In May 2021, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)— one of the largest humane societies in the world —found that 1 in 5 American households acquired a pet over the course of the pandemic. The rise in household pets–while wonderful for most families–has proven problematic for victims of abuse. With an incredibly restricted number of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, many women are forced to remain in violent and dangerous relationships for the sake of their pets. For this reason, policymakers and those in domestic violence prevention/advocacy spheres must prioritize the development and financial support of pet-friendly shelters.
While men experience intimate partner violence, 85% of domestic violence victims are women. This is in-part due to a lack of reporting, nonetheless domestic violence is a gendered crime. I refer to women as victims and men as perpetrators in this article not to disregard same-sex couples and victimized men, but rather to generalize the crime for simplicity purposes.
The stay at home orders of the COVID-19 pandemic, while necessary to stop the spread of the virus, produced unforeseen consequences. These orders forced women and children to remain in homes with abusive partners and family members, despite a desire to leave. In the wake of the pandemic, increased unemployment rates, economic stress, and social deprivation led to a surge in domestic violence rates. The accumulation of these variables led to an increase in domestic violence and pet adoptions.
Pets as Family
Across the United States, Canada, and the European Union about half of all households own at least one pet. For most of these households, their pets are family members, providing emotional connection and companionship. The presence of a dog or cat in a person’s home is strongly associated with greater physical and mental well-being, and in turn greater empathy and resilience. For many owners, leaving their pet behind is unimaginable, even when experiencing intimate partner violence.
Pets as Leverage
Abusers look for any way to exert power and control over their victims. In an abuser’s eyes, family pets are an excellent tool to leverage their authority. A case study in New York found that 53% of women in domestic violence shelters had witnessed the mistreatment or murder of a “companion animal” by their partner(s), compared to only 5% of the general population. Similar numbers were reported in Utah and Ireland.
Women in abusive relationships are nearly 11 times more likely to witness animal abuse at the hands of their partner(s). The presence of children further perpetuates the cycle of violence, as they are exposed to additional forms of abuse. The “Power and Control Wheel“, a common illustration in domestic violence spheres that identifies tactics of abuse, lists pets as a form of intimidation. Threatening or harming pets can be used to coerce women to give into sexual favors or engage in illegal activities.
Beyond the day-to-day, the fear of further violence against pets and concern for their welfare forces women to remain in unsafe relationships. Victims are often afraid to evacuate and seek shelter. According to the PALS Report and Survey: Breaking Barriers to Safety and Healing, 97% of pet-owning domestic violence survivors revealed the ability to keep their animals was a major factor when they decided to seek shelter, with 48% stating they were worried that their abuser would harm or kill the pets. Even so, only 3% of shelters in the entire United States provide a pet-friendly, co-living option.
The Solution: Pet-Friendly Shelters
Fear of animals’ welfare is a massive barrier to victims’ evacuation in dangerous situations. Women should not have to choose between their own personal safety and their pets’ safety. Moreover, women deserve to remain with their emotional support through an especially difficult period. Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous and painful stage of a victim’s relationship. Several models for inclusive shelters have been developed by the Department of Homeland Security, the Purple Leash Project, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, all of which ensure health and safety protocols are met in conjunction with animal assimilation.
In 2017, Congress passed the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, which increased grant opportunities and funding for pet-friendly shelters and included existing shelters looking to adjust. Change is slowly happening, but it requires collaboration across local governments, nonprofit organizations, policymakers, mental health professionals, veterinarians, and law enforcement. If we want to ensure safety for women and children facing abuse, we must adapt to changing family trends–trends that include our animal companions.
If you or someone you know is experiencing violence, please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or access their website here.