Pets are Family Too

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and so I wanted to discuss a topic in honor of it.

For the most part, we all consider our pets to be members of our family. Pets offer us love, affection and comfort. When we’re sad, they offer us a shoulder to cry on and then give us a goofy smile to make us feel better. They are always there for us when we need them, and never let us forget about them. (Seriously, they never let us forget—Simon likes to whine loudly, Rosee does a shrieky bark, and Orion (the cat) just paws at my face or bites my hand until I finally give in.)

In my blog post from last week I touched upon the topics of pet abuse and neglect. For the most part, I mentioned these topics in the general sense, but they weren’t quite the main point of my argument and so today I want to discuss them a bit more specifically.

I know that in the world of animals when the topic of violence comes up it is usually about direct abuse towards animals. We hear about dog fighting, animals being neglected or hurt by their owners, and even the sexual assault of animals. You could probably even find examples of abuse and neglect in your own community. I know that I’ve seen a number of dogs just left out in the backyards for most of their lives. It’s a sad situation, especially in my eyes because I love having Simon and Rosee as part of my everyday life. I like having them underfoot, following me around while I work in the house, and lying in the kitchen watching me make dinner.

However, today I want to focus on a more specific type of abuse that can (and does) affect pets: domestic violence. Given how many households are reported to have pets these days it is crazy to think that domestic violence doesn’t also affect them. Yet, we never really hear about what happens to pets in situations of domestic violence. Are they surrendered to shelters? Do they stay with the abusers? Do they go with the victims? Are victims even able to take their pets with them wherever they end up? Are pets even thought about at all?

In the grand scheme of things, pets may not be the highest priority in situations of domestic violence. I get it. The spouses/significant others, and (possible) children are the most important. They are the ones in immediate danger, and so should be the main priority. On the other hand, the following information from the American Humane Association is pretty alarming.

According to the American Humane Association 71% of women who owned pets reported when they entered shelters that their abuser “injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims;”

“Between 25% and 40% of battered women are unable to escape abusive situations because they worry what will happen to their pets…should they leave.”

“Investigation of animal abuse is often the first point of social services intervention for a family in trouble.”

Pets are often caught in the cross hairs in domestic violence situations. Unfortunately, they are also often forgotten about in public discussions of the problem of domestic violence. Personally, I worked with several women’s organizations that provided resources to women escaping abusive relationships and not once did the topic of family pets ever come up. Yet, with so many households that have pets these days it’s unreasonable to think that pets remain untouched by this problem.

I know that it can be difficult for domestic violence shelters to allow survivors to bring their pets with them. Typically shelters have limited space, and are meant only to be a temporary situation for residents. There’s not enough room for residents’ pets or perhaps there’s too much risk with allowing animals in the shelters. Other residents may be scared of another’s pets, the pets may become behaviorally unpredictable in a new and rambunctious environment, or maybe these pets act out in trying to protect their families and are therefore unsafe to have in shelters. Of course, this is just conjecture because really most pets would probably be just fine. Nevertheless, it could simply be that shelters do not allow pets because they just do not take them into consideration. It just seems unfair to make people choose between going to a safe place or staying in an unsafe one because they are unable to bring their pets with them.

Luckily, some organizations have recognized the importance of a family’s pets and have created shelters that allow residents to bring their pets with them. I recently came across a news story entitled No Dog Left Behind, and it profiles a report that was done on a domestic violence shelter in New York that is pet friendly. The report concludes that victims of domestic violence are more likely to leave abusive situations if they can bring their pets with them. I can’t say I’m surprised by this report and the acceptance of this type of shelter-model. Pets are family too, and in difficult times they often provide a significant source of emotional support. Here’s to hoping that more shelters take advantage of the findings this shelter in New York found when it comes to helping victims escape abusive situations.

Similarly, it’s important to think about also including pets within the parameters of a restraining order. About a year ago I came across a news story (it was on one of those pet websites, but sadly I don’t remember which one) that was reporting on one city that opened up restraining orders to include pets in situations of domestic violence. It was an important step in helping victims protect all of their loved ones as well as provide more incentive for them to leave their abusive environments.

Hopefully, this post provided some food for thought. As I said before, I never thought about how pets are affected by domestic violence, but it’s obvious that this issue touches more than just us humans. Pets are family too after all.

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These two are my family.

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