Representing Domestic Violence Survivors with Pets in Virginia

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 Virginia. 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. Edited by Dave Tilford, AWI.

Advocates and attorneys play a crucial role in ensuring that individuals seeking protection orders (referred to as “petitioners” by the court) understand and exercise their rights to include pets in protection 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. In Virginia, the laws pertaining to domestic violence protection orders are codified in Chapter 9.1 of Title 19.2 of the Code of Virginia.2
  3. If there has been animal abuse or a threat of animal abuse, gather evidence of this to present at the hearing. (See “Gathering Evidence” below).
  4. Help the petitioner understand what relief is available to protect the animal, and ensure that their requested relief is included in any temporary or extended order.

Ask About Pets

The first step is to ask, during the initial conversation, about the presence of pets or other animals in the home. It is common for individuals experiencing domestic violence 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. The following are sample questions to ask:

  • 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 this animal?
  • How did the animal abuse or threat affect you?
  • 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 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 individuals experiencing domestic violence 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.

Discuss Resources for Pets

Reassure the petitioner that you will work with them to develop a safety plan for the client, their family, and their pets (or support/service animals). Does the petitioner 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 the 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 client’s name).
  • Keep emergency provisions for the pet. Pack a bag for the pet that includes these items:
    • 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 petitioner 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.


Virginia Domestic Violence Protection Order Laws

A person can obtain a family abuse protective order in Virginia if they are the victim of any act involving violence, force, or threat that results in bodily injury or places one in reasonable fear of death, sexual assault, or bodily injury by a family/household member. A brochure produced by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services contains detailed information on family abuse protective orders: Protective Orders in Virginia — A Guide for Victims.

Virginia law provides for three types of protective orders:

  • Emergency Protective Order (EPO)3
  • Preliminary Protective Order (PPO)4
  • Permanent Protective Order (PO)5

In all three orders, the alleged victim can be awarded possession of specified companion animals.6

An EPO can be requested directly by a law enforcement officer. Such orders last up to 72 hours or until court is in session next, whichever is later. A PPO or PO can be granted upon filing of a petition by the alleged victim. Once a petition is filed, if a PPO is requested, the court will hold an ex parte hearing—i.e., without notice to the alleged abuser (respondent)—to determine the merits of the petition. Once granted, a PPO can last up to 15 days, or until a full hearing is held with both petitioner and respondent able to attend and present evidence. A PO can only be granted following such a full hearing, and can last up to two years.

To file a petition for a PPO and/or PO, the petitioner must go to a local Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court to meet with an intake officer and fill out the requisite petition forms. The forms will be provided at the courthouse, or they can be completed beforehand using the online Virginia I-CAN! Virginia tool, which generates completed, ready-to-print petition forms based on a series of questions the petitioner answers online. One of the questions that will be asked is whether the petitioner wants the court to grant them possession of any specified companion animal. For more information on the I-CAN! Virginia tool, see the program’s Frequently Asked Questions page.

Although the Virginia protective order statute does not include harm to pets in its description of acts by the respondent that would serve as a basis for issuing a protective order, the petitioner should still describe prior animal abuse or threats of abuse in the petition. Prior acts of animal cruelty could be relevant in showing how the defendant sought to frighten or control the plaintiff.


Gathering Evidence for the Hearing

Fact-Gathering Questions to Ask the Petitioner

Before completing the petition, an attorney or advocate should ask the questions listed in the section “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 understands 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 petitioner 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

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 Code7—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,8 or horse of that person.”9

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,10 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.”11

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 to take referrals under the interstate stalking law. Click on the links below for office locations:

US attorney offices
FBI field offices


Forms and Resources

Virginia Official Forms and Government-Sponsored Resources

Virginia Organizations

National Organizations

Further Reading

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

2. Va. Code Ann. §§ 19.2-152.7:1 to 19.2-152.12

6. Va. Code Ann. §§ 19.2-152.8, 19.2-152.9, and 19.2-152.10. In each case, “companion animal” must meet the definition provided in in Section 3.2-6500 of the Virginia Code and the petitioner must meet the definition of “owner” provided in the same section.

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

9. 18 U.S. Code § 2262(a) (emphasis added)

10. “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

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