Pets and domestic violence: Why the new federal bill is crucial

Pending legislation aims to provide protection and safe shelter for pets of domestic violence victims. Introduced March 4, the Pet and Women Safety Act of 2015 (aka PAWS Act) is a proposed amendment to the federal criminal code involving personal protection orders.

What it does: The bill prohibits threats or acts of violence against a pet and includes federal grants for securing safe shelter for victimized animals.

Why it matters: The bill is much-needed. Abusers often harm pets to punish their victims for leaving or to force them to return. In fact, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 71 percent of pet owners entering domestic violence shelters report that their batterer threatened, injured or killed their family pets.

Sadly, victims are more likely to postpone seeking safe shelter for themselves out of concern for their pets’ safety. Nearly 40 percent of domestic violence victims are unable or unwilling to escape their abusers because they are too worried about leaving their pets behind. Pets provide added leverage for abusers to control victims and create fear.

Pets and domestic violence


“Injury or death to pets during domestic violence situations is common and sad,” says Dr. Steve Albrecht, a former domestic violence investigator for the San Diego Police Department and co-author of Ticking Bombs. “Animals can be kidnapped, injured, killed or turned over to shelters as a way of retaliation,” he adds. “It’s a complex mess.”

How abuse affects animals

Monique Prince, a domestic abuse survivor from New Hampshire, suffered terrible abuse from her husband. “He hurt us a lot,” says Prince. Unfortunately Micah, the family’s pet cat, was a victim too.

“She started losing large patches of fur,” recalls Prince. “I thought it was mange or some skin disease, but the vet said she had mental issues.” The veterinarian explained that pet injuries that are “symmetrical” are typically caused by mental stress. Incredibly, Micah’s fur immediately grew back after Prince’s husband was out of the picture and the abuse stopped.

Laura Hildreth’s pet was not so lucky. “My dog survived watching abuse and suffered when it was turned on him,” says Hildreth. “Now, six years later, it’s evident that he still suffers.”

Pets are impacted by domestic violence even when they are not the subject of the abuse. People who are physically abusive toward humans are also physically abusive toward their pets, according to dog trainer Lauren Novack of Lauren’s Leash in New York City. Pets living in such an unpredictable and hostile environment react in one of two ways.

“One common reaction is called learned helplessness,” explains Novack. “Nothing the animal does causes the abuse to stop, so the animal shuts down — it will not want to play, go for walks or interact in any way. In humans, learned helplessness is called depression.”

But the animal may react in a completely opposite way instead, exhibiting aggressive behaviors. “This pet is going on the offensive, telling its attacker to stay away,” says Novack. “In both scenarios, the pet is stressed, scared and coping in whatever way it’s able to, based on genetic predisposition and learning history.”

Currently, many women’s shelters are unable to accept pets. “This is just one of the many reasons that victims of domestic abuse do not leave their unhealthy situation,” says Novack.

How to find help

While we wait for the PAWS Act to become law, domestic abuse victims with pets can seek help from programs that currently exist:

  • The Humane Society’s directory of Safe Havens for Animals programs includes a state-by-state listing of pet-friendly shelters.
  • Animal Safety Net is a program offered by spcaLA. While domestic abuse victims seek the help and housing they so desperately need, ASN will care for their pets at no charge.
  • The Pets and Women to Safety program at the Animal Welfare Society provides free, confidential foster homes for pets belonging to victims of domestic violence who are in transition.
  • Additional help is just a phone call away: American Humane Association (303-792-9900) and National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE).

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