Each year, domestic violence survivors and awareness advocates unite in October to observe Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Their purpose is to shine a spotlight on these crimes and educate the public on ways to identify and prevent them. Many people don’t realize that protecting victims of domestic violence extends beyond humans. In fact, pets of victims are also at risk, and their safety is often the deciding factor in their owners’ decisions whether to stay or escape abusive relationships.
Studies show a direct link between domestic abuse and cruelty to animals, specifically family pets. More than 70 percent of pet-owning women who seek refuge at domestic violence shelters report that their abusers threatened to hurt or kill the family pet. Abusers effectively use these threats to manipulate and control their victims. At least 50 percent of women stay in abusive situations for fear of what may happen to their pets if they leave. Because few domestic violence shelters allow animals, victims are often forced to choose between their own safety and that of their pets — a choice no one should ever be forced to make.
The urgent need to address this issue is evident in the real-life stories behind these statistics. One victim, identified as P., reported that her boyfriend dangled her beloved cat outside the window and threatened to kill the cat if she upset him. After a heated dispute, the abuser set fire to the victim’s apartment and her cat died from smoke inhalation. P. eventually found protection for herself and her three other cats in a pet-friendly shelter.
Recognizing the inherent danger of staying in these situations, the ASPCA has partnered with the Urban Resource Institute (URI) in New York City to support their PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program. Launched in 2013, URIPALS is New York City’s first-ever initiative to shelter domestic violence victims with their pets. This program frees victims from having to make the difficult decision to either stay with their pets at home or leave them behind in an environment where they may be harmed.
In addition to shelters opening their doors to victims’ pets, lawmakers have also taken action to protect the animal victims of domestic abuse. Twenty-seven states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have enacted laws that allow courts to include pets in domestic violence protection orders. At the federal level, Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) recently introduced the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act (H.R. 5267), landmark legislation to protect domestic violence victims and their pets. The PAWS Act makes crossing state lines to injure a pet an offense punishable by up to five years in prison, will allow victims to recover veterinary costs if an abuser injures a pet and establishes grants to help provide housing for victims and their at-risk pets. Passage of the PAWS Act will enable victims to escape abusive situations and help increase the number of animal-friendly shelters.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month offers a timely reminder that violence in the home often starts with animal abuse—and it must be stopped. Domestic violence has many victims, and they all deserve to be protected.
To contact your U.S. representatives and urge them to support the PAWS Act, please visit www.aspca.org/pawsact.