Why abusive husbands kick dogs but angry neighbors poison them

Volunteering with animal rescue and shelter organizations in Detroit brought me face to face with many manifestations of animal cruelty: dogs left outside and frozen in their yards; dogs with chain link collars embedded in their necks; cats that had gaping wounds full of maggots as the result of being doused with acid; and dogs used for dog fighting.

I never forgot these sights. They led me, an urban studies researcher, to question the potential causes of animal cruelty and what might be done about it from a public policy standpoint.

To explore this, I examined animal cruelty in the city of Detroit. My research shows that animal cruelty is tightly connected to human relationships, but in complex ways.

That suggests that governments need different policies targeted to specific forms of cruelty and the types of human relationships behind them. Counter to the one-size-fits-all laws and punishments that restrict particular breeds of dogs or prohibit animals in domestic violence shelters, efforts to reduce animal cruelty must be flexible and multi-pronged.

Who abuses animals

Animal welfare in Detroit is exacerbated by several interconnected factors, including economic distress, home vacancy and a high crime rate.

In 2008, bite-related emergency room visits in the Detroit area were almost four times the rates for urban areas nationwide. Estimates of stray and feral dogs in Detroit range from 3,000 to 50,000, putting extreme pressure on animal welfare resources.

I looked at all 302 animal cruelty police reports between 2007 and 2015. Some of the most frequent types of animal cruelty in Detroit were shooting, kicking and blunt force trauma, neglect and dog fighting.

These patterns differ from those in other cities, where neglect – meaning the restriction of movement, lack of food, water and veterinary care – and abandonment are the most common forms of cruelty.

Owners perpetrated one out of five cruelty incidents. Neighbors and domestic or other intimate partners were the next most likely to inflict harm, followed by family members, a person the owner had a conflict with and a stranger.

Owners are significantly more likely to engage in dog fighting as a form of cruelty. There is widespread dog fighting in Detroit, with the majority of residents, even children, likely to have seen or known about a dog fight. Neglect is also significantly more likely to occur at the hands of owners.

Meanwhile, unknown individuals are significantly more likely to shoot an animal. Romantic partners are significantly more likely to kick or hit, family members more likely to stab and neighbors more likely to poison an animal.