Expanding Safe Haven Resources for Domestic Violence Survivors with Pets

Chris was in an abusive relationship, and she knew she had to leave. But she hesitated. She didn’t have family nearby and having just moved to a new area, she hadn’t made any close friends. Yet her partner grew more abusive every day. But if she sought shelter, how could she protect her dog, Caitlin, as well?

Many domestic violence survivors with companion animals have to grapple with such a question. The animals may be in grave danger, since abusers—well aware of the emotional bond between their victims and beloved companion animals—will use the threat of violence against such animals to punish or intimidate their victims.

Photo by Viorel Kurnosov
Photo by Viorel Kurnosov

Fortunately, there are now growing resources available for survivors to obtain shelter for their animals as they seek shelter for themselves. Those who follow AWI’s Companion Animals program may already be familiar with the Safe Havens for Pets of Domestic Violence Victims national directory. Instituted in 2011, the Safe Havens directory identifies sheltering services that can assist victims of domestic violence in placing their companion animals out of harm’s way so that they may seek safety for themselves. 

Safe havens operate differently from community to community. Some rely on networks of foster care homes. Some are allowed to use the additional kennel space of a local humane society or veterinarian. About 10 percent of the approximately 1,400 safe havens listed provide co-housing for both the domestic violence survivor and their pets. Depending on the local arrangement, family members may be able to visit their pets while they are in safekeeping. How long a pet can stay in a safe haven will depend on the local arrangement. In all cases, confidentiality of the pet’s location is highly guarded in order to protect the pets and their family members.

For the past several years, the National Domestic Violence Hotline (The Hotline) has included a link to the Safe Havens database on its website. The Hotline was established in 1996 as a component of the federal Violence Against Women Act, and it is supported by the US Health and Human Service’s Family Violence Prevention Service Office, as well as contributions from individuals, corporations, and foundations. It is the only national domestic violence hotline offering free, confidential 24/7/365 support in 200 languages—by phone, digital chat, and text. 

By connecting its audience to AWI’s Safe Havens database, The Hotline has been pivotal in providing victims of domestic violence the resources they need to form a safety plan for themselves and their pets. In 2019, according to The Hotline, visitors to its website accessed the Safe Havens database approximately 15,000 times. Advocates at The Hotline also use the database to assist callers or chatters directly when they are seeking resources for their pets. 

About 70 percent of those who accessed the database in 2019 through The Hotline’s website identified as female, matching the national pattern regarding the percentage of women and men that report being victims of domestic violence. According to The Hotline, one in three women and one in seven men will be victims of severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Database users (regardless of gender identity) were most often from US midsize or large cities. A 2011 study (Peek-Asa et al.) found the following:

Women in small rural and isolated areas reported the highest prevalence of IPV [interpersonal violence] (22.5% and 17.9%, respectively) compared to 15.5% for urban women. Rural women reported significantly higher severity of physical abuse than their urban counterparts. The mean distance to the nearest IPV resource was three times greater for rural women than for urban women, and rural IPV programs served more counties and had fewer on-site shelter services. Over 25% of women in small rural and isolated areas lived >40 miles from the closest program, compared with <1% of women living in urban areas.

The Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act became law on December 20, 2018, as part of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018—the latest version of the extensive agricultural appropriations package (a.k.a. the “Farm Bill”) that comes before Congress every five years or so. The PAWS Act establishes a grant program for entities that provide shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence survivors to enable them to better meet the housing needs of survivors with pets. The law also takes the important step of including pets, horses, service animals, and emotional support animals in federal law pertaining to interstate stalking, protection order violations, and restitution. These provisions provide law enforcement with additional tools for protecting victims from their abusers. We can anticipate, therefore, that more resources will be available to support existing safe havens for pets of domestic violence victims, as well as facilitate the opening of new ones. 

The Safe Havens database is being accessed tens of thousands of times each year, showing the drastic need for safe shelter for victims of domestic violence and their pets. Visit awionline.org/safe-pets for more information about how your community can start a safe haven for pets.