Abused Women Often Fear for Pets Left Behind

Have you ever known or known of an abused woman, and wondered why she won't leave him?

It may be because of a pet.

Jennifer Hardesty, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, discovered when she interviewed women victims of domestic violence that 34 percent of women delayed leaving out of concern for their pets because their abuser had threatened and harmed the animals in the past. 
"He made me stand there and . . . watch [him kill my cat]. And he was like: That could happen to you."
~ Study participant

Admittedly Hardesty's sample size was small, 19 women, but it does point out a somewhat unexpected complication in these stories of abuse, which could make an interesting and educational plot twist in your next story.

"For abused women, a pet can be a treasured source of unconditional love and comfort -- maybe even protection -- in a time of transition. Many are strongly bonded to their animals," Hardesty said.

"These incidences are very symbolic of what the abuser is capable of doing. He's sending the message: I can do something just as severe to hurt you," said Jennifer Hardesty, a U of I associate professor of human development and family studies.

Recommendations from UofI:
Veterinarians and women's shelters can make it easier for abused women to decide to leave their homes, particularly when the abuser is using a beloved pet as part of a campaign to control his partner, reports a companion University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine study.

At present, only a few shelters welcome pets. In response, the College of Veterinary Medicine is pioneering a program that provides a safe haven for pets until women in shelters can find housing and reclaim their animals.

"It would be ideal if the pet was able to stay with the woman at the shelter, but you'd need a reasonably well socialized and non-aggressive animal for that, and it would require a major shift in facilities and training for shelter personnel," said Marcella Ridgway, a clinical associate professor in the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine.

Hardesty advised that domestic violence shelter staff:
  • Inform women seeking shelter about safe haven programs and other emergency resources for pets, preferably before they arrive at the shelter
  • Provide opportunities for women to discuss their pets
  • Incorporate pets into active safety planning efforts
  • Educate and train staff about sensitive approaches that acknowledge that women have different bonds to their pets
  • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets

Ridgway recommended that veterinary professionals:
  • Help spread the word about safe haven programs and emergency resources for pets
  • Become educated and promote awareness about the links between domestic violence and pet abuse
  • Be knowledgeable and nonjudgmental with clients who disclose domestic violence
  • Address pet health care issues in an honest and thorough but nonjudgmental manner, using a triaged approach to avoid overwhelming clients
  • Assist clients in consideration of rational choices for long-term planning for pets
  • Collaborate with community partners to develop safe haven programs or other safe options for pets
  • Contribute to broader professional discussions about effective veterinary approaches to domestic violence, including routine screening
"Programs like this one empower abused women. When a woman who has been victimized makes a decision to protect a beloved pet, she's not a victim, and that's important," Hardesty said.
*  *  *  *  *

Story Source:  J. L. Hardesty, L. Khaw, M. D. Ridgway, C. Weber, T. Miles. Coercive Control and Abused Women's Decisions About Their Pets When Seeking Shelter. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 2013.


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