How accommodating pets in domestic violence shelters is helping save lives

“He bound our dog in a blanket and duct tape and threw him in a crate.”

“He fed our pet knowingly food it was allergic to on purpose.”

“I bought a cat. He beat it and choked it to death the day I brought it home.”

Those are testimonials from Canadian survivors of intimate partner violence, who said their pets were harmed by their abusers, too. Their stories were collected as part of a series of national surveys by University of Windsor sociologists and criminologists.

In recent years, Canadian researchers have been pioneers in the study of the “violence link,” which hypothesizes that abuse of animals and abuse of people are not distinct problems, but part of intertwined patterns of behaviour. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian domestic violence hotlines have reported a spike in calls, while data from police across the country shows that calls related to domestic disturbances — which could involve reports of violence — rose by nearly 12 per cent between March and June of 2020 compared to the same four months in 2019.

New evidence on the “violence link” has inspired more domestic violence shelters in North America to offer safe havens for pets, too, and to even arrange care of farmed livestock.

In 2018, when University of Windsor professor of criminology Amy Fitzgerald, Betty Barrett, and other colleagues analyzed publicly available websites of shelters in Canada, only one per cent listed pet services.Their most recent survey of Canadian and U.S. shelters found that out of 949 respondents, 25 per cent now report having an on-site program for animals while 42 per cent have off-site programs (typically foster care arrangements for animals).

The recent availability of such services has likely saved lives, Fitzgerald said.

In 2017, University of Windsor surveyed 86 women receiving services from domestic violence shelters across Canada. They found that nearly 90 per cent of the women survivors of violence said their pets had been mistreated by their partners, too.

The most common form of animal mistreatment was an abusive partner threatening to get rid of a pet (65.5 per cent) followed by the partner scaring a pet on purpose (60 per cent) hitting a pet (56.4 per cent) and throwing an object at a pet (47.3 per cent).

As a result, a total of 56 per cent of the women said they delayed leaving their partner out of concern for their pets’ safety, and since the majority of shelters did not provide services for animals, one-third of the women who did go to a shelter were considering returning to their abusive partner because he had their pet.

This recent research coincided with front-line shelter staff increasingly raising the alarm with similar observations, said Jessie Rodger, executive director of Anova, which operates two domestic violence shelters in London, Ont.

“We were getting calls from women needing to go into shelter, but they’d say they had a dog, or a cat, or hamster, etc. and since we weren’t pet-friendly at the time, that would stop the conversation, and the women would say, ‘I can’t leave.’

“So we set up a pet committee two years ago to figure out how we were going to offer services for animals at our Clarke Road location, and since we became pet-friendly over a year ago, we’ve seen over a hundred animals with everything from dogs and cats to turtles, fish and birds.”

The shelter built a space in the backyard of the facility for dogs to run free, and staff and clients who are allergic or uncomfortable around animals were relocated to the alternative shelter location.

Although hiring new staff wasn’t necessary, staff are assigned to closely monitor the animals for the first 24 hours after admission because some are so traumatized from abuse that they are aggressive or terrified, Rodgers said.

“The community really came together to support what we were doing. We work with the local animal food bank, the East Village Animal Hospital (in London, Ont.) provides immunizations and spaying/neutering services free-of-charge … and a group of university students even donate care packages for the animals,” she said.

For shelters with only one location, however, which don’t have separate rooms and ventilation to prevent allergic reactions, providing animal services requires significant upgrades to facilities, said Amber Wardell, Resource Coordinator at Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses (OAITH), which is a coalition of domestic violence shelters in the province.

“Because of the different situations… There is now a wide range of models, such as shelters that co-ordinate with local foster families to take in animals. In rural areas where women are concerned about their livestock, it can take quite a bit of creativity and adaptability to address women’s concerns so we can keep her safe, as well as keep the animals safe,” Wardell said.

OAITH does not provide direct services to survivors of abuse, but provides training on various issues including best practices to accommodate animals, and maintains a directory of shelters in Ontario with services for pets of women leaving violence.

Wardell says that funding needs for such services are significant, and governments and grant providers shouldn’t underestimate the impact of these programs.

“Our (shelter) members have reported definitely seeing less hesitancy when connecting with survivors with pets.

“We don’t want them to choose between their personal safety and children’s safety or their pets’ safety,” she said.

Hannah Brown, manager of the criminal justice system reform program of Humane Canada, says law enforcement and members of the judiciary also play an important role in applying what is now known about the “violence link.”

“There isn’t universal awareness of the violence link among judiciary and justice stakeholders. When you explain it to people and they understand it for the first time, they say, ‘Of course, it makes so much sense.’ It doesn’t take much to explain it but there’s actually not very good awareness yet,” Brown told the Star.

Humane Canada helps to train police officers and other front-line responders on what to look out for when attending to reports of either animal abuse or domestic violence.

“We say to police officers, if you go into a domestic violence situation, look for signs of animal abuse because evidence shows they likely coexist, and to flip that around, if you are responding to an animal abuse case, look for signs of domestic violence and child abuse.”

Last year, the House of Commons and Senate adopted Bill C-3 to amend the Judges Act and the Criminal Code to make it mandatory for judges to receive training on the relationship between human abuse and animal abuse.


Directory of shelters in Ontario with pet services

Directory of shelters in the U.S. and Canada with pet services