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Pets and Domestic Violence

Australian programs acknowledge links
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2013, Updated August 2022

There are many links between domestic violence and animal cruelty. There is the tendency of individuals who hurt animals to hurt people, too. Many abusers threaten their victims by telling them that they will hurt or kill their pets if the victim tries to leave. Many people who have been harmed by domestic violence stay in the situation because they don’t want to leave their pets behind, and many shelters do not allow pets.

The statistics are daunting. In their lifetimes, approximately one in three women will be victims of domestic violence. And in those afflicted households with companion animals, pets often share in the violence and abuse. In fact, in a study of intentional animal abuse cases, 13 percent involved incidents of domestic violence.

Up to 85 percent of women entering domestic violence shelters reported that a partner had threatened, injured or killed the family pet, according to a national study done in 1997.  And here’s the thing: A lot of women don’t get to the door of a shelter precisely because they worry about the fate of a beloved animal. Faced with no place to house a pet safely, some victims chose to stay in the bad situation—subjecting themselves, sometimes their children, and their animals to further violence.

The Patricia Giles Centre in Australia acknowledges these links between violence towards people and cruelty to animals. The organization provides housing and counseling for women and children affected by domestic violence. They also offer a fostering program called Safe Families, Safe Pets (SFSP) for dogs so that when a woman leaves an abuser, her dog can be taken care of for three months by a volunteer while she focuses on building a new life for herself and her children. Australia and the UK are ahead of the US in providing such fostering services, although they are becoming more common here, too. By considering the importance of animals, these programs support people who want to escape from abusive situations. They also educate children about how to be kind to animals and to people.

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Frank Ascione, PhD, is the first professor to serve as the new American Humane Endowed Chair and executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection in the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver (DU). Dr. Ascione’s work combines rigorous scientific inquiry with a passion for people and animals, which makes for the best sort of caring: the informed kind. He is sincerely interested in learning about domestic violence, animal cruelty and the links between them so that he can use that information to develop effective prevention and intervention programs.

B: What are your primary goals?

FA: I’m a child psychologist by training, but I am moving to a graduate school of social work. My interests are in animal abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and elder abuse, and those all involve social work. My goal is to foster collaboration between those interested in animal welfare and groups working with and studying family violence, child abuse and elders.

 

B: What initially made you investigate the links between domestic violence, child abuse and animal abuse?

FA: I was developing an assessment instrument for measuring abuse by children to animals or positive interactions with animals. When I began to interview children who abuse animals, about 5 percent in the community reported abusing animals and about 10 to 15 percent of kids with mental health issues reported it, so it was not a common behavior. I decided to look at areas where there was a higher frequency of violence. I interviewed women in domestic violence shelters and found that 54 percent of women in shelters reported that their abusers hurt or killed one or more of their pets. In a control group with no violence in the home, 5 percent of the partners hurt or killed a pet.

 

B: How do you label yourself professionally? Professor? Author? Social Worker?

FA: I’m a child psychologist, though I’m not a clinician. I’ve never conducted therapy nor am I trained or qualified to do so. I realized mid-career that my profession had ignored the role of animals in the lives of children. I worked on the role of animals in children’s lives, then into issues of who abuses.

 

B: What ways have you seen academia change in recent years in terms of attitudes towards the practical issues of interest to you?

FA: One of the hopes I’ve had in my work is I want to focus on the kind of research that has some socially valuable component to it. There’s a term, “urgent knowing,” which means that there is a need in society and not enough information about it. For example, there was this idea that people in situations of domestic violence delay leaving because they are afraid to leave their pets behind, but until you put a number on it, information that was needed to deal with it or to pass legislation about it was not available.

 

B: What countries do you consider role models for the sort of programs you’d like to see established in this country?

FA: Both the UK and Australia are a bit ahead of us with animal welfare programs and respect for the human-animal bond. The UK, which originated these programs, has one national animal protection agency (the RSPCA), so they have a commonality of laws across the whole country. We have 50 different laws.

 

B: Are you generally encouraged or discouraged with the state of the human-animal bond?

FA: I am encouraged partly because we have programs developing where this is being taken seriously academically and we’re also seeing people seriously evaluating programs in which people are engaged. There are many programs that incorporate interactions with animals, but they are not routinely being evaluated. It is essential that we sift good from bad, and we need studies of what’s working and what’s not so we can focus on the most effective programs.

 

B: How has the economic recession affected the relationship between people and their pets?

FA: I’m not an economist, but I’m aware of the issues. Foreclosures lead to pet abandonment in increased numbers. Financial trouble means that we tend to see more problems with child abuse and domestic violence. In the aftermath of disasters, we do see an increase in violence.

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Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life