Pets: the hidden weapon of domestic abuse

by | May 6, 2019 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

A method of control
One in three Utah women will experience some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime. The problem is rampant and close, and it is likely happening, has happened or will happen to someone close to you. Living with abuse can cause emotional, physical and mental distress. For many, companion pets can help relieve and heal that anguish.

Anyone who has loved a pet knows: animals play a huge role in comfort and emotional support. But because of this, they are also a common target of violence from abusers as a way to exert control and dominance over their victims.

Imagine for a moment that you are the one in an abusive home. Your abuser has threatened to hurt your animal in the past, as a form of punishment or retaliation if you don’t stay quiet about the abuse. You are scared for yourself but maybe even more so for your pet. Finally, the day comes when you have the opportunity to escape… but only if you are willing to leave your pet behind.

This harsh reality is more common than you may think. Among all the domestic violence shelters across the US, only 4% offer safe housing for pets. Four percent. Let that sink in.

That small percentile is nowhere close to matching the demand. A study revealed that 71% of pet-owning women entering shelters reported that their abuser had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims. (1)

“As horrible as violence against an animal sounds, and we want to believe it doesn’t happen, it happens all the time,” Natalie Brown, DOVE Center program volunteer said. “It’s a lot easier to hide the abuse of an animal. Animals don’t have to go to school the next day, go to work the next day.”

Breaking down the barrier
DOVE Center is Southern Utah’s local service provider for survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Their Safe Pet Program is one of the few in the country to offer safe housing for pets of domestic abuse survivors.

Brown, owner of local pet supply shop Bone Appetit, assisted in the creation and implementation of the service in 2017. She was approached with the idea for the program by DOVE Board President Ruth Weniger, who saw the need to eliminate this barrier for clients being served through the non-profit.

“We recognized leaving a pet behind posed a huge obstacle,” Weniger said. “I own two Alaskan breed dogs myself. I think any pet owner can empathize with the struggle of being in that kind of situation.”

Katie*, a survivor staying at DOVE’s short-term safe shelter, was able to escape with her cat, Penny, thanks to the program. As a mother with a physical disability who describes herself as an empty nester, Katie finds huge emotional support through the Siamese mix.

“Not having my kids around, it kind of fills that emptiness void. She helps me feel like I don’t have pieces missing,” Katie expressed. “There’s no way I would have left her behind. No way.”

Research shows this sentiment rings true for nearly half of domestic violence victims – 48% of domestic abuse victims said they were unwilling to leave or delayed leaving an abusive relationship because they were worried what would happen to their animal companion. (2)

“An animal loves you unconditionally. They can be the biggest thing that helps someone heal,” Brown went on to say. “Having to think about signing them over to a [animal] shelter or leaving them behind with an abuser–just the thought of that alone makes victims not want to leave.”

The cost of safety
DOVE Center’s Safe Pet Program has served 11 households to date – 10 dogs and 1 cat have all found safety along with their owners thanks to the program.

Veterinary care, boarding, transportation and other associated costs average out to about $570 per pet. While details of the program remain confidential for safety reasons, the number of survivors accessing the program is growing, and DOVE relies on donations and volunteers to ensure its continuation.

“Our Safe Pet Program is one of our newest services, and we are proud to be offering it,” Weniger said. “With the community’s help we can make sure the threat of violence against pets will no longer anchor victims to their abusers.”

To donate, volunteer, or to learn more about DOVE Center’s services, visit
To access services, call DOVE’s 24-hour helpline: (435) 628-0458

*Name changed for confidentiality and safety reasons.
(1) Ascione, F.R., Weber, C.V. & Wood, D.S. (1997). The abuse of animals and domestic violence: a national survey of shelters for women who are battered. Society & Animals 5(3), 205-218
(2) Ascione, F.R., Weber, C.V., Thompson, T.M., Health J., Maruyama, M., Hayashi K. (2007). Battered Pets and Domestic Violence: Animal Abuse Reported by Women Experiencing Intimate Violence and by Nonabused Women. Violence Against Women, 12(4), 354-373.