Psychological Factors Underpinning Child-Animal Relationships and Preventing Animal Cruelty

Roxanne D. Hawkins

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Despite a growing increase in popularity of human-animal interaction research, there remains a lack of understanding of the reasons why children are cruel to animals and whether early intervention is effective in preventing cruelty and neglect. The aims of this thesis were to deepen our understanding of the psychology of child-animal interactions, and to test whether targeted educational interventions improve the mechanisms which underlie these interactions. A review of the literature found that current research is heavily biased towards the positive impact of animals, identifying a need for more research into the complex web of psychological factors that impact these relationships. The systematic review included in this thesis provides the first narrative meta-synthesis of empirical research on the psychological risk factors for childhood animal cruelty and highlights a decrease in publications over more recent years, as well as a lack of high quality research. Studies have largely overlooked the fact that most cruelty in childhood is unmotivated and accidental and so further research is essential to understand how to prevent different types of childhood animal cruelty. Three studies investigated the fundamental mechanisms that underlie child-animal interactions, focusing on attachment to pets, beliefs about animal minds, and attitudes towards animal cruelty. These studies highlighted the importance of teaching children about animal sentience through education, and that educational interventions should focus on preventing unmotivated cruelty and neglect in the general population. Animal welfare education aims to promote positive relationships between children and animals, thus preventing cruelty. However, few scientific evaluations of these programs exist. This thesis evaluates a cruelty prevention education programme, 'Prevention through Education', developed by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Knowledge, attachment to pets, attitudes towards animals, attitudes towards animal cruelty, compassion towards animals, reported humane behaviour, and beliefs about animal minds were assessed at pre-test, post-test, and delayed post-test using a self-report questionnaire, comparing test schools to control schools. The questionnaire was administered to 1,217 Scottish children aged 6 to 13 years. The results found that cognitive factors were influenced by the intervention, but affective factors were more resistant to change. A novel cruelty prevention iPad game that was theoretically driven and evidence based, was designed, developed and evaluated. The evaluation involved a pre-test, post-test, test-control design using a self-report questionnaire with 184 primary-school children in Scotland, UK. The results indicated a positive impact of the game on increasing knowledge about animal welfare needs and appropriate and safe behaviour towards pets, increasing children's beliefs about pet minds, and decreasing acceptance of cruelty to pets. The intervention had no impact on compassion. This study demonstrates the potential of developing interactive iPad games to promote cognitive dimensions of positive child-animal interactions. This thesis highlights the importance of evidence-based animal welfare education for early prevention of animal cruelty, and the potential of computer game-based learning to promote positive child-animal interactions. This thesis further addresses major gaps in psychological research and deepens our understanding of how to prevent animal cruelty and neglect. The findings have implications for practice and policy and will impact upon the educational strategies of organisations wishing to develop early prevention strategies.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
  • Williams, Joanne M., Supervisor, External person
  • Weiss, Alexander, Supervisor, External person
Award date30 Nov 2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • psychology
  • animal welfare
  • childhood
  • animal cruelty
  • education
  • human-animal
  • technology
  • anthrozoology


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