The Serious Link Between Domestic Violence and Animal Cruelty

Thanks to a new law, fewer victims of domestic violence have to make the heartbreaking choice of escaping their abuser or staying to protect their pet.

Domestic abusers may use family pets to threaten their victims. Photo: Rob MacKay

A while back, a friend contacted me about her daughter’s Siamese, who had suddenly taken ill.

In the course of our conversation, it came out that the young woman was in an abusive relationship in another state.

The cat — the daughter’s “best friend, her therapy, her love” — was responding to his human’s misery. It’s an empathic response and not an unusual one, especially when an animal is strongly attached to his human.

But that attachment put both the young woman and her pet at greater risk.

Her boyfriend now had another way to hurt her.

There is a strong connection between domestic violence and cruelty to animals. People working in both fields have been aware of it for years.

The PAWS Act

The good news: Provisions of the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act were signed into federal law as part of the 2018 farm bill.

The new law “establishes a grant program for entities that provide shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence survivors … with pets,” explains the Animal Welfare Institute.

It “takes the important step of including pets, service and emotional support animals, and horses in federal law pertaining to interstate stalking, protection order violations, and restitution. These provisions provide law enforcement with additional tools for protecting victims from their abusers.”

Furthermore, according to CNN, the law includes a grant program to “support the construction and operating expenses of new or existing pet shelters and housing” as well as “short-term shelter and housing assistance, such as expenses incurred for the temporary shelter, housing, boarding or fostering of the pets of the domestic violence victims.”

Pets Threatened, Harmed or Killed

And the law also builds in a whole lot of legal muscle.

Previously, there were various laws in at least 29 states that included companion animals in protection orders. But, as so often happens when it comes to domestic violence issues, that wasn’t enough.

An estimated 50–85% of abuse survivors report that their pets have been threatened, harmed or killed outright by abusive partners.

Kittens and pet ferrets have been thrown against walls, dogs stabbed and decapitated, and bleach poured on pet fish. Even livestock aren’t exempt. The animals become “props for reinforcing the abuser’s rules,” David Adams writes.

In the late 1990s, Dr. Frank R. Ascione began exploring the subject and realized that the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence went even deeper than most of us realized.

Coincidentally, it was around this time that the Peninsula Humane Society in San Matteo, California, began its Safe Pets Program.

“On an unofficial basis, we’ve been doing it for years,” Lesley Walker, the organization’s director of community outreach, told me in an interview several years ago. “But it only became official in June 1997.”

“At that point,” she said, “we started working with the local domestic violence centers to come up with some questions to ask callers to ascertain whether there is abuse or neglect of animals who are in need of shelter while they themselves are.”

New Law Saves Women in So Many Ways

“Enabling” is usually seen as a dirty word.

But the PAWS Act enables shelters in the best way possible, allowing people in the domestic violence sector to better “help domestic violence survivors find safe places for their pets,” according to the Animal Welfare Institute.

The law saves women in so many ways but especially from having to make a choice they shouldn’t have to make — the “choice between finding safety and staying in a violent situation to protect their pet,” as the bill’s co-sponsor, Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts, puts it.

“This law empowers survivors with resources to leave a dangerous situation while being able to continue to care for their pet,” Clark says.

She adds: “I’m grateful for the partnerships we’ve formed between organizations working to end both domestic violence and animal abuse. Together, we will save lives.”

Collateral Damage

Abusers know only too well what they’re doing when they go after their victims’ pets.

According to PetCoach, there are a few reasons why they do it:

1. Abusers use cruelty toward family pets to get the submission they crave.

This is a brutal reminder that “this can happen to you, too.”

2. The pet becomes a hostage, and the human victim is terrified of what will happen to the pet if they speak out or leave.

“By threatening to abuse an animal, a person can often prevent an abused adult or child from revealing their abuse to others and getting help…. Abusive spouses or children may threaten to kill or harm an elderly person’s pet if they do not sign over assets and property to the abuser.”

3. Abusers don’t like competition.

A cat or dog who provides the victim with a lifeline weakens the abuser’s hold. Sometimes, according to Ascione, the pet may even “be the only source of safe, affectionate contact that a woman has in her environment.”

This is especially true when there are no children. The bond between them is even more intense and leaves the woman even more vulnerable.

A new law helps both domestic violence survivors and their pets get the resources they need. Photo: Jennifer McGinn

Women and Their Pets

“One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime, and domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families,” writes Nathaniel Fields, who rightly calls it a national public health crisis.

Nearly 50% of domestic violence victims “stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind, resulting in further physical and emotional abuse of both the owner and their pet,” he says.

The PAWS Act means “that fewer people would have to make the heartbreaking decision between escaping to safety and staying in an abusive situation to protect their pet.”

Myra Rasnick, executive director of Ahimsa House in Atlanta, has seen all too many women faced with this horrible quandary.

“For so long, victims would be forced to leave without their pets,” she says. “They would live in their cars or, even worse, stay in a violent situation.”

In one heartbreaking example, a desperate woman left her injured puppy in an airport restroom with this 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 had no other option.”

The ex-boyfriend had kicked the puppy in the head, according to the note. The puppy was taken to a local rescue and given the veterinary care he needed.

No Pet Left Behind

A number of animal rescue organizations across the country have “safe pet” programs — but most of these groups operate independently of domestic violence shelters.

Things are moving in the right direction, however.

Community Action Stops Abuse in St. Petersburg, Florida, has opened a kennel on its premises, “joining the small ranks of domestic violence shelters nationwide that accommodate pets,” notes writer Duncan Strauss. “These shelters have emerged out of a growing awareness that pets are often used as pawns by abusers to maintain control over their victims.”

And, following a successful pilot program in New York City, the Urban Resource Institute has built a shelter to accommodate both domestic violence survivors and their pets in Brooklyn. PALS Place is, in the words of People writer Kelli Bender, “the nation’s first pet-friendly domestic violence shelter of its size.”

There are “lots of programs that deal with pets,” Rasnick explains. “Sometimes it’s a domestic violence shelter with animal care on-site. Sometimes it’s a domestic violence shelter working with a humane society. Sometimes there are free-standing programs that might serve a region.”

Ahimsa House is 1 of 2 organizations in the United States that serve an entire state. The organization provides crisis intervention, emergency shelter for animals with its foster network, forensic veterinary examinations, legal advocacy and safety planning.

It has helped relocate survivors and their pets throughout Georgia and “pretty much all over the country,” says Rasnick.

Her advice to people who want to help?

“Make sure you learn about domestic violence. Try to reach out to domestic violence shelters in your community and see if they have a training program…. [Domestic violence] crosses multiple disciplines, and when you put the animal piece in, many times you’re off to earlier intervention for human victims.”

Stories That End Well

Despite the horrible stories, there are good ones.

Rasnick recalls driving a Golden Retriever to a reunion with his caretaker. The woman was crying, as was her 2-year-old son. The dog raced over and began licking the tears off the child’s face.

Speaking of stories that end well, my friend’s daughter and her cat made it safely back home, thanks to her family. It was a given that the faithful Siamese was coming back with his mom.

She didn’t have to make a choice. And, to paraphrase Clark, no woman should ever have to.