Pet-Friendly Housing and Survivors of Domestic Violence

Child and dog staring out window

The connections between perpetrators and victims of domestic or interpersonal violence and pets are complicated and varied. Understanding these connections is important in order to ensure the safety of both the humans and animals living with violence, as well as ending the cycle of domestic violence.

The connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty is so significant that it is commonly referred to simply as “the Link.” Perpetrators of domestic violence often threaten harm or bring actual harm to their victims’ pets in order to control them, keep victims from leaving, or to punish them for actually leaving or attempting to leave. Concern over the safety of pets often delays domestic violence victims from seeking help, causes them to return to their abuser, or prevents them from seeking assistance entirely.

A study found that more than a quarter of domestic violence victims stay in abusive relationships for a median time of two years to avoid leaving their pets behind. And a staggering percentage of domestic violence victims report returning to an abusive partner out of concern for their pets’ safety. A survey of 12 studies on domestic violence and pets found that between 18-48% of domestic violence victims either delayed leaving an abusive situation or returned to the abuser “out of fear” for the welfare of their pets. This response is well-founded, given that up to 89% of pet-owning women entering shelters reported that their abuser had injured, killed or threatened family pets.

In order to escape abuse while protecting their pets, survivors of domestic abuse necessarily must identify alternative housing, but the short-term urgency of a volatile situation and a lack of financial resources may significantly limit their options. Financial abuse is a common tactic used by abusers to gain power in a domestic relationship. Research indicates that financial abuse is experienced in 98% of abusive relationships. As such, survivors of domestic abuse may lack the financial resources to relocate to appropriate accommodations. For this and other reasons, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women.

Unfortunately, many emergency housing alternatives are unable to accommodate pets—and there are a dwindling number of pet-friendly housing options in the market. As such, in a time of crisis, a person experiencing violence in their home may have to make the difficult decision between leaving pets behind and remaining in an unsafe situation. That is why it is especially important that emergency shelters are available to survivors and their pets. While most emergency shelters were not initially designed with pets in mind, many shelter operators are now motivated to retrofit their spaces to provide cohousing for those experiencing trauma.

Animal shelters can also play a critical role in ensuring that survivors and their pets can escape violence safely by providing a safe space for pets to temporarily reside. A growing number of animal shelters provide this service by ensuring that access to a pet is strictly limited to the owner or those with the owner’s voluntary consent. Many animal shelters also ensure that the pet has access to medical and behavioral assistance while in their care. At the end of their stay, the animals can return to their owner in a healthier, happier, and safer situation—or, with the consent of their owner, can be rehomed to a new adopter who will ensure the pet’s needs are met.

The Link and Government Coordination 

Animal cruelty is often considered to be an isolated incident separate from other forms of family violence. However, professionals involved with survivors of family violence are not surprised when they learn that acts of violence by the same perpetrator targeting others are linked, and that various agencies are working with the same families. It is not unusual for violence perpetrated against seniors, children, partners, and animals to be identified within the same household once government agencies connect.

Research also demonstrates that animal cruelty can be an indicator of past, current, or future violent acts. Abusers and impressionable children who witness or perpetrate cruelty may become desensitized to violence and the ability to empathize with victims. Abuse is often cyclical and inter-generational. The earlier professionals can intervene to break the cycles of violence, the higher the rate of success. In order to ensure that intervention occurs at the earliest point, agencies involved in preventing family violence should work together for a more effective response that prevents violence toward all types of victims. Furthermore, it is crucial that “cross-training and cross referrals” take place between domestic violence professionals and animal welfare organizations.

If you are experiencing abuse and need assistance, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799-7233​. 

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