The Serious Link Between Domestic Violence and Animal Cruelty

The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act of 2015 aspires to help victims of domestic abuse and their pets.

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

Recently, 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. There is a very strong connection between domestic violence and cruelty to animals. Writer Regina Lizik called it “the secret link” in a 2015 article. But people working in both fields have been acutely aware of it for years.


Collateral Damage

Abusers know only too well what they’re doing when they go after their victims’ pets. There are, according to Pet Education, a few reasons for why they do it:

  • Abusers use cruelty toward family pets to get the submission they crave — as a brutal reminder that “this can happen to you, too.”
  • 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.”
  • Abusers don’t take kindly to competition. A cat or dog who provides the victim with a lifeline weakens the abuser’s hold.
The PAWS Act of 2015 helps both people and pets find resources they need. By: Jennifer McGinn

Women and Their Pets

“One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime,” writes Nathaniel Fields, “and domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. Additionally, intimate partner violence costs the U.S. economy $8.3 billion per year through a combination of medical costs and lost productivity, according to the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence…truly a national public health crisis.”

Enter the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act of 2015. “As many as 48% 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,” says Fields. “The funding, services, and protections provided by the PAWS Act would mean 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, the executive director of Ahimsa House in Atlanta, Georgia, 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.”

One desperate woman left her injured chihuahua puppy in a Las Vegas 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, the note continued, kicked the puppy in the head. Chewy was brought to a local rescue and given the veterinary care he needed.

Watch this piece on the PAWS Act of 2015:


No Pet Left Behind

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 U.S. that serves 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’s helped relocate victims 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.”

Despite the horrible stories, there are good ones. Rasnick recalls driving a Golden Retriever to a reunion with his human. 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 faithful Siamese just made it safely back home. Together.

T.J. Banks

View posts by T.J. Banks
T.J. Banks is the author of several books, including Catsong, which received a Merial Human–Animal Bond Award. A contributing editor to laJoie, T.J. has also received writing awards from the Cat Writers’ Association, ByLine and The Writing Self. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Single Parent’s Soul and A Cup of Comfort for Women in Love, and T.J. has worked as a stringer for the Associated Press, as an instructor for the Writer’s Digest School and as a columnist.

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