RSPCA, Social Care and Police Referral Protocol


In December 2020, this chapter was updated.

1. Introduction

There is a need to ensure the inclusion of the RSPCA in the network of agencies dealing with safeguarding matters through effective communication, liaison and partnership working.

There is increasing research and clinical evidence that suggests that there are sometimes inter-relationships or links between abuse of children, Adults at Risk and animals. To date organisations responsible for investigation of abuse and protection of animals have not been in included in the 'child protection network', yet features and characteristics of abuse and abusers of children and animals are closely linked.

The four categories of child abuse are:

  1. Physical Abuse: Includes hitting, shaking, poisoning, burning or drowning;
  2. Emotional Abuse: Persistent ill treatment of a child which affects their emotional development; for example: making a child feel worthless, unloved or inadequate;
  3. Sexual Abuse: Involves forcing or enticing a child to take part in sexual activities;
  4. Neglect: Persistent failure to meet the physical and/or psychological needs of a child; for example failure to provide adequate food, warmth, shelter, clothing, emotional care or medical treatment. It also includes failing to provide adequate supervision at protection from physical danger which includes leaving a child home alone.

Three categories of animal abuse are:

  1. Physical abuse; Includes kicking, punching, throwing, burning, microwaving, drowning, asphyxiation and the administration of drugs or poisons;
  2. Sexual abuse: Any use of an animal for sexual gratification;
  3. Neglect: A failure to provide adequate food, water, shelter, companionship or veterinary attention.

The key findings from research linking child abuse, animal abuse and domestic abuse undertaken in this country are as follows:

  • If a child is cruel to animals this may be an indicator that serious neglect and abuse has been inflicted on the child. While research suggests that abuse of animals by children is quite widespread, in a minority of more extreme cases it appears to be associated with abuse of the child, or subsequent abusive behaviour by the child;
  • Where serious abuse has occurred in a household there may be an increased likelihood that some other form of family violence is also occurring and that any child present in the household may also be at increased risk of abuse;
  • Acts of animal abuse may in some circumstances be used to coerce, control and intimidate women and children to remain in, or be silent about, their abusive situation. The threat or actual abuse of an animal can prevent women leaving situations of domestic abuse;
  • Sustained childhood cruelty to animals has been linked to increased likelihood of violent offending behaviour against people in adulthood;
  • Where an animal has been abused there may in some circumstances be an increased likelihood that the adults and children in the household will have been bitten or attacked by the abused animal;
  • If a child exhibits extreme aggressive or sexualised behaviour towards an animal this may in some instances be associated with later abuse of other children or Adults at Risk unless the behaviour is recognized and treated.

Research suggests that animal abuse can be part of a constellation of family violence, which can include child abuse and domestic abuse. However this does not imply that children who are cruel to animals necessarily go on to be violent to adults and adults who abuse animals are not necessarily also violent to their partners and / or children. Effective investigation and assessment is key to determining whether there are any links between these factors and the possible risks to the safety and welfare of children, adults and animals.

It is essential that arrangements for cooperation and communication between statutory and voluntary organisations are developed and enhanced to ensure identification of risk factors that could have implications for the wellbeing and safety of children, Adults at Risk and animals.

2. Information Sharing

Personal information can be disclosed lawfully if there is serious concern about the safety of a child or animal. As harming children and animals are potentially prosecutable offences, the Children Act 1989, Data Protection Act and Crime and Disorder Act allow the sharing of confidential information without consent.

Appropriate information sharing is crucial in enabling effective risk evaluation and helping compile as full a picture as possible is often achieved through linking fragments of information obtained from a variety of sources.

3. Reporting of Concerns

Deciding whether or not to report concerns about possible abuse of children and animals is often a question of judgment for individual officers. However there are risk factors that can be identified which need to be reported to appropriate agencies with statutory responsibilities for safeguarding children and animals.

There is a need for social workers to incorporate questions and observations about the care and treatment of family pets in assessments of children and families. Agencies involved with children do not routinely include treatment of animals in assessments yet such information could provide useful data about family functioning and / or violence in the household.

4. RSPCA Referrals to Children and Learning Social Care and the Police

The RSPCA will notify Children's Social Care and/or the Police if any of the following are identified or strongly suspected:

  • Child alone in a household and that child is of an age or apparent level of functioning that indicates they should be supervised by a responsible adult;
  • Home conditions appear harmful to health and wellbeing of members of the household;
  • Where there is deliberate harm of animals and children are in the household;
  • Where there is neglect of animals through deprivation of food, water, shelter or veterinary care and children are part of the household;
  • Children deliberately harming animals;
  • Sexual abuse of animals;
  • Where animals have been harmed and it appears violence is the behavioural currency of the household where children are present;
  • Instances where there is repeated abuse of animals and children are in the household.

5. Referrals to RSPCA from Children's Social Care and the Police

  • Children's Social Care and the Police will notify the RSPCA of any concerns relating to abuse and neglect of animals;
  • Where it is known or strongly suspected that there are concerns about the welfare of animals in households subject to investigations, contact needs to be made with the RSPCA to alert them to suspected concerns, enquire if the household is known to the RSPCA, and give notice of actions likely to be taken.

6. Contacts for Referrals and Enquiries

7. National Research

The links between child and animal abuse are well established and there was a common pattern even before it was properly researched. Please see the most recent research: at these links: