Representing Domestic Violence Survivors with Pets in Florida

A Manual for Domestic Violence Attorneys & Advocates Helping Survivors Obtain Protection Orders

This manual is intended to serve as an educational tool 1 for attorneys and advocates working with pet-owning domestic violence survivors in Florida. We hope that this step-by-step approach simplifies the inclusion of pets in protection orders, allowing survivors to take control of their lives and escape abuse along with their pets. AWI wishes to thank and acknowledge Hogan Lovells US LLP—and in particular Sarah Cummings and Blair Warner—and Jacob Purcell, JD candidate, University of Pennsylvania Law School, for their contributions to the drafting of this manual. Edited by Dave Tilford, AWI.

Advocates and attorneys play a crucial role in ensuring that individuals seeking protection orders (petitioners) understand and exercise their right to include their pets in such orders. There are four crucial steps to this process:

  1. As early as possible, ask the petitioner about any pets, service animals, therapy animals, or any other animals who may live in the home.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the state’s protection order laws. Florida domestic violence protection order laws are codified in Title XLIII, Chapter 741 of the Florida Statutes (see §§ 741.28–741.4651).2
  3. If there has been animal abuse or a threat of animal abuse, gather evidence of this to present at the hearing.
  4. Assist the petitioner in understanding what relief is available to protect the animal, and ensure the petitioner’s requested relief is included in any temporary or extended order.

Ask About Pets

The first step is to ask about the presence of pets or other animals in the home during the initial conversation.

Sample Questions:

  • Does an animal—a pet, service animal, or support animal—live in your home?
  • Has your abuser ever harmed your pet or threatened to harm your pet?
  • Where is your pet right now?
  • Is your pet safe?
  • Do you want to ask that the court grant you custody of your pet?
  • Do you want to ask that the court order your abuser to stay away from your pet?
  • Do you have anything that might help us prove that the abuser has threatened or hurt the animal, e.g., veterinary bills or records, photographs or eyewitnesses?

It is common for petitioners with pets not to volunteer that they have a pet. They may assume there are no resources or protections for their pets and therefore believe it is pointless to raise the issue. In addition, under the stress of the circumstances they may forget to mention pet concerns. It is important to recognize the overall significance of asking about pets; being able to present information about how the abuser has treated animals can be a valuable tool to illustrate the extent of the abuser’s controlling and violent behavior.

Knowing whether a pet is involved may help not only the pet but also other abused parties. Many petitioners may decide not to leave due to fear of leaving a pet behind, and addressing such concerns increases the likelihood that they will escape an abusive situation themselves.

Discuss Resources for Pets

Reassure the petitioner that you will work with them to develop a safety plan for them, their family, and their pet. Does the individual intend to stay with friends or family members, but cannot take their pet? Are they moving into temporary housing or a domestic violence shelter that does not accept pets?

Explain that there are safe havens for pets of domestic violence victims in many communities. Safe havens are sheltering services available in an area that help individuals who are experiencing domestic violence place 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 or are allowed to use the additional kennel space of a local humane society or veterinarian. In some cases, domestic violence shelters house victims and pets together, while some house only the pets on site. Depending on the local arrangement, family members may be able to visit their pets while they are in safekeeping. Confidentiality of the pet’s location is highly guarded in order to protect the pets and their family members.

Refer the petitioner to the Animal Welfare Institute’s Safe Havens Mapping Project. This is a directory, searchable by zip code, of sheltering services for domestic violence victims and their pets. About 12 percent of safe havens nationwide offer co-housing so that pets can stay with their human companions. Those that offer this are noted in the directory.

Advise the petitioner to do the following:

  • Keep on hand the phone number of the nearest 24-hour emergency veterinary clinic
  • Establish ownership of the pet by creating a paper trail (e.g., obtain a license, have veterinarian records put in the petitioner’s name)
  • Keep emergency provisions for the pet. Pack a bag for the pet that includes the following:
    • food
    • medicine
    • documents of ownership (receipts from adoption or purchase of pet, license to establish ownership, receipts for animal purchases)
    • health documents (veterinary or vaccination records)
    • leash
    • ID and rabies tag, if a dog or cat (these will also help establish ownership)
    • carrier
    • toys
    • bedding

Finally, in some circumstances where the animal and client are separated, such as one involving a visit to the emergency room, the advocate or attorney may need to ensure that the animal is safe. Following a domestic violence call, the animal may be taken into custody by animal control and need to be claimed and transferred to safety later.

Florida Domestic Abuse Protection Order Laws

In Florida, a person is eligible to petition for a protection order (known in Florida as an “injunction for protection against domestic violence”) if that person has been the victim of any act of domestic violence or has reasonable cause to believe that they are in imminent danger of becoming a victim of domestic violence.3

“Domestic violence” is defined under the Florida code to mean any assault, aggravated assault, battery, aggravated battery, sexual assault, sexual battery, stalking, aggravated stalking, kidnapping, false imprisonment, or any criminal offense resulting in physical injury or death of one family or household member by another family or household member.4

“Family or household member” is defined under the Florida code to mean a spouse, former spouse, person related by blood or marriage, person who is presently residing with the petitioner as if a family or who have resided together in the past as if a family, and persons who are parents of a child in common regardless of whether they have been married. (With the exception of persons who have a child in common, the family or household members must be currently residing or have in the past resided together in the same single dwelling unit.)5

Filing the Petition

To request a protection order, the petitioner must complete and submit Form 12.980(a): Petition for Injunction for Protection Against Domestic Violence.6 The form, including detailed instructions, can be downloaded from the Florida Supreme Court website as a PDF or Word document:

The form must be signed before a notary public or the clerk of the circuit court in the county where petitioner lives. The clerk will present the petition to a judge. The clerk or family law intake staff at the courthouse can assist the petitioner in completing the form.

If the judge grants the petition, they will issue a temporary protection order, which lasts 15 days or until a full hearing can be held, whichever is first. At the full hearing, both petitioner and the alleged abuser (respondent) will be allowed to present evidence. Following the hearing, the judge may grant a “Final Judgment of Injunction for Protection Against Domestic Violence,” which “remain in effect until modified or dissolved.”7

Including Pets Within the Protection Order

Citing past pet abuse:

The court will consider all relevant factors in deciding whether to grant a protection order. The instructions included with the form list 10 such factors, one of which is “Whether the respondent has intentionally injured or killed a family pet.” On the form, petitioner should indicate past abuse of pets by checking the box next to question 4(e) of Section III. Case History and Reason for Seeking Petition. Details concerning this and other past abuse of the petitioner can be added in the blank space provided after question 4 (and in additional pages attached to the petition).

Requesting that the order include protection of pets:

In the latest version of the petition form, updated June 2021, there is a new Section VI: Exclusive Care, Possession, or Control of Family Pet(s). Under this section, check box 1 to request “exclusive care, possession, and control of the [animals named in the blank space below] which are owned, possessed, harbored, kept, or held by Petitioner, Respondent, or a minor child residing in Petitioner’s or Respondent’s residence or household.” Check box 2 to request that the respondent “have no contact with the [named] animal(s) and be prohibited from taking, transferring, encumbering, concealing, harming, or otherwise disposing of them.”

Gathering Evidence for the Hearing

Fact-Gathering Questions to Ask the Petitioner

Before completing the petition, an attorney or advocate should ask the petitioner the questions listed in the section titled “Ask About Pets” above. The answers to these questions will help the evidence-gathering process for the hearing and offer the court a more comprehensive scope of the circumstances.

If the respondent has threatened to harm either the petitioner’s animal or the respondent’s own animal, ask the petitioner what the respondent specifically said. The statement should be admissible under evidence rules as an admission by a party opponent. Ask where and when the statement occurred, and if someone else may have heard the threat (e.g., a neighbor, another occupant of the home, or someone else present). Have the petitioner describe the circumstances, including the topic of conversation and body language.

If the respondent physically hurt the pet, gather as many details as possible. In particular, find out if the animal needed veterinary care. If so, collect any evidence of the visit and consider if a subpoena of the animal hospital is appropriate. Either way, find out if any photos were taken and, if the abuse was recent, help the petitioner record photo evidence.

In addition to the fine details, be sure to capture the bigger picture of abuse. Have the petitioner describe the series of events that led up to the incident of abuse as well as any past instances of conflict. What does the petitioner believe motivated the abuse? How did the petitioner react to the abuse? How did the respondent act afterward? Did the abuse serve as an effective controlling behavior? For example, did the abuse prevent the petitioner from leaving the home or going somewhere?

Remember, it is extremely important that the court understand how the animal abuse fits into abusive behavior generally. Because not everyone recognizes the value of pets, being able to demonstrate with evidence that the respondent used the pet as a means to control the client is crucial to convincing the court of the role animal abuse plays in domestic violence.

Evidentiary Issues

There are several common pieces of evidence that you may want to introduce:

  • Statements made by the respondent
  • Veterinary records
  • Photographs of injuries
  • Evidence of prior animal abuse
  • Prior convictions for animal abuse
  • Testimony of a police officer
  • Testimony of a veterinarian

Check Florida’s evidence rules to develop a response to possible objections to their admissibility.

Federal Domestic Violence Law: Paws Act

Although the process of obtaining a protection order is a civil matter, not a criminal one, violation of a protection order once it is in place is a crime under state law, punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. In some circumstances, it will also be a crime under federal law. In 2018, the provisions of the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act were signed into law as part of the federal farm bill. The PAWS Act added language to Title 18, Chapter 110A of the US Code8—which pertaining to interstate domestic violence and interstate stalking—that heightens protection for animals in situations involving protection order violations and stalking.

Interstate violation of a protection order occurs when someone crosses state lines (or by force, coercion, duress, or fraud causes another person to cross state lines) with the intent to engage in conduct that violates or would violate a protection order’s prohibition “against violence, threats, or harassment against, contact or communication with, or physical proximity to, another person or the pet, service animal, emotional support animal,9 or horse of that person.”10

Interstate stalking occurs when someone engages in conduct intending to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate another person (or place that person under surveillance for such purposes), so that it either

  1. causes the person to have reasonable fear of death or serious bodily injury to themselves; their immediate family members, their spouse or intimate partner; or their pet, service animal, emotional support animal, or horse, or
  2. “causes, attempts to cause, or would be reasonably expected to cause substantial emotional distress” to the person, their immediate family members, or their spouse or intimate partner,

AND such behavior occurs when the stalker is either

  1. traveling in interstate or foreign commerce,11 or
  2. using “mail, any interactive computer service or electronic communication service or electronic communication system of interstate commerce, or any other facility of interstate or foreign commerce.”12

It is important to emphasize that the latter provision means that stalking conducted via mail or computers—whether or not physical travel is involved—constitutes interstate stalking because use of the US mail and the electronic devices themselves involves activities that venture beyond state lines.

Federal authorities, not local and state law enforcement officers, are tasked with prosecuting violations of federal law. However, the Department of Justice recommends reporting such crimes, especially in an emergency, to the local authorities. The local district attorney will refer appropriate cases to a US attorney’s office. Victims and advocates also may wish to contact their local US attorney’s office or the Federal Bureau of Investigation directly. Each US attorney’s office has an Office of Violence Against Women contact person

US attorney offices
FBI field offices

Forms and Resources

Florida Official Forms and Government-Sponsored Resources

National Organizations

Further Reading

1. The information provided in this manual should not be considered legal advice.

2. Florida also has separate legislation for obtaining “dating violence” and “sexual violence” restraining orders. However, this manual only addresses the law and procedures related to domestic abuse restraining orders.

3. Fla. Stat. § 741.30(1)(a)

4. Fla. Stat. § 741.28(2)

5. Fla. Stat. § 741.28(3)

6. Be sure to use the form dated 06/21, not the earlier version dated 11/15, which can still be found online.

7. Fla. Stat. § 741.30(6)(c)

9. “pets,” “service animals,” and “emotional support animals” as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 2266 (11–13)

10. 18 U.S. Code § 2262(a) (emphasis added)

11. “or is present within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States, or enters or leaves Indian country” 18 U.S.C. § 2261A

Share This!