Domestic violence and the link to companion animal abuse


Instances of domestic abuse though in decline over the past few years have suddenly reemerged in response to the worsening economic landscape. Money problems, joblessness and foreclosures are prime indicators that the pain and desperation of families in crisis will once again raise the specter of violence in American homes. In January 2008 the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) reported that calls to their center in September increased 21% over the same period a year earlier.  



While hard statistics are difficult to come by those organizations that track domestic violence in the United States note that increasingly women and children at risk from an abusive environment report that the abuse often starts with real or feigned threats to the household’s most vulnerable occupants – family pets.


Frustration and power issues any psychologist will tell you are the Jekyll and Hyde twins of domestic abuse, resentment the spark that often first touches off an explosion directed at a defenseless animal; the abuser is sending a tangible signal that if his rules are not obeyed the consequences can be sudden and harsh.


Historically women forced to protect their children naturally sacrificed their own safety in order to shield their children, staying in the home compliant and without resource. Recognizing this mean circle of threat and domination women’s shelters have sought to provide a safe haven for women and her children; now a national organization, American Humane, is proposing a program to remove the last vestige of the abuser’s control by encouraging women’s shelters to adopt a model that accommodates companion animals.

The program called PAWS or Pets at Women’s Shelters launched in February 2008. Humane’s Director Allie Phillips, J.D., who first promoted the idea and speaks to women’s groups and in public venues to spread the word about PAWS envisions a day when no family members, including pets, will be harmed. “Until that day comes,” Allie says, “Implementing a PAWS Program in every domestic violence shelter throughout the United States will help keep people and their pets safe.

According to American Humane’s position statement the program organizers, “Recognize the richness of the bond between people and their pets, which often provides unconditional love and comfort to adult domestic violence victims and their children.”

You can view a short clip featuring Phillips interviewed recently on the Today Show.

Currently only a handful of the 700 plus womens shelters in the United States have on site sheltering available for companion animals. One such facility is the Shelter for Abused Women & Childrenin Naples FL. The Director Marci Sanders explained that the shelter which opened in 2005 was conceived from the beginning as a shelter to include domestic pets.

“The cost,” Sanders said, “Was and remains very small. The women take responsibility for caring for their own animals. It’s actually a comfort to them.”

Sanders went on to explain that the kennel is just a regular room on the ground floor converted to kennel space. A local veterinarian routinely visits the facility to insure the pets are healthy and up to date on their shots. There were no special permits or inspections required other than the normal building code process and the local Humane Society made recommendations regarding the kennel’s equipment specifications..

“That’s all there was to it.” Sanders said. It is a very comfortable and welcome addition to the shelter.”

If you are in an abusive relationship and need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.


The following statute is proposed as a model for legislators considering enacting Domestic Abuse Protection Companion Animal laws in their local jurisdictions.

The Domestic Abuse Animal Protection Act,

International Institute for Animal Law


§1 Purpose:


The purpose of the Domestic Abuse Animal Protection Act is to allow for the inclusion of animals in domestic violence protective orders.


§2 Protection Orders:


  (a)  In any domestic violence case, the court shall order that the petitioner be granted the exclusive care, custody, or control of any animal owned, possessed, leased, kept, or held by either the petitioner or the respondent or a minor child residing in the residence or household of either the petitioner of the respondent.


  (b)  The court shall further order the respondent to stay away from the animal and forbid the respondent from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, molesting, attacking, striking, threatening, harming, or otherwise disposing of the animal.


§3 Penalties


  (a)  Any violation of this statute is a Class A misdemeanor.

  (b)  Any violation subsequent to the first violation is a Class 4 felony.


 In March 2006 Maine enacted the first statute that allows judges to include pets in protection orders issued against domestic abusers.  New York followed suit by enacting a law in 2006, while 14 other states have proposed legislation that allow protective orders to extend to companion pets, assistance animals, and livestock.  These measures are due to the recognition of the correlation between animal abuse, family violence, and other forms of violence.


A 1997 report of 50 of the nation’s largest domestic violence shelters reported that 85% of women and 63% of children reported incidences of animal abuse in the home.  There is an undeniable link between domestic violence and animal abuse in individual homes.  Perpetrators often abuse animals in the home in order to threaten, intimidate and control their victims.  This abuse ranges from threats, to infliction of physical harm on the animals, to actual death of the animals.  Often, victims of domestic violence will not leave their abuser because they are afraid of what will happen to their animals.  They fear that their abuser will harm their animals in order to regain control or to punish them for leaving.  Protective orders extending to animals will help to diminish that fear as well as provide heightened consequences for violations.


 The utility and merit of protecting animals from the hands of abusers is undeniable.  Including animals in protection orders is a necessary step to ensure the safety of all victims of domestic violence.