Paws & Laws: The Very Real Link Between Domestic Violence and Pet Abuse

September 24, 2014

Earlier this month, Jets’ Michael Vick, notorious for his criminal dogfighting operation, publicly stated that he believed Ray Rice deserved a second chance. Turns out, the link between domestic violence and animal abuse is less tenuous than you might think.

The connections between animal abuse and other forms of abuse are, according to Hugh Tebault, President of The Latham Foundation in Alameda, CA, well documented. “Children and teens who show violent tendencies toward animals tend to ‘graduate’ to violence against people,” he says. The Humane Society of the United States, in association with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, reports that thirteen percent of intentional animal abuse cases involve domestic violence and 70 percent of animal abusers also had records for other crimes.

Perhaps it is not surprising that violent tendencies can find different targets, but also, reams of new and updated research point to how strong a role pets play in the lives of victims* of domestic violence. Up to 48 percent of women stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind—a staggering number. Because pets are sources of comfort and provide strong emotional support (98 percent of Americans consider their pets to be their companions or members of the family), threatening harm to pets is a typical method of psychological control and coercion and as such, part of the cycle of violence.

Studies about domestic violence against women show:

  • 68 percent of battered women reported violence towards their animals
  • 87 percent of these incidents occurred in the presence of the women, 75 percent in the presence of children
  • 71 percent of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets as revenge

Clearly, how to keep pets safe is a major issue. Most shelters cannot accommodate animals and those accepting pets have long waiting lists.

Fortunately, illuminating and addressing the important and multiple roles pets play in domestic abuse is a challenge many domestic violence activists, animal welfare advocates, women’s organizations and legal practitioners are meeting across the country.

Twenty-seven states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have enacted laws that include provisions for household pets in domestic violence protection orders for victims who fear violence against the pets they would be forced to abandon or leave behind. There is proposed federal legislation pending, as well. Andrew Binovi, federal legislative manager at ASPCA, says the PAWS Act (Pet and Women Safety Act) “will expand the Violence Against Women Act’s interstate stalking provisions to make crossing state lines to injure pets an offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill makes veterinary costs eligible for restitution by victims and authorizes a grant program to provide help and housing to victims and their at-risk pets.”

In Atlanta, the Ahimsa House was founded by a victim of domestic violence who ultimately lost her cat in the process of escaping abuse. It serves all of Georgia and is a model for shelters that keep pets on-site, finding foster homes, animal shelters, and veterinarians to provide free or low-cost care. Georgia is one of the many states with a PAWS Act-type law.

This kind of “co-sheltering” is rare. There are only a few others around the country. In New York City, the Urban Resource Institute, in an alliance with Purina, last year launched URIPALS, People and Animals Living Safely, a pilot program at one of the organization’s local shelters. URIPALS is the first program in NYC to equip a shelter for housing families and pets together.

“There are few shelters that accept all pets in Oregon,” says Vanessa Hernandez, Latino Community Advocate Outreach Coordinator at the Domestic Violence Resource Center of Washington County in Hillsboro, Oregon. “Monika’s House is the only shelter in the county, and we have outside kennels for large dogs, as well as a sanctuary for small animals where families can spend time with their pets.” Monika’s House also shelters domestic violence victims of all genders.

Hernandez is also part of the Protective Advocates Program, where she and other advocates evaluate clients to determine the level at which the person is at risk of homicide. “When we have clients reveal their partner has hurt or killed a pet, the level of physical violence against them has increased, and they have had a weapon used as a threat against them, they are at a very high risk for homicide,” she says.

On the legal front, the ASPCA and affiliated organizations are training district attorneys to be more aggressive in prosecuting animal cruelty cases, training veterinarians in forensics to provide expert testimony, and creating other tools to help legal advocates work on behalf of both human and animals victims.

“Knowing what we know about the strong link between animal cruelty and domestic violence, we train law enforcement personnel to look out for the types of things that might otherwise not be on their radar,” says the ASPCA’s Jennifer Chin. “For example, children are more likely to discuss abuse of animals in their household than their own abuse.”

ASPCAPro, a website resource for animal welfare professionals, provides information about what to look out for in terms of domestic violence when investigating reports of animal cruelty.

Myra Rasnick, executive director of Ahimsa House, reiterates that domestic violence affects the entire family/household, not just women, children, and pets. “Ninety percent of clients who’ve housed their pets get to safety faster. The time it takes to leave and find care for animals, and what happens during that delay” may mean the difference between living and dying.


*I use the term “victim” instead of “survivor” to include people whether or not they survive. The American Bar Association’s survey of statistics reports that approximately 33% of female murder victims and 4% of male murder victims were killed by intimate partners.

Image: WilliamMarlow via photopin