Pets are often more than a pal to their owners. It more likely those pets have a strong place in a family similar to children based on their kindness and unconditional love. A study found that 98% of Americans consider pets to be companions or members of the family2. When familial relations become difficult and dangerous for female pet owners because of their partners, they are usually forced to choose between their well-being and a pet’s safety. It is not an easy decision for anyone to make, and it is made more difficult by the fact that few battered women shelters also take pets4.
Still, there is a deeper issue here based on power and control by the abuser. Often, it is their insecurities about power and control which lead to abuse against women and, subsequently, pets1. This abuse can appear in many forms which are commonly known and some which are not. The four basic forms are physical, verbal, sexual, and psychological/emotional abuse3, and these have a number of behavioral categories. These include using male privilege, using children/pets, using isolation, using emotional abuse, using intimidation, using economic abuse, using coercion and threats, and minimizing, denying, and blaming1. These categories are explained in detail here:
• Using male privilege is a way for an abuser to make a woman subservient through control such as forcing her to be a servant or not letting her make decisions. Pets may come into the equation when cleaning up after the animal or trips to veterinarian and may ultimately lead to neglect.
• Using children could be renamed “using children/pets” and include tactics such as making a woman feel guilty about the children/pets or using visitation time to harass the abused woman. If she has left the abuser, he may use the pet as a way to lure her back.
• Using isolation is a way to limit an abused woman’s actions in an effort to control them. It can become so severe that they aren’t allowed to interact with friends or family and, possibly, pets.
• Using emotional abuse includes putting a woman down, calling her names, making her feel bad about herself, humiliating her, or playing mind games. Pets usually improve the mood of their owners and may help in this regard to relieve emotional pain, but they may also encourage the abused to stay in the situation longer2.
• Using intimidation is a show of force where property may be destroyed, things are smashed, and pets are abused. Clearly, this situation is not good for either the battered woman or the pet(s) involved. Likewise, 68% of battered women reported that their pet had physically abused with 87% reporting that it occurred in front of them2.
• Using economic abuse is preventing the abused from obtaining or keeping a job, taking her money, or not letting her have access to family income. This can negatively affect pets that may become neglected if the abuser doesn’t take care of it, and the abused woman can’t afford to care for the pet.
• Using coercion and threats is the use of threats to hurt the woman or someone dear to her or hurt themselves if she leaves. It can also be making her do something that is illegal or to drop charges against the abuser. Many pet-owning women (71%) who entered domestic shelters reported that their pets had been harmed, maimed, killed, or threatened for revenge or for psychological control2.
• Minimizing, denying, and blaming is effort to take responsibility off of the abuser and place onto the abused by blaming her, minimizing it, or saying it didn’t happen at all. Blame may even be placed on children or pets.
Pets can be an excellent companion in times of distress and abuse, but they can also keep the abused from seeking help for fear of their pet’s outcome. Between 25 and 40% of women do not leave their abusive situation for fear of what will happen to their pet after they leave2. Still, there are only a few domestic shelters that allow pets, but they exist in 22 different states4. For a full listing, visit http://www.americanhumane.org/human-animal-bond/programs/pets-and-womens-shelters/domestic-family-violence-shelters.html.
The best thing to do if you are being abused is to escape the situation. By leaving, you take power and control away from your abuser. If you immediately need help, contact your local vet or animal shelters to see if they have foster care options. If all else fails, ask a trusted friend or family member to care for your pet(s).