Canaries in the Coal Mine: Pets and Family Violence

“A single woman entered the shelter; she had 3 dogs who were being taken care of by a neighbor while she was seeking safety with us. She came in and was hiding from her abuser, and was working on a restraining order to keep him away. Her plan was to return home once it was safe and she had the RO. Her abuser was harassing her by phone; he would call and threaten her that if she did not go home he would hurt the dogs. She was worried every day that he would find out where the dogs were. After being in the shelter only four days, she returned home because her neighbor called and told her that her abuser had found and taken her dogs. At our last contact with her she only had 1 dog left; he had killed 2 of them.”

“A mother called the shelter seeking help for herself and two children. When shelter staff showed up at the meeting location, the family was waiting for her with a pregnant dog. The mother would not come into shelter without her dog because he had already said if she left he would kill the dog and all the puppies. Because we are not able to house animals at this time, we could not bring her and the kids to shelter. She refused to surrender her dog to the animal shelter for safekeeping because she would not be able to get her out again. She chose to stay on the street rather than leave the animal that had protected her from her abuser. 1

The above quotes reveal an aspect of domestic violence that is rarely acknowledged –  animal maltreatment within the context of intimate partner violence (IPV). As abusers seek to create and maintain power and control over their victims, they will often use their victim’s love for a pet to their advantage. Threats of violence, or acts of violence, against animals are a highly effective means of controlling and manipulating their victims.

Recent research conducted by Dr. Amy J. Fitzgerald, Associate Professor of Criminology and member of the Animal and Interpersonal Abuse Research Group (AIPARG) at the University of Windsor, sheds light on the depth and extent of this issue.Dr. Fitzgerald conducted a survey of domestic violence shelters across Canada, focusing in particular on the co-occurrence of animal maltreatment and IPV. Her results are alarming. Of pet-owning women staying at Canadian domestic violence shelters:

89.1% had experienced some form of pet abuse. The most common forms were: threatening to get rid of a pet, scaring or intimidating a pet, hitting a pet, and throwing an object at a pet. The most common forms of severe abuse were injuring, killing, breaking bones, and drowning a pet.

56% delayed leaving their abuser due to fear for their pet’s safety.

47% said it was “likely” or “extremely likely” that they would have left earlier if they could have taken their pet to shelter with them.

1/3 considered returning to their abuser because he had their pet.

One of Dr. Fitzgerald’s more sobering findings is this: “Women who reported frequent/severe animal abuse were significantly more likely to report more frequent and severe IPV (particularly psychological, physical, and sexual abuse) … [Further,] women who reported little or no animal abuse were least likely to report severe forms of IPV, even compared to those without pets.” In other words, pets are the canaries in the coal mine. If they are being severely and frequently abused, so too are the human victims. If they are not being abused, then the human-on-human abuse is usually less severe.

The relationship between pet maltreatment and IPV fits within a broader field of research focused on “the link”. Here, “link” refers to the frequent co-occurrence of domestic violence, child abuse, animal abuse, and elder abuse, within the context of family violence. Where there is one form of abuse, there are usually others, and animal abuse is usually just the “tip of the iceberg”. Phil Arkow, Co-ordinator of the National Link Coalition (USA), puts it succinctly: “When animals are abused, people are at risk. When people are abused, animals are at risk.” 3

As professionals working with families on a daily basis, it is vital that we take seriously the link between domestic violence, animal abuse, child abuse, and elder abuse. If we hope to serve families in the most effective way possible, we must do our best to understand the multiple and varied ways in which abusers assert power and control. It is important to recognize that abuse does not abide by sector boundaries: Children’s Aid officers ought to be aware of the condition of the animals in a child’s home, just as OSPCA cruelty investigators ought to be aware of the condition of elders and children when responding to a cruelty call. Communication across sectors, and an awareness of where to report all forms of abuse (be it the abuse of women, children, animals, or the elderly), will allow us to address family violence in a more holistic manner.

With that in mind, here are some steps we can take to better serve the families we work with:

Ask about animal abuse, and look for it. Batterers will often go to great lengths to hide their behaviour from outsiders, but this is not always the case with their abuse of animals. Survivors of IPV and child abuse are sometimes more willing to talk about animal maltreatment than abuse directed at themselves. This can open up a larger dialogue about family violence and safety planning.

Know where to report animal abuse. Ensure that police take animal cruelty seriously, as it is a crime in itself, and is often a “gateway” crime leading to other forms of violence.

Familiarize yourself with “link” resources in your community. Link Coalition Toronto runs a SafePet program, through which the pets of victims of domestic violence are fostered while the women stay at Toronto-area shelters. A similar program is offered in Ottawa, through SafePet Ottawa.

Spread the word. Once you begin talking about “the link”, you will be amazed at how many lightbulbs you see going on over people’s heads! The co-occurrence of these forms of abuse seems obvious once you are aware of it, but often people will not come to that conclusion unless you make the explicit connection for them.


1Both quotes are from the Family Services of Tulare County Shelter Animal Survey for April 2015-March 2016 (California), as cited in the National Link Coalition’s August 2017 Link Letter.

2“The Intersection of Animal Maltreatment and Intimate Partner Violence in Canada: Findings from Recent and Ongoing Research”, presented at the Canadian Violence Link Conference, Ottawa, 2017. Fitzgerald used the Partner’s Treatment of Animals Scale (PTAS) to measure animal maltreatment. The PTAS categorizes maltreatment into five key areas: emotional abuse (eg. confining pet in small space for extended time), threats to harm (eg. threatening to get rid of pet to make you do something), physical neglect (eg. refusing to feed pet), physical abuse (eg. hitting pet), severe physical abuse (eg. breaking a pet’s bones).

3National Link Coalition website, “FAQ: How are animal abuse and family violence linked?”. Jan. 30-18.

Authored by:

Dr. Hayley Rose Glaholt is an Accredited Family Mediator in Toronto, and a member of our AFCC-O Newsletter Committee.  She is also the co-founder and Executive   Director of Link Coalition Toronto. She can be reached at info@hgmediation.comFor additional resources and research, please visit Link Coalition Toronto or the National Link Coalition


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