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Home / Articles / Pets / Animal Abuse—A Serious Red Flag for Domestic Violence

Animal Abuse—A Serious Red Flag for Domestic Violence

People who abuse pets may ‘graduate’ to abusing their partners

 spouse boyfriend abuses animals

If you’re in a relationship where your partner threatens or injures animals, you’re at increased risk for domestic violence yourself. Abusers harm animals as a way to exert power and control over the people in their life, and that violence often doesn’t stop with animals. 

Look to the Stats

According to studies, 41 percent of intimate partner violence offenders had a history of animal cruelty, and those are just the reported cases. A publication issued by the US Department of Justice, titled “Animal Cruelty as a Gateway Crime,” backed that up, finding animal abuse and cruelty is often a precursor to domestic violence. Animal abuse may begin in childhood—under age 7, on average. The publication also found a connection between people who participate in dogfighting and interpersonal violence. 

Another study found that animal abuse is one of four risk factors for committing intimate partner violence. (The others are not completing high school, mental health issues and alcohol or drug abuse.)

In fact, the link between animal abuse and domestic violence even has the FBI’s attention: a few years ago, they began tracking places where frequent incidents of animal abuse are occurring in order to target anti-violence resources and intervention services better. You can read more about that here

Animal Abusers Often More Physically Violent Toward People

“Animal abuse against a helpless household companion animal, or even against livestock is one of the most serious warning signs of potential domestic violence, and one of the greatest dangers for a survivor,” said Phil Arkow, coordinator for the National Link Coalition, an organization that is working to stop violence against people and animals.

“And abusers who hurt animals are more dangerous. They use more controlling techniques, more physical violence and more hands-on violence than domestic violence abusers who don’t also abuse animals.”

Watch for Children Who Harm Animals

Children who witness abuse against animals can become desensitized against animal violence. Arkow said a study found that when women in shelters reported that their animals were threatened, harmed, or killed, 32% of their children also harmed animals. “The kids absorb the intergenerational cycle of violence,” he said.

Kids who abuse animals have been linked with bullying, corporal punishment, school shootings, sexual abuse and psychopathic behavior. And children who are victims of abuse themselves may feel powerless and may abuse animals to give themselves a sense of power.

To learn how to intervene safely when you suspect child abuse or domestic violence at home, read, “How to Help a Child Who’s Being Abused.

Threats of Animal Abuse Make It Harder to Leave Abusers

Because survivors are emotionally attached to their pets, it can be more challenging to leave a relationship when animal abuse is involved if they aren’t certain they will be able to take their pet with them. While on average, it can take a survivor up to eight tries to leave, Arkow said that when animal abuse is involved, it can take as many as 50 incidents before a survivor even calls the police.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline and the Urban Resource Institute surveyed almost 2,500 people and found that: 

  • 97% said keeping their pets with them was an important factor in seeking shelter
  • 50% wouldn’t leave if they couldn’t take their pets
  • 48% were worried their abuser would harm or kill the pets
  • 30% said their children were aware of the animal abuse
  • 76% noticed a change in their pet’s behavior because of the abuse

Ways Abusers Use Animals to Exert Power Over Their Partners

Abusers target household pets, and sometimes, the pets of other family members or friends, to intimidate and control their partners. “Survivors are visibly seeing the abuse occur,” Arkow said. “The survivor’s emotional attachment to the animals, and the kids’ emotional attachment, becomes a point of vulnerability. Abusing pets is one of the most pervasive weapons, and one of the most effective.”

Abusers also target animals because they think they can get away with it. “In many law enforcement agencies, animal welfare issues are not a priority,” Arkow said. 

According to the ASPCA, in states where animal cruelty is considered a misdemeanor, individuals who commit intentional cruelty crimes against animals can receive, at most, one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Often, perpetrators receive no more than probation.

It’s common for abusers to threaten to harm or kill the pet if the survivor asserts independence or tries to leave. But those aren’t the only tactics abusers use. They may also: 

  • Isolate the survivor by forbidding trips to the dog park or socialization with other pet owners
  • Emotionally abuse the survivor by forcing her to eat or drink out of the pet bowls, wear a dog collar, or watch or perform sexual acts with animals
  • Refuse to spend money on the pet and then blame the survivor when the pet gets sick
  • Blame the animal abuse on the survivor to drive a wedge between the survivor and the children
  • Try to take custody of the pets

What You Can Do if Your Partner Is Abusing Animals

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If your partner is abusing a pet or animals in general, your risk for abuse is dangerously high. These steps can help you prepare to keep yourself and your pets safe: 

  • Reach out to a domestic violence advocate to talk through what’s going on and to get your feelings of danger validated. Advocates are there to listen, even if you don’t need to leave at that moment. 
  • If you’re in immediate danger and need to get out with your pet(s), look for a domestic violence shelter that welcomes pets or provides a foster care program. You can select pet-friendly options in your area through by choosing “pet shelter” under “Filter.”
  • If you take out a personal protection order, see if you can include your companion animals. In 36 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, courts can include pets and, sometimes, livestock in domestic violence protection orders. 
  • Put all your pet’s paperwork in your name so you can prove you’re the primary caretaker in a divorce. That includes vet bills, pet food bills, vaccinations, microchips, licensing, and pedigree papers. 
  • Include your pets in your safety planning. Have your pet’s food, toys, papers, identification, collar, leash, and crate ready in case you need to leave, and remember where your pet likes to hide so you can find them quickly.
  • Look into foster care options for your pet so your pet can stay safe. Local humane societies or government shelters might be able to help care for your pet temporarily.

Photo by Evelina Zhu from Pexels.