The Link Between Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence 

by | Jan 19, 2022

“It wasn’t just the cats and the dogs I had, it was the sheep and the chickens – I was terrified for their welfare. I knew if I were to leave, he wouldn’t hesitate to kill them. He had done it before.” (1), said Susan Walsh as she discussed her experiences. Susan’s husband had retaliated against her and her children, preventing her from leaving an abusive relationship by threatening to harm her pets and farm animals.

The story above is not an isolated incident. It’s a widespread epidemic with 71% of battered women reporting that their abusers had harmed, killed, or threatened animals as a way to control them (1). A growing body of research establishes the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Animal cruelty is often an indicator of interpersonal violence such as child abuse, intimate partner violence, and elder abuse. Pet abuse is one of the four predictors of domestic partner violence with 85% of women and 63% of children who enter shelters in the United States reporting incidents of pet abuse (1).

An estimated 1 million animals are abused or killed each year in connection with domestic violence. 71% of Domestic Violence victims report that their abusers also targeted their petHow to Prevent Pet Abuse Infographic (K9 Of Mine)

In the U.S., more than 10 million adults experience domestic violence annually (4). Abusers see the bond between their victims and their companion animals, and they exploit that bond to control, manipulate, and frighten their victims (2). Victims of domestic violence may delay leaving abusive situations, fearing their companion animals’ safety. The relationships between humans and animals in a household may yield strong indicators of the safety of the people in that household. Understanding that there is an inextricable link between domestic violence and animal abuse can open pathways for survivors to receive help. In no situation should a survivor have to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pets.

 What can we do to help?

Education is one of the most important steps to protecting animals and humans. Community presentations, awareness events, humane education in schools, and training for professionals can build awareness and develop strategies for early intervention practices. To understand how animal abuse is incorporated into tactics used by perpetrators, refer to the “power and control wheel” below. A variety of resources exist to assist in developing your knowledge around this issue. Visit our Humane Education page to request a class at your institution or organization. 

The Power and Control Wheel of Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence. Abusers use pets to isolate, threaten, blame, and intimidate their victims. They also use emotional, economic, and legal abuse to harm animals and the victim.
Animal abuse within the context of domestic violence (The National Link Coalition)

The National Link Coalition, an organization dedicated to solving violence against animals and people, publishes a monthly newsletter to educate, share updates, and offer strategies for intervention on a local, state, or national level. Developing awareness of this link through community engagement can help to establish unlikely cross-disciplinary partnerships. In many communities, human and animal services, law enforcement, and other criminal justice experts, have begun sharing resources and expertise across sectors to address violence.

Domestic violence shelters and other service providers should educate law enforcement and judges on the signs of domestic violence. They need to be equipped with resources for effective intervention prior to an incident occurring. By implementing a robust coordinated approach, responders who typically encounter domestic violence or animal abuse can help prevent other forms of violence. The National Link Coalition offers a wide range of training opportunities available for professionals in human services, animal care and control, law enforcement, criminal justice, veterinary medicine, and other fields.

“Many survivors stay in an unsafe situation because they cannot take their animals with them to a shelter. 65% of women refuse or delay leaving an abusive home out of fear of leaving their pets or livestock behind.” (Phil Arkow, 2020)

Sheltering Animals and Families Together [SAF-T] is educating and assisting domestic violence shelters to create on-site pet housing. SAF-T offers a variety of resources for individuals and families fleeing domestic violence, and guidelines to assist shelters in becoming low barrier and pet friendly. Grant funding is also available to help shelters with the cost of starting their program to keep animals and people safe and together. Talk to your local shetler about submitting a request to receive a start-up manual to create co-housing for people and their pets. There are many domestic violence shelters creating partnerships with animal welfare groups to provide foster care to animals while domestic violence survivors get stabilized. Creating resources for domestic violence shelter providers to help individuals and families find shelter for their pets could assist in stabilizing families and getting more victims and their pets out of unsafe situations.

 “Animal cruelty does not occur in a vacuum, and the failure to fully examine its origins would likely lead to future criminal acts and the continued cycle of abuse and violence.”

-Hon. H. Lee Chitwood, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Pulaski, VA

 Animals are often chosen as soft targets because abusers believe that they can get away with it (1). Animal cruelty is a crime! All U.S. jurisdictions have prohibitions against animal maltreatment, and all 50 states declare some forms of animal abuse to be felonies. 

Because animal abuse often exposes other forms of violence in the household, police officers have a critical role to play. A police department review of national crime records found that 70% of people charged with cruelty to animals also had other reported incidents of violent behavior – including homicide (3)Reports of animal cruelty should be taken seriously. Early intervention can prevent others from harm. It is recommended that precincts invite officials from child protection, animal protection, adult protection, and domestic violence agencies to train their staff on how to recognize and report various forms of family violence. Read more about this link and its relation to law enforcement here. 

Outside of police action, community members play an important role in protecting animals and people from abuse. Reporting suspected animal abuse can be complicated due to a lack of national or statewide systems. Use this directory to determine reportable agencies and be sure to provide as many specifics as possible in your report. If your area does not have a local response team, report animal cruelty to law enforcement immediately. Creating an open dialogue between community members and law enforcement can have a tremendous impact on reporting and responding to issues. 

Humane Action Pittsburgh (HAP) has created a directory for law enforcement officials and residents to become aware of the vast amount of resources that Allegheny County offers. This can help to ensure that animals brought in through the legal system could receive the best possible care.

.Report cruelty when you see it. Animal abuse is against the law. Don't be afraid to report it to the police. How to Prevent Pet Abuse Infographic (K9 Of Mine)

Prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement sometimes lack the resources or specific expertise needed to prosecute crimes against animals. The Animal Legal Defense Fund provides free legal assistance to those handling animal cruelty cases. They also work with state legislators to strengthen criminal animal protection laws. There are a variety of toolkits to give judges guidelines for investigating, prosecuting, and sentencing these types of crimes. 

 The National Link Coalition offers an abundance of resources for judges deciding whether to dissolve a protection order, such as a bench card with a checklist of questions to assess risks, including animal abuse history. There are also toolkits for assessing and prosecuting animal abuse. 

 This issue cannot simply be managed on a local level, though. With the link between animal abuse and domestic violence widely established, many states are working to toughen existing laws and create new ones. For instance, nearly two-thirds of states allow pets to be included on protection from abuse orders. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that does not include this type of protection. It would be in our state’s best interest to implement this given the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence.  

 The Pet and Women’s Safety Act [PAWS] is a federal law addressing the connection between domestic abuse and animal cruelty. This act provides protections for pets of domestic violence victims, and authorizes a grant program to allow shelters to accommodate pets. PAWS was introduced to respond to this crisis by helping programs provide shelter and housing assistance for the companion animals of domestic violence victims.

These are just a few examples of how legislation is a critical piece of this puzzle. To learn more about your own local legislation and how your state is helping survivors and their pets, visit the Animal Legal Defense Fund state directory. With the significant link between animal, child, and intimate partner abuse, many states have begun to combat it by enacting legislation to protect both humans and animals. With human concerns largely ruling the purview of legislative issues, it is critical to educate them on this undeniable link for community well-being. 

Let your lawmakers know about the issues and begin a dialogue on how your state can strengthen and enforce stronger laws to protect animals and humans. Join HAP’s action team to become an active voice in educating your elected officials on issues related to animal welfare. Not sure where to begin? Reach out to us at info@humaneactionpittsburgh.org for guidance on how to start in your own community.

For anonymous, confidential help, 24/7, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). 

Text “START” to 88788 | For more resources, visit thehotline.org

 

 

 

AUTHORS

Aimee Douglass is the Director of Compassionate Living. She has been a volunteer with HAP since 2018. She is an active participant in the Compassionate Living campaign and in 2019 tabled at her first event for HAP. Aimee works in the healthcare industry and has a bachelors degree in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and a masters degree in Communications with a health care focus from Southern New Hampshire University. She lives in Penn Hills with her husband and their three dogs.

Hannah Lewis is the Assistant Blogger and grant writer at HAP. She has been working with HAP since July of 2020. By day, she works as a literacy educator. She is an avid hiker, but also loves to spend time indoors curled up with a book and her long-haired cat, Frejya.