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Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors by Welcoming Pets

Supporting Domestic Violence Survivors by Welcoming Pets

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October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. An estimated one in three women and one in four men experience some form of domestic abuse over the course of their lives.  For those in a physical, emotional, or sexually abusive relationship, escaping from a cycle of power, control, exploitation, or violence can be a daunting challenge.

Outsiders often question why someone would stay in a situation that inflicts physical, emotional, and physiological harm. However, walking away from an abusive environment is incredibly complex. The dynamic between the person inflicting violence and the person experiencing violence in and of itself complicates the path to safety. Given that domestic violence is rooted in power and control, leaving an abusive situation can be the most dangerous time for a victim/survivor.While danger and fear are prominent factors, there are several other reasons why individuals do not leave – love, shame, children, cultural/religious beliefs, and financial resources are compelling forces.

Advocates are also calling attention to one important but often overlooked factor: pets.

Why pets matter

If you are an animal-lover, it may not be surprising to hear that victims/survivors frequently cite concerns related to their pets or companion animals as part of their decision to stay. Pets become part of the family and provide comfort and companionship, creating an emotional bond that is hard to break. In times of crisis, that bond intensifies.

Studies vary, however, research over the years has indicated that between 20 to 65% of domestic violence victims delay leaving their abusive partner out of fear of harm to their animals, who can be exploited in exchange for the victim’s compliance and silence. Abusive partners commonly use pets to exert power over victims by threatening to hurt or fatally harm the animal if their partner leaves. A strong body of evidence also links a history of animal cruelty to domestic, child, and elder abuse and mass violence, with many experts regarding animal cruelty as a precursor to violent crime. One study found that 71% of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their abusive partner had injured, killed or threatened family pets as a form of psychological control or revenge.

Although the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse is clear, survivors with pets face extremely limited options; most shelters and housing options do not allow pets. This may be in part due to the obstacles associated with pet-friendly, co-sheltering models. Resources alone are a significant barrier, given the supplies, services, and accommodations needed to house survivors and their pets safely. There are also legal and liability concerns related to caring for animals and humans in a shared environment. Navigating physical and physiological factors, including consumers’ fear of animals and animal behavior, require special considerations when it comes to service delivery, staff training, and community outreach. 

Currently, it is estimated that only 10% of all domestic violence shelters nationwide accommodate companion animals. As of September 2019, five states – Hawaii, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and West Virginia – do not have any pet-friendly domestic violence shelters. This overwhelming unmet need is a significant barrier to seeking safety for pet-owners affected by domestic violence.

Rising to the challenge

Recognizing that pets factor into a victim/survivor’s journey, advocates and providers are working towards addressing the need for pet-friendly programming and policies. Organizations are thinking outside the box when it comes to partnerships and service delivery to bridge the gap.

Housing is a substantial roadblock. In response, organizations are implementing innovative approaches to provide pet-inclusive shelter programs, including on-site kennels or pet-friendly facilities. Other providers are looking within their local communities to help survivors find foster homes or safe havens for their pets off-site.

Pet-friendly programming

• Rose Brooks Center is a COA-accredited organization located in Kansas City, MO. It became the first domestic violence shelter in the region to accommodate animals when it opened its pet shelter in 2012. The pet shelter offers a safe on-site environment along with pet advocates, and owners have 24/7 access to their pets. In August 2019, Rose Brooks Center was honored by The Kansas City Animal Health Corridor for its commitment to protecting animal welfare and survivors of domestic violence.

• In October 2018, COA-accredited Women in Distress opened its pet shelter in partnership with the Humane Society of Broward County. The shelter is the first of its kind in Florida and can house up to 20 pets in its kennels, while survivors reside on the organization’s 132-bed campus. In addition to safety, pets receive daily care and medical treatment on-site.

• Urban Resource Institute (URI), one of the largest providers of domestic violence shelter and support services in New York City, opened the country’s first-ever domestic violence shelter specifically designed for survivor-pet co-living. PALS Place is a seven-story emergency shelter in Brooklyn that provides 30 one- and two-bedroom apartments for up to 100 survivors and their pets.

In order to increase access to services for victims/survivors and their pets, it is essential to promote policies that address companion animals in the context of domestic violence. The Pets and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, passed with bipartisan support in December 2018, was a big step forward at the federal level. In addition to expanding federal domestic violence protections to include protections for the pets of domestic violence victims, PAWS created a federal grant program to help providers offering shelter or housing assistance options to survivors with pets.

Break down barriers to pet-friendly service delivery

Research and anecdotal evidence confirm the impact of animals on human wellness and functioning. The therapeutic benefits of companion animals are well-known. Pets provide tremendous emotional support and a sense of stability and protection to their owners. For survivors of domestic violence, that care and comfort can be critical to the recovery process, which is why the need for pet-friendly shelter options is so great. The power of human-animal connectedness can help survivors navigate difficult periods of change and overcome challenges (both practical and trauma-related).

Want to help raise awareness about this issue in your community? Here are some resources and recommendations for providers and individuals interested in learning more.

Find housing assistance for survivors with pets

Looking for shelter options that accommodate pets in your community? The resources below provide links to a variety of providers as well as groups that offer financial assistance to cover costs associated with housing companion animals. 

Pet-friendly housing resources

• The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) created an interactive, comprehensive list of safe havens for pets. AWI’s Safe Havens Mapping Project for Pets of Domestic Violence Victims provides a state-by-state listing of shelters that accommodate pets and providers that can provide referrals to such facilities.

• Red Rover offers financial assistance for families and pets affected by domestic violence through their RedRover Relief program. Survivors can apply for a Safe Escape grant, which covers the cost of temporary pet boarding while they’re in a domestic violence shelter. The organization also has an online directory, Safe Place for Pets, that provides linkages to on-site and off-site housing options and community programs for victims/survivors with pets seeking safety.

• Sheltering Animals and Families – Together (SAF-T) provides a concise, up-to-date list of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters in every state.

Explore ways to build capacity and partnerships

If you are a provider that is interested in expanding services to accommodate the needs of victims/survivors and their pets, there are tools and resources that can help you adapt your facilities to becoming pet friendly. Through their recent work, URI created a whitepaper full of lessons learned, including the importance of developing an educational plan and safety protocols to help alleviate potential areas of risk and concern. SAFT-T also developed a start-up manual that outlines different housing models and legal and financial considerations. There are several funding opportunities available to nonprofits based on how they are looking to support survivors. The Purple Leash Project, a partnership between Red Rover and Purina will provide $500,000 in grants to transform domestic violence shelters into safe spaces for survivors with pets over the next four years, with the goal of establishing a pet-friendly shelter in all 50 states by 2020.

Don’t have the resources required to provide pet-friendly services on-site? You can still build on your capacity to support victims/survivors in ensuring their pets’ safety.

For example, integrating animal/pet-related questions into the intake, screening, and/or assessment process can help organizations better identify potential barriers and connect victims/survivors to appropriate housing options. Safety planning  is another opportunity to be pet-inclusive on a victim/survivor’s path to safety; workers can empower individuals to make decisions about their pets’ care and address needs such as emergency shelter, proof of ownership, veterinarian records, and protective orders.  

Additionally, it is important to familiarize staff with pet-friendly alternatives in the community in order to refer victims/survivors whenever possible. If there are a lack of supports readily available in your area, consider connecting with your local animal shelter to explore potential partnership opportunities to offer other safe options for pets off-site. 

Additional resources

For anonymous, confidential help available 24/7, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY) now.


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