Positive Engagement with Pets Buffers the Impact of Intimate Partner Violence on Callous-Unemotional Traits in Children

Jennifer L. Murphy, Elizabeth Van Voorhees, Kelly E. O’Connor, Camie A. Tomlinson, Angela Matijczak, Jennifer W. Applebaum, Frank R. Ascione, James Herbert Williams, Shelby E. McDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Childhood exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) is associated with serious psychological outcomes including increased odds of developing callous-unemotional (CU) traits and behaviors. Recent studies suggest that concomitant exposure to animal cruelty (AC) may increase this risk. However, even under these circumstances, bonds with companion animals may still be a protective factor that buffers the deleterious impact of IPV on child adjustment. This cross-sectional study evaluates whether, and to what extent, the association between exposure to IPV and children’s CU and empathic-prosocial (EP) traits vary as a function of children’s positive engagement with pets and exposure to AC. Participants included 204 children (aged 7–12 years; 57% Latinx) and their maternal caregiver who were recruited from domestic violence agencies in a western US state. We conducted multiple moderation analyses to evaluate each outcome individually (i.e., CU traits, EP traits), adjusting for the effects of child age, gender, and Hispanic ethnicity. Positive engagement with pets significantly moderated the relationship between IPV and CU traits, ∇R = 0.03, F (1, 195) = 7.43, β = –0.17, t(195) = –2.73, p =.007. Specifically, when high levels of positive engagement with pets is present, IPV is negatively associated with CU traits, whereas the reverse was true at low levels of positive engagement with pets. Evidence of moderation by AC was not supported. Our findings suggest that children who form close relationships with their pets in the context of IPV appear to derive important support from these animals; safeguarding the well-being of these animals may be critical to their long-term emotional health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)NP17205-NP17226
JournalJournal of interpersonal violence
Issue number19-20
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • Companion animals
  • callous/unemotional traits
  • children
  • family violence
  • traumatic stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Applied Psychology


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