The Link Between Domestic Violence & Animal Abuse


Every year, animal shelters and rescue groups across the country witness thousands of abusive situations. While there is no national system that aggregates instances of animal cruelty, media reports indicate that animal abuse occurs in both rural and urban areas, and unrelated to socio-economic status. Mistreatment mostly affects dogs, cats, horses, and even livestock. Yet, because most cases go unreported, many of these animals suffer in silence.

Animal cruelty has long been considered separate from other types of domestic violence. However, researchers and welfare professionals report definitive correlations between animal abuse, spousal battery, child abuse/neglect, and elder abuse. Evidence suggests that animal cruelty is often the first sign of distressing tendencies toward family and/or community violence. In fact, mistreatment of animals is regarded as an early red flag that other members of the household might be in jeopardy. In a very real sense, humane law investigators and animal control officers incresingly function as first responders when uncovering dangerous, long-concealed issues.

Troubling patterns

U.S. child advocacy group First Star estimates that nearly one in every 100 children were abused or neglected in 2012. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that in the U.S., more than one in three women and one in four men will suffer physical abuse, rape or stalking in their lifetime. According to Amy Milligan, director of counseling and advocacy at DuPage-based Family Shelter Service, roughly 2 million spouses are severely assaulted

by their partners every year, and an estimated 3.3 million children witness some form of domestic abuse annually. Perhaps just as troubling,” adds Milligan, “studies indicate that 89% of violent criminals themselves grew up in an abusive environment.”

Biderman’s Chart of Coercion is a tool that illustrates brainwashing methods used with prisoners of war. Common techniques include repetitive threats, demonstrations of power, and periodic isolation. Domestic violence experts have come to recognize that batterers often employ shockingly similar tactics—and that pets are frequently leveraged as an extraordinarily powerful bargaining chip.

Consider some concerning trends and cycles:

  • An adult who abuses a family member may threaten, injure, or even kill household animals to exert control over a victim, or to demonstrate “what could happen.” One recent study in the Society & Animals journal indicates that 71 percent of pet guardians entering domestic violence shelters cite an abuser who had harmed or killed a family pet.
  • An abuser may limit contact with a favorite pet, or insist on taking over pet care duties so things are “done properly.” This deprives victims of reassuring companionship in times of overwhelming stress, and heightens feelings of incompetence. According to the book Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman, M.D., an abuser’s tactics are often perceived as insurmountable when a victim is forced to face them in isolation.
  • Studies show that using a beloved animal as a pawn can be remarkably effective in convincing the abused person to stay or return. Abuse victims may, in fact, remain completely silent in an effort to keep the animal safe, or out of fear that the abuser will be awarded pet custody.
  • The Violence Against Women journal reports that 41 percent of men arrested for domestic violence have committed at least one act of animal abuse in adulthood.
  • Children who remain in abusive environments may become desensitized to all forms of violence. Many can begin to exhibit cruelty toward animals in an attempt to alleviate their own feelings of fear and helplessness.

Connected, yet separate

saddog“Historically, humane societies existed to protect both animals and children,” notes Phil Arkow, coordinator at the National Link Coalition, which works to stop violence against people and animals. “The nation’s first child abuse cases in the 1870s were, in fact, prosecuted by humane societies.” Organizations like the American Humane Association still exist to address both causes. Yet with the creation of the first deferal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) and the initial passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) in 1974, the federal government stepped in to develop a national network of child protective agencies.

As a result, today’s humane societies largely safeguard the interests of animals, whereas domestic violence shelters and child welfare agencies support the safety of human beings. Arkow suggests that animal interests may have become somewhat marginalized due to a long-standing perceptual disparity. “The U.S. legal system regards pets as property— categorized in much the same way as a couch or a toaster,” he says. “Yet according to a 2012 study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, 99 percent of Americans consider their pets to be close companions or family members. I often remind people that nobody ever ran back to a life-threatening domestic situation to save the toaster.”

According to the National Link Coalition, roughly 900 national women’s shelters currently list some form of refuge available for pets. In many cases, however, this simply indicates a relationship with a local pet shelter or rescue. So while most domestic violence shelters are certainly willing to assist with finding care for animal companions, many aren’t equipped to physically house animals. Moreover, notes Cynthia Bathurst, executive director and co-founder of Safe Humane Chicago, temporary care initiatives may occasionally involve some degree of owner relinquishment. This can be difficult, since a victim’s pet may be her only source of unconditional love and support.

Yet, as Arkow observes, things are gradually coming around. As of February 2015, he says, approximately 85 domestic violence shelters nationwide can accommodate various types of animals. Some of these facilities employ cages or crates; others incorporate indoor/outdoor kennels; still others offer a separate, freestanding building. These specialized shelters are slowly increasing in number, allowing victims of domestic violence to escape the cycle and protect cherished companion animals at the same time.

Supporting the supporters

The costs to operate a domestic violence shelter are considerable, so budgetary cutbacks at the state level can lead to curtailment of services, even outright closure. Prospective shelters can explore specialized grant opportunities from sources like RedRover and Banfield Charitable Trust. RedRover even makes a limited number of relief grants available to victims themselves.

But setting things in motion is a complicated process. Take, for example, Bailey’s House, slated to be a groundbreaking Chicago-area companion animal crisis shelter. Located on five acres of rural farmland, Bailey’s House will be capable of accommodating dogs, cats, small mammals, certain reptiles, horses, birds, fish, and rabbits. Companion animals will be housed, fed, and provided with necessary medical care for up to 90 days at no cost, while the guardian/ client resides in transitional housing. By providing a safe environment for victims’ animals, Bailey’s House aims to remove one momentous obstacle between abuse and escape. Unfortunately, at present, executive director Victoria Velinski points to a range of logistical and financial hurdles that are keeping this life-saving project on indefinite hold. (Visit BaileysHouse.org to find out more and support its mission.)

In the meantime, what can at-risk victims do to protect themselves and the devoted companion animals they love? “Advance safety planning is absolutely crucial,” stresses Bathurst. “Have a concealed bag packed and ready in case you need to leave at any time. Don’t forget to include items for your pet such as food, a familiar toy or blanket, a collar and leash, vaccination records, and your vet’s contact information.”

Well ahead of time, she adds, see if someone you trust would agree to keep your pet temporarily on short notice. In the interim, do everything possible to get pet papers, vet bills, licenses, supplies, and microchips in your name. “In the event of a custody dispute, this will help validate the assertion that you are the pet’s primary owner and caregiver,” Bathurst explains. “Remember, it’s never too early to familiarize yourself with available resources that can help to ensure the long-term safety of you and your pet.”

From crisis to caring

These organizations are at the forefront of initiatives striving to increase understanding, advocate for victims, protect cherished pets, lobby for policy change, and endthe cycle of violence once and for all.

First Star
First Star emphasizes education, policy, and research to heighten awareness about the plight of abused and neglected children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The CDC’s collaborative mission is to deliver the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to safeguard human health and well-being.

Family Shelter Service
Family Shelter Service offers support, education, advocacy, and shelter assistance for family members affected by domestic violence.

National Link Coalition
Led by a steering committee of renowned experts in the prevention of family violence, the National Link Coalition is a multidisciplinary, collaborative network of human services and animal welfare personnel. The organization leverages research, public policy, and community awareness programs to address the connections between animal abuse, domestic violence, child mistreatment, and elder abuse.

American Humane Association
The American Humane Association works to ensure the wellness and welfare of children and animals, thereby safeguarding and strengthening the human/animal bond.

The Anti-Cruelty Society’s SAFE Program
The SAFE (Short Term Accommodations for Emergencies) Program is Chicago’s oldest temporary housing program for pets of people and families in crisis. Originally started to serve domestic violence victims, the program has expanded to other crises such as fires, medical emergencies, foreclosures, etc.

PAWS Chicago Safe-Haven Program
This program provides temporary housing for pets of people and families in crisis.

RedRover strives to bring animals out of crisis and to strengthen the human/ animal bond through emergency sheltering, disaster assistance and ongoing education.

Banfield Charitable Trust
The mission of Banfield Charitable Trust is to foster programs that maintain the human/pet bond through emergency and preventive veterinary care, pet owner assistance, and grants to select pet- related organizations working to address the root causes of pet surrender.

Safe Humane Chicago
Safe Humane strives to create safe and compassionate communities by inspiring positive relationships between people and animals. Ongoing programs focus on education, advocacy, and second chances.

The Humane Society of the United States
The HSUS has been at the forefront of the human/animal abuse connection for over a decade, and continues to educate and advocate for safer homes and communities.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800.799.7233

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