A refuge from violence for pets and people

December 23, 2019
Erica Tricarico, Managing Editor

dvm360, dvm360 January 2020, Volume 51, Issue 1

As more domestic violence shelters add pet accommodations, victims who might have remained in an abusive situation are seeking help. But there is more work to be done.

Editor's note: This article includes a discussion about domestic violence. If you're experiencing domestic violence of any kind, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE [7233]; thehotline.org/help). It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are free and confidential.

The bond between people and pets is stronger than ever, and evidence of this powerful connection is perhaps no clearer than in cases of domestic violence. According to the Rose Brooks Center, Missouri's largest single-site, comprehensive domestic shelter facility, nearly half all domestic violence victims in the U.S. remain in abusive relationships because they fear what may happen to their pets if they're left behind-often risking their own security to keep their animal companions safe.

An estimated 71% of domestic violence survivors report that their abuser has injured, maimed or threatened their family pet, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Studies also show that 55% of domestic violence victims and their children report that their pets are an important source of emotional support, underscoring the need to accommodate pets as well as people at shelters.

How the veterinary industry is helping

A number of industry leaders are helping keep victims of domestic violence and their pets together by committing thousands of dollars toward building supplies, training, and other resources required to make shelters pet friendly.

The Purple Leash Project was borne of a partnership between Red Rover and Purina to help fund renovations to make more U.S. domestic abuse shelters pet-friendly through grants of up to $20,000 for building materials and other supplies. Purina has committed more than $500,000 to fund project grants. Additionally, Purina and Red Rover are providing trained volunteers to help with renovations and provide pet food, supplies and other resources for pet owners escaping abuse.

Bayer has donated $90,000 to nine domestic violence shelters through its Grants Fur Families, a program that enables domestic violence shelters to offer on-site pet care. Each recipient receives $10,000 to create, maintain and enhance pet-safe spaces.

The Banfield Foundation, one of PALS' partners, has joined forces with professional football player and pet advocate Russell Wilson to help raise awareness about domestic violence and its link to animal abuse. In March 2019, the foundation announced its commitment to raising awareness of this issue by investing $1 million over four years through its new Safer Together initiative, a program designed to help victims of domestic violence and their pets find safety together.

A growing need for pet housing

More domestic violence shelters that accept pets are cropping up across the U.S., but only 3% to 10% offer pet-friendly accommodations-estimates vary. This leaves many victims facing difficult, heartbreaking and sometimes dangerous decisions. Do they relinquish their pet? Do they stay with their abuser to protect their pet from being injured? Do they live in their car until they find the right shelter? 

“Try to picture yourself in that situation-you can get help for yourself and your children, but you're going to have to leave your pets behind. How hard it would be to leave?” asks Kris Neuhauser, DVM, medical director at Noah's Ark Animal Clinic in Kansas City, Missouri, which provides veterinary care for pets living at Rose Brooks Center.

“Giving [domestic violence survivors] that opportunity to be able to get help for themselves and their animals without having to leave that animal behind and worrying about what might be happening to their pet is so important,” says Dr. Neuhauser. “That gives [them] support … through the recovery.”

Not all pet-friendly accommodations are created equal. Some domestic violence shelters partner with local veterinary clinics or animal shelters that agree to put up the animals temporarily, while others work with foster families that will take in victims' pets. Some shelters have kennels and other storage space set aside for crated animals; others let pets stay in rooms with residents.

Pets as pawns: Survivor stories

Lisa Anderson (not her real name), a 47-year-old domestic violence survivor and mother of four, is all too aware of what can happen to pets in situations of domestic violence: Her abuser killed one of her dogs and she knew that if she didn't take the other two with her, they were next.

“He killed my dog Jack with a choker chain. I knew that the last two [dogs] would not just be injured; they would be killed,” she says.

One day, Anderson's husband came home intoxicated, locked their bedroom door, and began to hit and choke her. She yelled for help, and her daughter was able to pick the lock. When her daughter opened the door, Anderson's husband loosened his grip enough for her to regain consciousness. Her daughter had a look of sheer terror on her face, Anderson recalls. That was it, she thought.

It was time to get out.

Anderson left with her two younger children (her older two children are grown) and her two dogs, but finding a domestic violence shelter in New York City that accepted dogs wasn't easy. “Our husky is my son's service dog, and they still didn't take us,” she says.

After living in her car with her dogs and her children for two weeks, Anderson contacted the ASPCA, thinking she would have to relinquish her pets. Instead, she was connected with the Urban Resource Institute (URI) People and Animals Living Safely (PALS) program. PALS is one of the only domestic violence shelter in New York City that offers pet accommodations. The shelter welcomed Anderson, her children and her dogs; it was a brand-new beginning.

When PALS was launched in a pilot capacity in 2013, the shelter only accepted cats. Then the program was expanded to dogs. “We have served 192 families and 260 pets since the program began,” says PALS Director Danielle Emery. “We have added a new shelter every year.”

In 2019, URI introduced PALS Place, an apartment-style domestic violence shelter designed to be “a safe, secure place for domestic violence victims and their pets to heal together.”

According to Emery, PALS Place provides residents' pets with pretty much anything they need to help them thrive in the environment. “Everyone gets a crate, bedding, blankets, litter, scratching post, food,” she says. “And we accept any pets that are legal to own, from dogs and cats to birds, guinea pigs, turtles, rabbits and more.” The shelter also has a private “pet park” for dogs and cats to enjoy with their owners.

Rose Brooks opened its pet shelter, Paws Place, in 2012. It all started when a woman called the domestic violence hotline after being severely beaten by her boyfriend. At the time, Rose Brooks had a no-pet policy. The woman's dog, a Great Dane, had saved her life by lying on top of her and taking the majority of blows. She refused to leave him behind, and this courageous 110-lb dog became the first pet resident at Paws Place. Many more would soon follow.

“Our mission at Rose Brooks is to break the cycle of domestic violence, and we recognize pets as part of that cycle,” says Zoë Agnew-Svoboda, Paws Place program coordinator. “Often pets are used as a tool to maintain power and control in a relationship. By accepting pets, [the center] is accessible to anyone who may need our help. Our goal is for more shelters to provide services for pet owners.”


Getting the message out

So how can domestic violence shelters go about adding pet accommodations, especially when they're already under-resourced? Rita Garza, a marketing strategist who helped create the URIPALS program, said in a 2018 JAVMA article that it takes a lot of money and strong partners to make domestic violence shelters pet-friendly.

“Corporate partners are essential, foundation funding is essential, individual donors are essential,” Garza says. “The more we build awareness, the more the communities will support [pet-friendly shelters]. You can piece together resources and be innovative through layers of local, city and state funding, whatever is available.”

To help raise awareness about the pressing need for pet accommodations, Rose Brooks provides several free trainings about the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence.

“Shelters that allow pets are filling a gap in services that is often missed. So many of our residents with pets either lived in their cars or stayed in a dangerous situation longer because they couldn't leave their pet behind,” says Emery. “It's also important to spread the word because not many people understand the connection between animal abuse and domestic violence and how sheltering pets could save a person's life.”

Don't give up

Anderson says URIPALS helped save her and her family. Having her pets by her side as she heals has made all the difference. “When there is no one else in the middle of the night talking to us, we talk to them,” she says. “They listen to everything and they don't tell anyone.”

Anderson's message to others is this: “Don't give up, because there are resources out there. Everybody's story is different but the same. Don't leave your pets behind if you can, even if you have to rehome them. ... Get on the phone and call until somebody listens.”

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