- Researchers and public safety officials see a significant overlap between domestic abuse, intimate partner violence, and animal cruelty.
- New legislation and policies are being designed to protect both animals and people from abusers.
- Pet-friendly domestic violence shelters can provide housing and services for dogs and other pets.
An abusive home isn’t just dangerous to people. Pets suffer too.
Dogs, for example, can become targets or pawns in a cruel game. “Abuse directed toward the pet is often used as a representation or warning of what the perpetrator may do” to the human victim, explained Maya Gupta, Ph.D., Senior Director of Research, ASPCA Strategy and Research.
Abusive people threaten a pet in order to prevent family members from leaving or from disclosing violence to others.
Living in a household with someone abusive, dogs can face inhumane handling, excessive restraint, starvation, injury, and other maltreatment. Like people, dogs suffer trauma just from witnessing violence.
When a pet is in peril, making the decision to leave a bad situation gets more complicated.
Nearly half of domestic violence survivors surveyed said they had delayed leaving or returned to an abusive situation out of fear for their animals’ welfare, said Gupta. As many as eight out of 10 women entering domestic violence shelters say their abuser threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet.
Pets, Public Safety, and Law Enforcement
In a 2021 special issue of Social Sciences, Phil Arkow, chair of the Animal Abuse & Family Violence Prevention Project at The Latham Foundation and coordinator of The National Resource Center on The LINK Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence, explains that “humane criminology” recognizes the significant overlap between abuse to animals and crimes against intimate partners, children, and other members of a household.
Being the most popular companion animal has its downside, as dogs are also the animals most frequently victimized. Abusers are likely to weaponize and exploit their partners’ emotional attachment to them, said Arkow by email. “Dogs are also the pets most frequently left behind when the survivor cannot find a pet-friendly domestic violence shelter.”
Recognizing that animal abuse and domestic violence often go hand-in-hand, law enforcement organizations and policymakers have begun using this knowledge to identify potential perpetrators. The National Sheriffs Association, for example, considers animal cruelty a gateway crime.
“While local law enforcement still tends to trivialize animal cruelty as being somewhat less important than crimes against people,” said Arkow, “some agencies are slowly coming to realize that crimes against animals are indeed also crimes against people and making animal cruelty cases a higher priority.”
The FBI’s National Incident Based Reporting System, for example, has implemented codes that make it possible to track the ways in which animal cruelty overlaps with other crimes. A preliminary analysis of the first datasets capturing that information, from 2016 to 2019, has just been published.
Potential new legislation may also collect data. The Child and Animal Abuse Detection and Reporting Act (U.S. H.R. 763) introduced in 2021 would gather information about animal abuse as a risk factor for child abuse.
Escaping to Safety with Your Dog
Today in the U.S., more than 30 states have policies to safeguard both humans and pets from violence in the home. More than 250 domestic violence shelters are pet-friendly.
When you’re ready to leave an abusive situation, where can you find pet-friendly assistance?
One resource is safeplaceforpets.org, created by RedRover, a US non-profit, with research contributions by the Animal and Interpersonal Abuse Research Group of University of Windsor, Canada. The website has a searchable database and map of on-site and off-site housing and programs available for people and pets who need a safe escape from domestic violence.
“There are many reasons why domestic violence survivors deny what is occurring or keep returning,” said Arkow. “They’ll blame themselves, or say the guy didn’t mean it, or is getting better. But the reality is this: if he’s hurting harmless dogs, it’s not the pet’s fault, it’s not your fault, it’s his fault. And you and the children and the pets need to get out of there ASAP.”
Anyone experiencing abuse or violence in a relationship and needs assistance can visit ncadv.org or call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE). To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Arkow, P. (2021). “Humane Criminology”: An Inclusive Victimology Protecting Animals and People. Social Sciences, 10(9), 335. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10090335
Fitzgerald, A. J., Barrett, B. J., Stevenson, R., & Fritz, P. A. T. (2021). Domestic violence and animal abuse. In The Routledge International Handbook of Domestic Violence and Abuse. Routledge.
Palais, J. M. (2021). Using the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) to Study Animal Cruelty: Preliminary Results (2016–2019). Social Sciences, 10(10), 378. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10100378
Barrett, B. J., Fitzgerald, A., Stevenson, R., & Cheung, C. H. (2020). Animal Maltreatment as a Risk Marker of More Frequent and Severe Forms of Intimate Partner Violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 35(23–24), 5131–5156. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260517719542
U.S. pet ownership statistics. (n.d.). American Veterinary Medical Association. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/reports-statistics/us-pet-ownershi…