Links Between Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.
A unique study approach proves that pets can also be victims, highlighting the need for policy changes to protect both humans and animals.
Previous studies exploring the link between domestic violence (DV) and animal abuse have reported reasons why DV perpetrators abuse animals, including the desire to control the intimate partner and intimidate children in the home.
Often, the perpetrator exploits the human-animal bond to inflict emotional harm on the victim. Children who witness animal abuse can experience emotional and behavioral problems and become desensitized to violence.
These studies typically use interviews or questionnaires to collect data directly from DV victims, but these approaches often cannot capture the full breadth of the link. For example, DV victims may feel ashamed or embarrassed while being interviewed and may withhold information requiring disclosure to authorities.
To overcome these limitations, Michelle Newberry, BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Sheffield Hallam University in the United Kingdom, used a novel approach — analyzing online public forums where DV victims anonymously shared stories of animal abuse.1 This approach has several potential benefits, including more detailed accounts of animal abuse and data that can be analyzed for more general purposes.
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Over 12 months, several investigators collected and analyzed 74 stories of animal abuse from online public forums of DV victims. Four themes were identified.
DV victims’ pets provided affection and emo-tional support and, for children, relief from the violence. In addition, companion animals provided physical protection from the abuser. Many DV victims risked their own safety (i.e., staying in the abusive relationship) to protect their pets; others did not take that risk out of fear of being abused themselves.
Animals Used to Control Victims
DV perpetrators threatened or carried out animal abuse to exert control over their victims. Some perpetrators reportedly derived pleasure from abusing animals, whereas others tried to conceal the abuse. Dr. Newberry noted that “the stronger the victim-animal bond, the more likely it may be that the perpetrator will abuse a companion animal to control the victim.”
Perceptions of Abusers' Behavior
DV victims cited jealousy of the victim-animal bond as one reason for the animal abuse. Some victims also mentioned rough upbringings or alcoholism as reasons. Others justified the abuse, evidence of the need for animal welfare campaigns to emphasize that animal abuse is never justifiable.
Support for Victims and Animals
DV victims mentioned a lack of support from the police and DV services. Some lamented DV services that either don’t accommodate pets or take in only certain pets (i.e., dogs). Without being able to take their pets with them, DV victims may end up returning to their abusers.
Dr. Newberry mentioned that DV shelter administrators are aware of the DV/animal abuse link yet may not have the funding or resources to accommodate pets; public health and safety concerns may also prevent DV shelters from allowing pets.
This lack of support has major policy and training implications. For example, policy changes can ensure that police take animal abuse in DV households more seriously. Joint training initiatives can help the animal welfare, child protection and DV sectors understand how they are each linked in addressing DV.
To ensure the safety of all abuse victims, the author concluded, “DV services, animal shelters and community organizations must work together to provide joint refuge.”
Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and completed a postdoctoral fellow-ship at Emory University. She is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.
- Newberry M. Pets in danger: exploring the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Agress Violent Behav. 2017;34:273-281. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2016.11.007.