The Effects Of Domestic Violence On Companion Animals
For the past few decades, researchers have demonstrated through repeated studies that animals are vulnerable to abuse when they are in families that experience domestic violence. While precise statistics about the abuse of companion animals as it relates to domestic violence are hard to come by, it is known that some perpetrators of abuse will hold animals hostage, hurt animals, or otherwise use the companion animal as one of their “power and control tactics.” To try to mitigate this horrible reality for both people and pets, some domestic violence shelters offer space for women to bring their companion animals or make other arrangements to keep them safe.
This study out of Queensland, Australia looked closely at the “ongoing impact of animal welfare and behaviour after being in a domestic violence situation.” The research is based on data from women who were originally interviewed “in the immediate period after leaving the violent relationship and who had had animals in their care during their relationship.” They were interviewed once more after six months and asked to give their thoughts on the health and welfare of their companions during that transition away from the violent situation, and any issues they may have had in relocating pets to safe accommodation.
The women were also asked about the availability of support services, such as fostering and veterinary care. This last detail is especially important; in studies in New Zealand and Australia, “only 13% of veterinarians feel they have the necessary resources to offer help (e.g. referral advice) in cases of human interpersonal violence and only a small minority believe that veterinary schools provide adequate training in animal abuse prevention.”
Using semi-structured interviews, the major themes that emerged from the research were “the impact of the abuse, selective targeting of a particular animal for abuse, the emotional bond between women and animals and use of veterinary care and fostering as support for animals.” The interviews revealed that there was an ongoing impact on the animals, even after the original exposure to violence had passed. Some of the behavior changes included trying to get close and “seeking proximity” to the woman, a general kind of anxiety, and in some cases “animals demonstrating a fear of men which appeared to be generalised.” Disturbingly, the study confirms what other studies have shown, that the selective violence and abuse by men is used “both to maintain power and control over women while in the relationship and as revenge for leaving following separation.”
The results of the study show the ongoing need for companion animal advocates, veterinarians, shelter workers, and anyone else along the chain to be cognizant of the dynamics of domestic violence and the best practices for intervention to protect both women and pets. In particular, the fear of men exhibited by some animals who have been in situations of direct or indirect violence can have serious implications for advocacy. For instance, that fear may affect a companion’s ability to settle into a foster home with men, to deal or cope with male veterinary staff, or to feel comfortable with male relatives, friends, or future partners of the abused woman.
Overall, the researchers make three key recommendations: firstly, a more widespread and long-term study to “measure and monitor the longer-term impact of exposure to domestic violence on animals to see if the behaviours observed at six months are widely observed and persist past six months”; secondly, more research to identify effective rehab processes for animals “so that the long-term impact of abuse is reduced”; and thirdly, to explore how housing of animals on-site in women’s shelters or in private rental accommodation “improves outcomes for women, children and their companion animals.” For companion animal advocates, as well as those who work to battle domestic violence generally, these recommendations should be taken seriously and the data should be incorporated into advocacy as much as possible.