The psychological impact of witnessing animal cruelty online

The psychological impact of online animal crueltyJohn McKeen – Getty Images

Many of us would find it hard to live without the animals that are close to us. Our relationship with them is one of joy. But, sadly, not every animal gets to experience happiness, respect, and safety – and often images of their suffering are shared online.

You may find yourself deeply distressed when you come across social media posts about cruelty to animals, even if some of these posts have been shared by animal welfare organisations as they seek to engage their following to support their campaigns. This is done with the positive intention of raising awareness, and is a vital part of fundraising, generating news coverage, and sharing their cause with a wider audience.

Unfortunately, due to the way that algorithms work, if you’re involved with animal welfare – whether that’s by campaigning for endangered species or volunteering at a shelter for abandoned animals – you may feel at times like your social feeds are flooded with distressing images and heart-breaking pleas for help.

At the Oxford Centre of Animal Ethics, more than 100 academics worldwide are working together to change how animals are viewed – and treated – in academia, and society as a whole.

As part of our ongoing work, we have explored the impact of witnessing animal cruelty online – and sadly, amongst the charities and advocates using upsetting images to call for change, there is a faction of society who abuse animals for pleasure. We have found that our response to viewing any type of animal abuse content can be immediate, visceral and lead to an overwhelming sense of trauma.

What makes something traumatic?

The Psychiatric Diagnostic Manual (DSM) describes trauma as exposure to an event that is sustained as physically and/or emotionally harmful, and that has potential lasting adverse effects on our lives. Trauma can occur through experiencing something directly, witnessing something happen to someone close to us, or be the result of repeated exposure to the distressing details of an event or series of events. Many clinicians are beginning to make the case that this criterion in the DSM should include harm to companion and wild animals as well.

Exposure to trauma can take several forms, including through photos and videos. Social media platforms often host more raw depictions of events, accompanied by graphic imagery. While we may be witnessing at a distance via our electronic devices, perhaps from the comfort of our homes, we are nonetheless exposed to traumatic content. It is from this first viewing that we can begin to envision ourselves in these horrendous scenarios, and it begins to impact us both mentally and emotionally.

The complexity of trauma

The impact trauma can have on us is influenced by our own histories of trauma, our ethics and values, and our sense of connectedness to the affected. As we witness an animal’s suffering, perhaps we put ourselves in their situation. Perhaps we feel safe in their company and want to ensure they are safe and protected too. Perhaps we feel most at peace in nature, and believe that peace should extend to them, especially in their natural habitats.

What makes trauma so challenging is that the cognitive processes in our brains that enable us to take action are often not straightforward. Rather, we may experience numerous detrimental psychological effects that can act as blocks in our attempts to help.

The role our emotions play

While we begin to feel meaning and fulfilment again through our reinstated commitment, we may also begin to experience myriad emotions related to the traumatic events we are once again exposed to. It can be helpful to know the terminology psychologists use to explain the two types of emotions you might be feeling:

The first are referred to as natural emotions. These are the feelings universally experienced by humans: sadness, loneliness, isolation, fear, hopelessness, anger, confusion, disbelief, etc. While reflection on the traumatic event will always evoke natural emotions to some extent, they should become more bearable with time.

The second type of emotions we may experience following a traumatic event are known as manufactured emotions. These feelings are derived from our personal interpretation of the event. For example, if we believe that we should have been able to save the animal, or that we didn’t do enough to protect them, then we will most likely feel shame, worthlessness, and other damaging feelings.

Mental health in a digital age

If this digital landscape wasn’t difficult enough to navigate, there is emergent research indicating what is termed a dose-responserelationship in trauma. This means that the more you are exposed to traumatic content, the more at risk you are of being impacted. While some individuals are able to recover and heal from exposure on their own without any treatment interventions, others may experience acute and persistent aspects of mental health conditions such as compassion fatigue, burnout, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


To navigate this challenging digital landscape, it is crucial to balance awareness with the potential negative effects of overexposure. When we’ve been traumatised by exposure to animal cruelty on social media, there are three effective and proactive steps we can take to mitigate our risk of lasting distressing impacts.

Firstly, we need to understand that viewing this type of violent content can immediately affect our thoughts, mood, and behaviour. Particularly, we may find ourselves wanting to react impulsively, whether that’s further engaging or turning away.

A beneficial coping skill we can implement in real-time is to pause for a brief check-in by asking yourself the following questions:

1. Do you have any intense feelings after viewing this content?

2. Do any aspects of this material remind you of previous upsetting events in your life – personally and/or professionally?

3. Are you finding yourself preoccupied by what you saw hours and days after you first viewed it?

4. Are you experiencing any uncomfortable physical symptoms in response to what you saw, such as tension, pain, restlessness or irritability?

This exercise can help you develop a deeper awareness of your personal response to traumatic imagery.

Secondly, if you responded yes to any of these questions, give yourself time and space to process—and then release—what you witnessed. There are several healthy ways to do this: talking to a trusted loved one or colleague; journaling; spending time in nature; exercise. These can be especially helpful.

Thirdly, establish a strategy for putting boundaries on your involvement with graphic campaigns or programming, while finding a balance with those that inspire and motivate you.

Using these three steps together you can sustain your commitment to animals and their welfare while keeping yourself grounded.

More helpful mental health content…

You Might Also Like

You may also like...