Numerous studies have confirmed that in households with companion animals experiencing domestic violence and abuse, there is also a high probability of animal abuse. For example, echoing international research (e.g. Ascione 1997) a study in Victoria reported that 53% of women entering a refuge to escape domestic violence and abuse reported that their pets had been harmed (Volant et a.l 2008).
Links between animal abuse and domestic violence and abuse are complex. Becker and French (2004) in a review of relevant evidence detail four main themes apparent from existing research:
- animal abuse as part of a continuum of abuse within the family
- animal abuse perpetrated by children who show later aggressive and deviant behavior
- animal abuse as an indicator of the existence of child abuse
- the therapeutic potential of animals in child development and within post abuse work.
Animal abuse can involve hitting and/or kicking causing injury or death or severe neglect leading to starvation. Many abused animals are not provided with appropriate veterinary care thus leading to ongoing suffering. An Australian survey showed that dogs were the most commonly owned pet among those reporting links between domestic violence and abuse, and animal abuse (85% of respondents). The dogs in question received more abuse in multi-pet households, with an individual animal often being targeted for more frequent and/or severe abuse (Tiplady et al. 2012).
In some households affected by domestic violence where animal abuse also occurs, not only does this lead to animal suffering but can also impact significantly on family members, particularly children, who in some instances may be forced to witness and/or participate in acts of animal cruelty. This can have a profound effect on children and may lead to some of these children continuing a cycle of animal abuse. Fortunately, some programs have been established to help children overcome the trauma that these experiences cause but more needs to be done. However, it is still often difficult for those leaving violent situations to keep their animals with them.
As a result, individuals and families will often delay fleeing a violent situation due to concerns regarding the safety of their companion animal, with one study reporting that 35% of women delayed seeking refuge for this reason (Fawcett et al. 2002). This is because most refuges or crisis accommodation are unable to house animals. Various organisations, including the RSPCA, have established programs to assist families with companion animals by providing pet care when an individual or family need to escape quickly. However, some women are either not aware that some animal welfare agencies provide emergency accommodation or would not utilise this service if it was available (Tiplady et al. 2012). Keeping the whole family together, including the pet, during this critical time is paramount with some refuges able to accommodate companion animals under certain conditions but this needs to be greatly expanded. Children in particular, often rely on their pet to provide stability, security and companionship.
The other issue facing families affected by domestic violence who may have a pet in foster care or other accommodation is the difficulty in accessing rental properties where pets are allowed. Being forced to relinquish a pet for this reason after experiencing significant family abuse is extremely traumatic.
Animal welfare and domestic violence service agencies in several States are working together to resolve the significant issues that affect families with pets who are impacted by domestic violence to support both people and animals. All animal abuse should be reported as soon as possible but only when it is safe to do so.
More information can be obtained by contacting RSPCA member societies in each State regarding support for families with companion animals who are affected by domestic violence.
Ascione FR (1997) Battered Women’s Reports of Their Partners’ and Their Children’s Cruelty to Animals. Journal of Emotional Abuse 1(1):119-133.
Becker F and French L (2004) Making the links: child abuse, animal cruelty and domestic violence. Child Abuse Review 13(6):399-414.
Fawcett NR, Gullone E, Johnson J (2002) The relationship between animal abuse and domestic violence: implications for animal welfare agencies and domestic violence organisations. Domestic Violence Clearinghouse Newsletter 10:4-7.
Tiplady CM, Walsh DB, Phillips CJC (2012) Intimate partner violence and companion animal welfare. Australian Veterinary Journal 90(1-2):48-53
Volant AM, Johnson JA, Gullone E, Coleman GJ (2008) The relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse: an Australian study. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 9:1277-1295.