Animals and Family Violence

photo by bernardbodo

Family violence is a term that encompasses many possible relationships: Intimate partner violence, child abuse, elder abuse, and sibling violence.

Intimate Partner Violence and Animal Abuse

The link between pet abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) has been well documented over the last 30 years. Various surveys of domestic violence survivors over the years consistently reveal that up to 89% of women report that their pets were threatened, harmed, or killed. Pet abuse is one of the forms of intimidation listed in the “power and control wheel” used by advocates for victims of domestic violence. (The power and control wheel—which has been translated into 40 languages—was developed based on the experiences of battered women. The wheel identifies and categorizes the typical tactics perpetrators use against their victim.) Other patterns related to pet abuse and IPV also have emerged. Studies also show that the severity of pet abuse is linked to severity of IPV, highlighting the need to identify pet abuse and IPV as early as possible. There is no clear progression from pet abuse to intimate partner violence, and various studies have demonstrated that pet abuse may occur prior to the IPV or subsequent to it. 

Up to 48% of survivors report that they delay leaving a dangerous situation because they have no way to keep their pet safe if they leave. On December 20, 2018, the provisions of the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act were signed into law as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. The PAWS Act establishes a grant program for entities that provide shelter and housing assistance for domestic violence survivors to enable those entities to better meet the housing needs of survivors with pets. The PAWS Act also takes the important step of including actions involving pets, service and emotional support animals, and horses 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. As communities became more aware of the need to offer shelter to both victims and their pets, safe havens for pets of domestic violence survivors began to develop. Another demonstration of the close association between animal abuse and intimate partner violence is the development of safety planning for pets and widespread support for the inclusion of pets in protection orders

Child Abuse and Animal Abuse

Child abuse and animal abuse also frequently occur in the same family. Information from this area of research examines the effects of exposure to violence in the home, how experiencing harsh parenting is associated with later animal maltreatment on the part of the person abused, and how experiencing child abuse increases the likelihood that the child will engage in animal cruelty. Children who have been maltreated or have witnessed violence are more likely to abuse animals. The booklet A Common Bond: Maltreated Children and Animals in the Home contains guidelines for human service personnel in dealing with pets and children

Recognizing the relationship between child abuse and animal abuse, some states have passed cross-reporting laws or are considering doing so. Moreover, human service professionals are being trained to be alert for animal abuse, and animal service agents are being taught to look for signs of child abuse. Identifying animal abuse in the home can be the first opportunity to save an animal and intervene with a family at risk. When speaking with children, it is advisable to ask them questions about their experience with pets and other animals. By asking about animals in the home, family violence can be identified earlier, making intervention more likely to succeed and safeguarding children, pets, and their families. Human services personnel can visit our Professional Tools and Training page for questions to ask children about their experience with animals, or to learn more about signs of animal abuse or neglect. 

Children who witness violence should be evaluated by a mental health professional and a treatment plan developed. Most trained mental health professionals have the necessary skills and training to do this; however, they must be aware of the need to ask questions directly about the child either witnessing or engaging in animal abuse. At times, the evaluation and/or treatment plan will include some type of animal-assisted therapy.

Elder Abuse and Sibling Violence

The connection of animal abuse to elder abuse and sibling violence has not received the same scrutiny as IPV and child abuse. However, there is convincing anecdotal evidence that animal abuse and elder abuse do occur in the same family. In a 2000 Survey of Adult Protective Services case managers, over 45% reported evidence of animal abuse or neglect in clients’ homes; 35% of respondents also indicated their clients had reported concerns about their pets being threatened, harmed, or killed. 

Less is known about sibling violence and animal abuse, although a forthcoming study has found that sibling violence is a frequent form of family violence that co-occurs with pet abuse. This study of FBI crime data found that sibling violence was one of the more frequent forms of family violence, occurring more often with animal abuse than with child abuse or with elder abuse.