A Perilous Link: Pet Abuse and Domestic Violence

People who abuse pets are more likely to abuse their partners, and do so with more violence. Domestic violence shelters are looking for ways to accommodate animals to help victims escape their abusers.

Pita and her owner both found refuge at Freedom House Domestic Violence Shelter. Photo by Sheri Young.
Pita and her owner both found refuge at Freedom House Domestic Violence Shelter. Photo by Sheri Young.

Santa Cruz veterinarian Dr. David Shuman witnessed severe cases of animal abuse when, fresh out of vet school, he worked at a veterinary hospital in Oakland. He remembers cases where people set cats on fire or threw dogs as if they were baseballs. He recalls one man who wounded a litter of puppies with a machete. But it wasn’t until later in Shuman’s career that he realized pet abuse could be a red flag for a larger pattern of violence, and that people who harm animals often don’t stop at animals.

He tells the story of a frazzled real estate agent who came into his Santa Cruz clinic, holding a dead Chihuahua with a twisted neck. The agent wanted to dispose of the dog for his client, who had been trying to sell her home so she could leave town in order to escape from her abusive boyfriend. But when she put her house on the market, her boyfriend broke into her home.

“The boyfriend had cut the water lines so the sink would flood out, then he strangled the dog and left it lying on the floor,” says Shuman. “She came in to a flooded house and a dead dog.”

The woman was convinced her boyfriend would terrorize her further if she called the police, so she called her realtor instead. But, seeing the woman was in imminent danger, Shuman called the police himself. Though there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest the abuser—“There was no witness, all we had was a sopping wet dog with a broken neck,” says Shuman—the police referred the woman to a domestic violence victims’ advocacy group, which provided a safety net that allowed the survivor to extract herself from the abusive relationship and start a new life.

The link between animal abuse and domestic violence isn’t something that’s taught in veterinary school, says Shuman. Nor is it often recognized in the many other disciplines it spans, from law enforcement and prosecution to human medicine, animal welfare and child protective services. Yet situations similar to the one Dr. Shuman encountered aren’t uncommon.

Pets as pawns

Like other forms of domestic abuse, pet abuse is an issue of power and control, says Phil Arkow, coordinator of the National Link Coalition, an organization that works to stop violence against both people and animals. “Pets become pawns and the abuser recognizes that the close emotional attachment the rest of the family has for the animals can be used as a weapon against them. Animals are killed or tortured or they simply disappear as a way to send a signal of who’s really in control.

In a 2014 study of men arrested for domestic assault, 41 percent had abused an animal at least once as an adult—compared with only 1.5 percent of men in the general population. A previous study showed that women residing in domestic violence shelters were nearly 11 times more likely to report their partner had hurt or killed a pet than women who had never experienced intimate partner violence.

While domestic violence is associated with a higher likelihood of pet abuse, research shows that the association is even stronger in reverse. In a retrospective study of 860 college students, 30 percent of participants who had experienced family violence as children had also witnessed pet abuse, whereas 60 percent of those who had witnessed animal abuse had also experienced family violence.

There is evidence that pet abuse is an indicator of heightened danger, and possibly a higher fatality rate, in intimate relationships plagued by violence. Studies show that batterers who abuse pets employ a wider range of abuse techniques, more aggressive forms of violence and more control tactics than batterers who don’t abuse pets. Pet abusers are more likely to engage in sexual violence, marital rape, emotional violence and stalking.

Witnessing pet abuse is a form of psychological abuse in its own right, adding an additional layer of trauma to battered women and children, says Arkow. A large body of research shows that children exposed to animal abuse are more likely to abuse animals themselves, and to engage in interpersonal violence as adults—perpetuating the cycle of violence. In addition, both women and children may place themselves at risk in order to protect a family pet.

In a case study highlighted in the journal Intimate Partner Violence, a counselor at a shelter for battered women recounts how she almost ran home crying her first day on the job, when a survivor came to her with photos, apologizing that she had to return to her abuser. The counselor explains, “The pictures were of her ‘loving’ husband cutting her beloved dog’s ears off with a pair of garden shears. He had sent the ears along, too, but her mother thankfully neglected to forward them.” Despite the counselor’s pleas, the woman left the shelter and the counselor never heard from her again.

A dozen independent studies report that between 18 and 48 percent of battered women have either delayed leaving or returned to an abusive relationship in order to protect their pets. These data reflect women who have fled and sought help—there are no studies counting those who’ve stayed in an abusive situation out of concern for their pets’ welfare.

Sheltering survivors and their pets

“We have a lot of people that call and say ‘I’m living in my car because I have no place to take my dog,’” says Danielle Gates, spokeswoman for RedRover, a Sacramento-based organization that works to rescue animals from crisis. “Our biggest thing is that we don’t ever want anyone to have to make that choice between their safety and the safety of their pets.”

Less than five percent of the approximately 2,000 domestic violence shelters in the nation provide on-site pets housing, says Gates. In some communities, domestic violence shelters partner with organizations such as the SPCA so that women can flee an abusive situation and know that their pets are safe. Other communities have pet fostering programs where volunteers care for pets while women live at a shelter.

But in the majority of California communities, pet sheltering options are limited and traditional boarding may cost upwards of $50 per day. In this situation, RedRover offers Safe Escape grants to help domestic violence victims pay pet boarding fees. The organizations ultimate goal is to create more on-site housing for pets in women’s shelters around the nation, says Gates. “We recognize that when someone is going through this extremely traumatic experience, not being able to be with their pet is even more traumatic.”

Through their Safe Housing program, RedRover provides grants to domestic violence shelters to help build on-site pet housing. One of their recent grant recipients was Lake Family Resource Center, which runs Freedom House, the only domestic violence shelter in Lake County. They used the $3,000 grant to build dog crates, kennel runs and cat condos, and, since 2014, have housed over two dozen dogs and cats.

“Prior to this, we received 10 calls in six months where we had to turn people away because we had nowhere to put pets,” says Sheri Young, domestic violence and rape crisis center program manager at the shelter. “That’s a lot of people who stayed and tolerated the abuser.”

The entire property is fenced so survivors can walk their dogs around the yard. Animals are welcome in pet-designated common areas and survivors can sleep with pets in their rooms.

“Having the presence of animals at our shelter makes it seem more warm and like normal life,” says Young. “There is also a natural therapeutic process to petting your dog or having your cat curl up on your lap.”

Monica Morin, one of the shelter’s residents, came to Freedom House with her dog, Pita, shortly after her ex-boyfriend spent the night outside her trailer with a loaded gun. Though she feared for her life, Morin says she would never have come to the shelter if she couldn’t have had Pita with her. “I would have lived under a bridge or in the campground. I wouldn’t leave my dog.”

She adds that having the yellow lab mix by her side has helped her to heal. “I’ve had her since she was five weeks old,” she says. “She’s very smart and protective, and she makes me laugh. My dog is my all.”

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