A mental disorder called Munchausen syndrome causes people to deliberately cause physical illness to other people as a way of getting sympathy and attention. A group of British researchers published a letter in Archives of Disease in Childhood
(2002;87:263) that indicates that people with this disorder sometimes also claim their pets are ill, or purposefully hurt their pets, so that they can get attention.
The researchers refer to this activity as Munchausen syndrome by proxy.
The research indicates that 2% of non-accidental injuries of a pet may occur as a result of the owner deliberately causing the injury.
Investigators approached 1,000 veterinarians, who reported 448 cases of non-accidental injuries in animals, six of which the submitting veterinarians believed were instances of Munchausen by proxy.
Led by H.S. Tucker of the Royal United Hospital in Bath, UK, the researchers noted that three other cases may have also resulted from owners deliberately hurting their pets. Some commonalities were found in the suspicious cases, such as how owners would rapidly change veterinarians or request frequent appointments. In one case, an owner was supposed to have requested four appointments one the same day.
The article describes one man who took his dog to the veterinarian and said that the dog had been poisoned by a neighbor. The man was later convicted of attempting to poison his own child, and the man was found to have tried to poison two pets.
To help identify cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, the researchers recommend communication between the social agencies that work with child and animal abuse.