Domestic violence and the veterinary clinic

Article

Animal abuse is commonly linked to domestic violence. Your practice can prepare to help victims find a safe space.

Editor's note: This article includes discussion of animal abuse and domestic violence. If you are a victim of domestic violence and need help, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE or visit https://www.thehotline.org/. If you suspect an animal is being abused, you can report the occurrence to the American Humane Association at 303-792-9900

In 2018, a veterinary hospital in Deland, Florida made national news after a woman slipped the veterinary staff a message that she was held captive by her current boyfriend and asked them to alert the authorities The team recognized the danger quickly and went into action by alerting the authorities and other staff members, moving the couple to an isolated location, and evacuating everyone except for staff. Eventually, the police came and arrested the boyfriend, who was carrying a weapon on him.

The staff did all they could to help the victim and her pet, but what more could they have done? During her lecture at the 2022 American Veterinary Medical Association Convention (AVMA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Cheryl Herschell, CVT, outlined what clinics can do to prepare staff, support clients and patients, as well as the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence.1

Staff preparation

Using what happened in Deland as a reference, Herschell explained that although the clinic did a great job, with proper training, there was more that they could have done. She said that an additional step is to completely ensure the woman and her pet's safety by separating them from the abuser completely.

One tip she offered attendees was to tell suspected victims that they and their pet are needed in another area to complete some paperwork, to get them alone. This gives the victim space and the ability to explain what is happening. When you separate everyone, it also helps protect the pet against police, when they arrive.

Herschell also recommended removing anything that could be used as a weapon such as syringes, glass containers, etc. In Deland, when they moved everyone to the isolated room, they could have cleared the room of weapons prior to bringing them back, she opined.

For staff, there are options and courses available. The crisis center that Herschell works with, Crisis Center North in Pennsylvania, offers classes on-demand and on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom for professionals seeking more information and help with preparing staff. It helps to look for resources within your own community as well.

The role of the veterinary staff

In a 2014 survey of 107 women from a domestic violence shelter in South Carolina, 40% of the respondents reported that they currently owned pets, and 46.5% of the pet owners reported that their batterers had threatened or harmed their pets.2

For veterinary clinics, knowing and recognizing the types and signs of abuse is crucial to helping these people and their pets. According to Herschell, some common ways abusers harm their partners and pets are emotionally and economically charged. Abusers can withhold funds from victims so they cannot pay for the care they need or often act out if they were to pursue care for the pet and threaten the safety of both the pet and owner.1

“It's a lot easier to victimize a cat than it is [a] person [and] threats and intimidation prevent victims from leaving. This is the reason that [many] domestic violence victims do not leave their homes,” explained Herschell, “They don't leave their homes because they are afraid of what's going to happen to their animals when they leave. They will blame the animals for animal abuse. Again, that is a form of domestic abuse, and they act out on pets because they believe that the police will not pursue.”1

Herschell described that certain questions and other topics might be hints that there is abuse. She also warned veterinary staff to be on the lookout for clients that switch veterinarians a lot or come into the clinic with a new pet and are kind of vague about what happened to their original pet. Although abuse will not be the case every time one of these scenarios presents itself, airing on the side of caution can save the life of the pet and the owner.

She also recommends placing brochures or business cards in bathrooms with information on resources and safe places for abuse victims to go to with their pets. Veterinary staff can call local shelters or reach out to resources such as the Purple Leash Project to gain resources and more information.

In conclusion

Through courageous acts like the those taken by staff at the veterinary clinic in Deland, pets, and victims of abuse can be one place closer to feeling safe and protected again, Herschell noted.

According to the AVMA, as of October 2021, a little over 20 states do not give immunity to veterinarians that report animal abuse.3 Because of this, some cases can fall in between the cracks or not be reported at all due to fear of repercussions.3 To learn more about how to report animal abuse, and the laws around it, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association's website.

References

  1. Herschell, C. When Domestic Violence Arrives at the Clinic: Intersectionality of Animal Neglect/Abuse and DV. Presented at: American Veterinary Medical Association Convention; July 29-August 2, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  2. Faver CA, Strand EB. Domestic violence and animal cruelty: Untangling the web of abuse. J Soc Work Educ. 2003;39(2):237-253. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23044063
  3. Avma.org. Published 2021. Accessed September 2, 2022. https://www.avma.org/sites/default/files/2021-10/Reporting-requirements_for-animal-abuse.pdf
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