Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Escaping Domestic Violence, with Pets
Any member of a household can become a victim of domestic violence: brother, sister partners, children, elderly relatives, even companion animals. In fact, many domestic violence victims are reluctant to leave if they cannot take their pets with them, for fear of what the abuser might do to their FAMs Furry Family Members. The PAWS Act will help bridge the gap between the tremendous need for services for domestic violence survivors with pets and the ability of agencies to meet those needs. Things are changing, though, and recently there’s been a new way of thinking focusing on the relationship that humans and animals share. Maybe there’s some truth to the fur baby thing. When asked, Pew Research found a whopping 78-85% of people with pets surveyed said they consider their FAMs Furry Family Members. This suggests most people value their relationship with their FAMs like any other loved one.
But for some people that bond is even more powerful. I’m talking about the bond between a companion animal and a victim of domestic violence. Usually women.
For these people, whose every act is criticized and taunted, a companion animal offers their only relationship of acceptance and love without judgment. When they live their lives on eggshells, nervous about their abuser’s unpredictable temper, a companion animal provides reliability. Frequently isolated from family and friends, their relationship with a companion animal may be the most important in their life. Further, caring for a companion animal is empowering, providing victims with a sense of purpose in a situation that makes them feel so lost and powerless.
It’s hard to disagree that FAMs and their families deserve to feel safe, always. Safety involves not only being out of danger but having those you love right there with you.
Despite this, there is a reluctance to recognize what people escaping domestic violence understand and want providers of emergency services to know: companion animals are feeling, sentient victims of domestic violence in their own right. The thought of their FAM suffering is terrorizing. But when they try to rescue them, they’re finding they can’t. Providers commonly ignore the importance of the victim-animal relationship. In the United States, nearly 45% of DV shelters offer no support for companion animals, and of those that do, only 6% allow FAMs to stay with their humans in the shelter. The consequences of this are devastating. As a result of ignorance and poor planning, impossible choices are being inadvertently forced on victims of domestic violence, putting them at greater risk.
Some victims respond to this lack of support by leaving their companion animal, either for readoption or, worse, with their abuser. At best, this means that the bond between the victim and the companion animal is severed, causing psychological distress to both. It is commonly known, though, that the period when a person leaves an abusive relationship is the most dangerous, exposing them to escalations of violence and controlling behavior. Perpetrators, angry and irrational over losing control over their victim, are likely to express this by attacking anything they can reach that still ties the victim to them. Threats toward animals, injuries (sometimes so severe the pet must be euthanized to end its suffering), or death at the abuser’s own hands increase. This, too, is an attack on the human victim. The trauma to humans and animals cannot be overstated – animal abuse terrorizes both.
Other victims prefer homelessness to surrender their companion. The vulnerability associated with homelessness is as true for animals as it is for humans. Increased illness including mental illness, exposure, and early death, not to mention victimization and criminalization. We both feel fear, stress, and despondency. And people with companion animals experiencing homelessness face further barriers to stability, such as when a human must choose whether or not to leave an animal unattended during job interviews and shifts or refuse housing that doesn’t allow pets. While having responsibility for a dependent animal can be a huge source of comfort during such times, equally great is the sense of futility and distress when they find they cannot provide the safe life their companion deserves.
Worst of all, when some victims find their companions won’t be supported by emergency services, they remain with their abuser just to be close to their pet. We know the cycles and trajectories of abusive relationships, how perpetrators trap their victims and how the violence escalates over time. If nothing else shows how valued animals are, it’s that victims genuinely risk their own safety just to be there for them. More and more research is showing the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, with the presence of one increasing the likelihood of the other. Perpetrators commonly use threats and violence toward pets to provoke fear and coerce compliance. And it seems to be that the more the target loves the animal, the more likely, and worse, this aggression.
There are things that can be done, however, to remedy the risks of these scenarios. The ideal emergency service is one that is built to accommodate pets, considering the scope of the problem and the depth of the relationship between victims and animal companions. This means costs associated with pet-friendly areas and the provision of supplies are resourced as a baseline of care that acknowledges the intersection between domestic and animal abuse. Second best is to establish networked relationships between emergency services and animal shelters or vets so that if there’s no possibility of supporting animals on site, the safety of the animal is not threatened. Investing in training providers is vital, as well as other first responders such as police and even vets who, like doctors, may be alerted to abuse through the presentation of injuries. And finally, integrating animal awareness into outreach and intake processes, such as asking about the safety of companion animals and their need for support as a priority that recognizes this relationship as a risk factor.
As an animal, I’m often thought of as providing safety and security to humans, just like I rely on humans for my own safety. It’s heartbreaking that because of outdated attitudes toward animals, the opposite is true. The time for animal-informed support to domestic violence victims is now.
Pew Research, 2006: Gauging Family Intimacy, Dogs Edge Cats (Dads Trail Both).
Rochelle Stevenson et al, 2017: Keeping Pets Safe in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence.
Nick Kerman et al, 2019: Pet ownership and homelessness: a scoping review.
Jane Kotzmann et al, 2022: Addressing the Impact of Animal Abuse.