Statistics show that most veterinarians will encounter incidences of animal abuse at some point in their careers. Researchers have recognized and documented that violence towards animals can be both a component and a symptom of child, spousal and elder abuse. Veterinarians are increasingly being called upon to be responsive to suspected animal abuse as a sentinel indicator of other violence against human and non-human family members. This has enhanced the veterinarian’s role in One Health and public health responses to family and community violence.
Domestic violence is a community issue that requires community support. Studies report that 88% of pets in domestic violence homes have been threatened, injured or killed. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence globally . In 2016, the WHO passed a resolution on violence against women and children and instituted a response plan, one which does not include a plan for pets. This is a unique opportunity for the veterinary community to work with the WHO to educate and develop a plan for pets. Studies from Canada and the U.S. report that 48–75% domestic violence victims will delay leaving the home if they cannot take their pets. Pets that are left behind are at risk for being injured or killed in retaliation by the abuser or may be threatened to coerce the survivor to return.
Many domestic violence shelters do not have programs that include providing a safe place for the pets. This poses a significant barrier to the victim from leaving and continues to endanger the pet. The pets coming from these environments have suffered emotional and mental abuse with the majority having been physically abused. Many pets may not have received basic veterinary care and their owners may not have been educated on routine pet care. A common missing link in many programs is conducting a veterinary examination of the pet for signs of abuse, especially chronic abuse.
The ideal situation for survivors and their pets is to remain together as a co-living shelter arrangement. This requires designing a program within the existing shelter structure.
There is a need for a foster program for all shelters in response to needs that exceed housing capacity and as an alternative when co-living shelter options are not viable. There are several existing programs that serve as templates and resources around the world to assist with community planning.
The DV shelters consistently lack funding and resources to institute pet programs. The veterinary community can play a vital role in initiating and developing a well-rounded, collaborative program that involves all the community stake-holders. The veterinary community and allied animal service organizations together can provide free and low-cost support to the pets of domestic violence victims sharing the burden while providing critical services for people and their pets.
Domestic Violence Pet Program: Key Points
- The Domestic Violence Pet Program needs to be based on the existing community resources and programs.
- The veterinary community is in a unique position to initiation and collaborate with stake-holders on developing the most appropriate program.
- Animal welfare/shelter organizations may be invited to participate during the program planning or after the needs have been identified and participation requirements established.
- Provide education on the link between domestic violence and animal abuse to partners and stakeholders in the domestic violence response community.
Pet Abuse in Domestic Violence: Suspicious Indicators and Findings
Researchers have recognized and documented that violence towards animals can be both a component and a symptom of child, spousal and elder abuse . In 1983 study, Deviney et al.  studied 53 families who met the legal criteria for child abuse and neglect. Sixty percent of these families abused or neglected companion animals. In 88% of the families where there was physical abuse of the children, there was animal abuse. In a Canadian study, , 56% of pet-owning women seeking refuge in women’s shelters reported that their abuser had threatened or had harmed their pet.
Domestic violence is the primary source of physical abuse cases seen in veterinary practice. The owner may bring to pet to their primary vet or try to hide by going to other veterinary hospitals, emergency hospitals. The abuser may come to hospital with partner, or alone with animal. Potential indicators include unexplained death or sudden death with no medical history to support; request for euthanasia without sensible reason; desperation to find new home without good explanation; the owner appears afraid to authorize diagnostics, treatment especially for routine care; may decline necropsy, especially the abuser.
These pets are often have been subjected to multiple types of abuse and chronic abuse, physical and emotional. History may include unexplained self-resolving lameness, swellings or neurologic signs.
There may be animal behavior clues such as sudden behavior changes in the home, house soiling, gastrointestinal problems, extreme fear reactions. The most pathognomonic feature of chronic abuse is repetitive injuries such as healing fractures, especially in different stages of healing. Exam findings can include:
- Dislocations in the tail, legs
- Spiral fractures due to rotational forces without consistent history or explanation
- Head trauma: identified in the eye or ear exam
- Thoracic trauma: rib fractures most frequently found but most commonly missed on radiographs
Veterinarians must do a complete examination making sure to look for subtle findings of abuse. Radiographs are critical in cases of all suspected abuse cases. The examination of pets of survivors of domestic violence and having a proper community program can play a critical role in the future safety of the pets and their human family.
Safety Planning for Pets in Domestic Violence
Statistics show that up to 65% of domestic violence victims are unable to escape their abusive partners because they are concerned about what will happen to their pets when they leave. Animals that are left behind are at high risk for being severely harmed. Fortunately, there are more and more resources in place to assist with this difficult situation.
If you are creating a safety plan of your own to leave an abusive relationship, safety planning for your pets is important as well. If possible, do not leave pets alone with an abusive partner. If you are planning to leave, talk to friends, family or your veterinarian about temporary care for your pet.
The Animal Welfare Institute developed the Safe Havens Mapping Project, an integrated and comprehensive state-by-state listing of sheltering services for the animals of domestic violence victims. Safe havens operate differently from community to community relying on foster networks, humane societies and veterinarians. In some cases, domestic violence shelters house victims and pets together.
Create a Safety Plan that Includes Your Pet
- If you are planning to stay...
- Keep emergency provisions for your pet in case your abuser withholds money.
- Keep the phone number of the nearest 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic.
- Establish ownership of your pet by creating a paper trail (e.g., obtain a license, have veterinarian records put in your name, have microchip placed or info on microchip changed to your name).
- If you are planning to leave...
- Obtain safe emergency shelter for pet, somewhere that will not be disclosed to your abuser (e.g., veterinarian, friend, family, a safe haven for pets program).
- Establish ownership of your pet by creating a paper trail (e.g., obtain a license, have veterinarian records put in your name). Ideally visit the veterinarian prior to leaving and have a microchip placed or info on microchip changed to your name.
- Pack a bag for your pet that includes:
- Food and medicine
- Documents of ownership (receipts from adoption or purchase of pet, license to establish ownership, receipts for animal purchases, microchip paperwork)
- Health documents (veterinary or vaccination records)
- ID and rabies tag info, if a dog or cat (these will also help establish ownership)
- Leash, carrier, toys, bedding
- *If you must leave without your pet, remember to leave enough food, litter, etc. for your pet
- If you have left...
- Keep pets indoors and do not let the pets outside alone.
- Pick a safe route and time to walk your pet.
- Do not exercise/walk pet alone.
- Change your veterinarian.
- If you are getting a protective order, Texas [insert your region] allows pets to be included in that order and police can assist in removal of the pet if he/she was left behind.
Important Resources: [list resources in your region and country]
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233/1-800-727-3224 (TTY)
Online chat: www.thehotline.org , www.awionline.org/safe-havens
1. World Health Organization: www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/violence-against-women.
2. Collins EA, Cody AM, McDonald SE, Nicotera N, Ascione FR, Williams JH. A template analysis of intimate partner violence survivors’ experiences of animal maltreatment: implications for safety planning and intervention. Violence Against Women. 2018 March 24(4): 452–476.
3. Urban Resource Institute New York City. White paper: Escaping Domestic Violence as a Pet Owner. October 2016.
4. Ascione FR. Battered women’s reports of their partners’ and their children’s cruelty to animals. In: Lockwood R, Ascione FR, editors. Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette. 1998:290–304.
5. DeViney E, Dickert J, Lockwood R. The care of pets within child abusing families. In: Lockwood R, Ascione FR, editors. Cruelty to Animals and Interpersonal Violence. Purdue University Press, West Lafayette. 1998:305–313.
6. Jorgenson S, Maloney L. Animal abuse and the victims of domestic violence. In: Ascione FR, Arkow P, editors. Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse. Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette. 1999: 143–158.
7. McIntosh SC. The Links Between Animal Abuse and Family Violence, as Reported by Women Entering Shelters in Calgary Communities. 2004. Handout for veterinary hospitals and posting on website: Example for Texas, USA.