The recent #metoo campaign highlighted how common physical and sexual violence is for millions of women in the United States. Violence often occurs at home. It is estimated that 1 in 3 U.S. women have experienced some form of abuse by an intimate partner. With nearly 70% of U.S. households owning at least one pet, it is likely that many of these women have animals they consider family members, providing peace, comfort, no judgment, and love — even during their darkest times.
Animals are not only present in violent households, but they too are often victims alongside other vulnerable family members. In fact, there are decades of research on co-occurring animal abuse and interpersonal violence, including domestic violence (DV), child abuse, and elder abuse. Researchers often refer to this phenomenon as the link. Multiple studies have shown that the link is not uncommon in situations of DV. Between 50% and 75% of female DV survivors with pets report that their animals were either threatened, harmed, or killed by their abusers. Such findings have led researchers to call for greater interagency coordination and cross-training/reporting among human and animal welfare organizations to intervene earlier and get help to victims faster.
Understanding the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence can help survivors in a very real, immediate way. Can you imagine someone not only threatening you and your children, but also your pets? Abusers realize the emotional bond between people and their pets and use this to assert coercive control over their victims, often threatening violence to the family pet to keep their partner under their control. Unfortunately, this often works. Many survivors report that they delayed moving to a shelter because of concerns for their pet's welfare. But health care providers can use this connection to help their patients. Mental health professionals are starting to include assessment questions about family pets to identify abuse, whether it is targeted at animals, people, or both, understanding that survivors often experience stigma, guilt, fear, and shame and may be more likely to share information about abuse of their animals before indicating that they too are victims.
Whether animal abuse is involved, DV can lead to a plethora of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other complex forms of trauma. Treating these conditions is often difficult and costly and requires a stable environment. How can one begin to heal, stabilize, and move forward while living in constant fear that their pets will be harmed if they seek shelter and help? Sadly, this is the reality for many experiencing DV and helps keep the cycle of violence and abuse in motion.
Many DV shelters are still not equipped to house people with pets, so survivors have to choose between getting the help they desperately need and leaving their pet with their abuser, who may punish the animal. This should not be a barrier to receiving help. Additionally, many professionals likely to encounter the link in their work (e.g., law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, and animal control officers) do not receive training on the link. The Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work has established the Colorado LINK Project to address these issues.
As we are more aware of signs of DV and the link with animal abuse, we can more quickly get people help and hopefully save lives in the process. The goal is to intervene sooner and provide safe housing for people and their pets, referred to as co-sheltering. Sheltering Animals and Families Together and the Safe Havens Mapping Project are programs that identify current co-sheltering options. As this becomes the norm more than the exception, the hope is that more victims of abuse will seek out help more quickly, knowing they can take their entire family with them.