Pets and Domestic Violence: What You Need to Know

The trauma of domestic abuse can deeply affect both humans and pets.

Pets and Domestic Violence
Many shelters for people who are escaping domestic violence do not allow pets, for health and safety reasons.

Years ago, when I adopted my German Shepherd, Gypsy, I was told she’d had an aggressive episode: She had attacked the man in the previous family she’d lived with.

When I asked why, I was told, “He was abusing the children — and she defended them.”

Although slightly apprehensive, I adopted the then-4-year-old Gypsy. And I had her in my life for another 10 beautiful years before she died. Never once did she display any aggression toward either me or my son.

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Pets suffer in a number of ways in an abusive household:

  • Their basic needs can be forgotten, overlooked or neglected during violent cycles of abuse.
  • Often, a beloved pet is used as leverage or as a weapon by an abuser to force compliance from the person being abused.
  • Pets can even become targets of violence themselves.

Pets and Domestic Violence

Abusers stop at nothing to control their victims, and in a victim’s pet, they often find all the leverage they need.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), “Multiple studies have found that from 49% to 71% of battered women reported that their pets had been threatened, harmed and or killed by their partners.”

Naturally, this type of control assures the abuser that their victim will stay right where they want them — and often, they do. “Across various surveys, between 18% and 48% of battered women delay leaving a dangerous situation out of concern for their pets’ safety,” warns the AWI.

Pets become no more than weapons and are often harmed themselves in a domestic violence situation. Some have tragically even been killed by an abuser.

pets and domestic violence
People escaping domestic abuse sometimes have to choose between their own safety and that of their pets. Photo: John Liu

Pets Left Behind

In the chaos of a domestic violence situation, a pet can be overlooked or left behind.

Some victims have no choice but to grab what they can carry and run while their abuser is out of the house. Others are forced to go to a shelter where they often cannot bring their pet.

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This forces the victim to have to choose between their own welfare — and that of their children, if they have any — and the welfare of a beloved pet. Such a choice can be traumatizing in its own right.

Many shelters do not allow pets for health and safety reasons. However, this trend is changing as more and more studies show that victims are less likely to leave an abusive situation when they have a pet they can’t bring with them.

In February 2017, Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark reintroduced the Pet and Women Safety Act (PAWS), a bill designed to help protect abused women and pets and offer them a way out of an abusive situation.

“We want to be able to reduce all the barriers and keep both the victims and their beloved pets as safe as we can. We think this legislation goes a long way to doing that,” Clark told Masslive.com.

The PAWS Act is designed to help programs provide housing and shelter assistance for pets of victims. It includes pets in federal law pertaining to interstate stalking, protection order violations and restitution, and it urges states to allow pets to be included under protection orders.

UPDATE: In December 2018, parts of the PAWS Act were passed and signed into law. Learn more here. Also, the Domestic Violence Hotline has a map on its website where you can view pet-friendly shelters in your area.

Pets and Domestic Violence
Pets who have experienced past abuse can sometimes be difficult to rehome. Photo: Uschi_Du

Pets and Domestic Violence: Long-Term Effects

Sometimes, pets coming from a domestic violence situation need to be rehomed, and it can be a challenge for a pet to overcome past abuse. Some pets have been brutally attacked by abusers.

In July 2017, a security guard discovered a 3-month-old puppy in the bathroom at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. The puppy was accompanied by a heartbreaking note:

“Hi! I’m Chewy! My owner was in an abusive relationship and couldn’t afford me to get on the flight. She didn’t want to leave me with all her heart but she has NO other option. My ex-boyfriend kicked my dog when we were fighting, and he has a big knot on his head. He probably needs a vet. I love Chewy sooo much — please love and take care of him.”

Thankfully, Chewy was taken to a rescue, where he made a full recovery. Other pets are not so lucky and may suffer lifelong impairments from the abuse they’ve received.

  • A traumatized pet may have anxiety and aggressive tendencies, making them difficult to place.
  • Often, there will be restrictions in place, such as “no other dogs” or “afraid of men.”
  • The tragedy is when an abused animal cannot be rehomed and must be euthanized.
When it comes to pets and domestic violence, there is no shame in needing or asking for help.

Reaching Out

Please reach out if you are experiencing domestic abuse or if you have a friend who is in an abusive situation at home.

Talk with a friend, a family member or an organization designed to help you escape the situation.

If you have a pet you fear for, there are options:

  • Look for a pet-friendly shelter or a shelter that has separate accommodations for a pet.
  • Reach out to people you trust and ask if someone can temporarily foster your pet.
  • Speak with local animal shelters and animal control officers — they may know someone who can shelter your pet.

As a pet lover and a former victim of domestic violence myself, I understand your struggle. Take heart — there is a way out, and many people are standing by to help you and your pets.

What to read next:

Sheltering Families and Pets From Abuse

An exclusive look inside the program that is helping people escape domestic violence, knowing that their pets are safe, too. See the article

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