the parent version.