Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Animal Abuse Linked to Domestic Violence


Pet Column for the week of May 22, 2008

Related information:

Services - Human-Animal Bond

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

Most people consider their pets to be family members or companions, not property, according to the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook released by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Drawing on a 2006 survey of almost 50,000 pet owners, 49.7 percent of survey respondents consider pets to be family, 48.2 percent consider pets to be companions, and 2.1 percent consider pets to be property.

While the bond between animals and humans has certainly evolved over the years, animal abuse and neglect is unfortunately still a very real problem in today's society. There is also a demonstrated link between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse. Animal abuse may be an indication there is other abuse happening in the family.

"In the context of domestic violence, pets can be used by batterers to intimidate or control family members," explains Cheryl Weber, a licensed social worker and client counselor for the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. In one study of battered women, 48 percent of the respondents reported that animal abuse had occurred "often" during the previous 12 months, and included punching, hitting, choking, drowning, shooting, stabbing, and throwing the animal against a wall or down stairs. In another study of battered women, 57 percent of women with pets reported that their partner had actually hurt or killed one or more of their pets.

"Concern for the safety of their pets can be a barrier to women leaving abusive relationships," says Weber. To remove that obstacle, an increasing number of shelters are partnering with animal shelters, breed rescue groups, or veterinarians to provide foster care for the animal victims of domestic violence. American Humane reports that there are over 160 of these "safe haven" programs for pets around the United States. A program called "A Pet's Place" at the University of Illinois provides temporary housing for the pets of women staying at two domestic violence shelters in the area.

Animal abuse is of course by no means limited to households that experience domestic violence and animal abuse can be extremely difficult to spot, even for the trained veterinary eye. Veterinarians may suspect abuse if a pet is brought in repeatedly because of trauma, has evidence of old injuries and has healed fractures that were not reported, or has injuries which do not seem to fit with the explanation that the owner provides.

Another possible reason why animal cruelty does not get reported is that it can be confusing to determine to whom a case of suspected abuse should be reported. In a larger metropolitan area like New York City, there are "animal cops" or humane law enforcement officers who investigate suspected cases of animal abuse and neglect. In other places, animal cruelty investigations may be handled by an animal control agency or humane society or local law enforcement.

Of course if the lives of the animals or other individuals in an abusive situation are in imminent danger it would be best to call the local police department so immediate action can be taken. It is important to note that animal abuse is certainly not limited to household pets; wildlife and livestock are often the subjects of either abuse or neglect. In these instances cases should be reported to your local United States Department of Agriculture office or animal control.

For information on how to spot and report animal abuse please contact your local veterinarian or local animal control. For a fact sheet on pets and domestic violence, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www.ncadv.org. For crisis intervention, safety planning, or referral to local domestic violence services, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at www.ndvh.org or 800/799-7233. For information on pet safety programs or the link between animal abuse and family violence visit American Humane at www.americanhumane.org.