Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence

Animal abuse and domestic violence often occur in tandem. Victims of domestic violence have deep attachments to their pets and consider them sources of comfort and affection. Perpetrators of domestic violence take advantage of this human-animal bond in order to emotionally abuse their victims. Abusers may threaten or commit violence against a pet to threaten or control their victims and to confirm their own dominant status in the family. Abusers can use violence against pets to isolate their victims and as retaliation if their victim tells others about the abuse or tries to leave. Victims who cannot find a safe place for their pet may delay leaving an abusive relationship for fear of what might happen to their pet. Abusers use the threat of violence against pets to coerce their victims to return or to punish them if they leave. Some abusers force their victims to participate in the animal abuse in order to emotionally abuse and degrade them.

In the United States and Canada, between 70 and 85 percent of female victims of domestic violence who left their abusers reported violence against their pets. Children witness violence against pets in one-third to two-thirds of these cases. Child abuse and animal cruelty are also linked. An abusive parent may kill or injure a pet to punish a child or to ensure the child’s silence about physical or sexual abuse. Victims of child abuse may themselves injure their pets in order to rehearse their own suicide, to “protect” the pet from parental torture, or because they identify with and imitate their abuser. The abuse of animals in childhood indicates an increased likelihood of interpersonal violence in adulthood because the abuse desensitizes the child and reduces his capacity to empathize with others.

What Steps can Law Enforcement Take?

Police departments may form cross-trained units who can respond to and investigate child abuse, domestic violence, and animal cruelty complaints. Police can instruct officers who respond to domestic disturbance calls to determine if a pet lives in the home and be alert for signs of animal cruelty. Police officers should notify local animal shelters or other animal welfare agencies of animal abuse. If cruelty to animals is a criminal offense in the state, police may arrest the abuser for cruelty to animals even if victims refuse to press charges on domestic violence counts.

Law enforcement officers can take signs or complaints of animal abuse as serious signs of cruelty that may indicate child abuse or domestic violence. Law enforcement officers should ask children and victims of domestic violence about their abuser’s relationship to their pets. Often victims are more willing to talk about the abuse of a pet than their own abuse.

Law enforcement officers should ask victims and their children:

  • Do you own a pet?
  • Has anyone in your home injured or threatened your pet?
  • Has anyone in your home ever killed a pet?
  • Do you have a safe place for your pet if you leave the home?

What Steps can Domestic Violence Shelters Take?

Domestic violence shelters can partner with humane societies, animal care facilities, veterinarians, or other animal welfare groups to provide shelter for the pets of domestic violence victims. In 2004, over 700 shelters reported providing such assistance in placing pets in safe temporary homes. Few facilities provide shelter for domestic violence victims and their pets in the same location.The Pets and Women’s Shelters (PAWS) run by the American Humane Society are one such program.

What Steps can Animal Shelters Take?

Animal shelters and other animal welfare groups can partner with domestic violence shelters to provide homes for companion animals. Animal shelters can also partner with local law enforcement agencies to provide training on how to recognize animal abuse. Shelters can also retrieve pets from abusive homes at the request of law enforcement. Animal groups can publicize the link between animal cruelty and domestic violence and distribute information on the signs of animal abuse.

What Steps can the Public Take?

The public can lobby their elected representatives to amend their state animal cruelty code to make killing or torturing animals in order to intimidate or frighten people a crime. Laws against domestic violence can be amended to include cruelty to animals in order to threaten or terrorize people a crime.

Legislators can also pass laws extending protection orders to pets. Orders of protection or restraining orders often prohibit an abuser from approaching a victim, the victim’s home, children, vehicle, or place of employment, but rarely include pets. Extending orders of protection to cover pets will reduce the use of violence against pets as retaliation against a victim for leaving the abusive relationship. Maine, California, New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee, Washington, and Vermont have already enacted such laws.

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