Veterinary social work is an emerging field which incorporates social work practices, values, and ideals into animal care settings. Currently, most veterinary social work is concerned with animal bereavement services, including end of life counseling, pet loss support groups, and one-on-one counseling after the death of a pet. There are, however, more uses of social work in animal care settings, as well as animal care in social work settings. One such example of animal care in a social work setting is the allowance of companion animals into homeless or domestic violence shelters. Almost half (48.8%) of female domestic violence survivors reported their abusers threatened violence against their companion animals, and 46.3% reported actual harm done to them (Faver & Strand, 2003). This threat or carried out violence towards companion animals is often used as leverage for women to stay within the abusive situation.
In fact, a fourth of victims of domestic violence who have companion animals feel compelled to stay with their animal due to fear of the animal being hurt (The Humane Society of the United States, 2015). And, when victims are able to leave their abuser, only 3% of domestic violence shelters allow companion animals to stay with their battered owners (2015). Abby’s House, a domestic violence shelter located in Worcester, Massachusetts, does not currently allow for companion animals to live with their owners. The allowance of companion animals to live with their owners benefits both the owner and the companion animal by offering a safe place away from the abuser.
There is a wealth of research on the link between domestic violence and animal abuse. Cruelty towards companion animals can be related to the victim “ for example, violence as a threat towards the victim “ or in addition to the abuse of the victim. Abusers harm animals out of anger in response to an animal misbehaving or wandering into places that the abuser does not want them to go. A woman’s husband severely injured her and her daughter’s cat after finding the cat on the porch for a second time. The same woman’s dog was cast out in the cold while she was giving birth, as her husband barred the family from aiding the dog (McNulty, 1989, as cited in Ascione, et al., 1997). Allen, et al. (2006) recorded multiple accounts of women in the Republic of Ireland and their partner’s unusual cruelty towards their companion animals, including violence and neglect. Animal abuse is also a tactic for abusers to coerce their partners into staying in the relationship. Victims may stay in the relationship for years out of concern for their pets, and their concern is not unfounded: one woman’s dog was killed by the abuser as ‘revenge’ for leaving the relationship. This not only impacts the victim, but potentially her children (2006). Additionally, women’s bonds with their animals are strengthened if there is mutual abuse, which increases a woman’s dependence on their animal companions for emotional support (Flynn, 2000). Despite the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, the majority of domestic violence shelters do not allow animal companions into their facilities. A survey of 767 shelters found 95.5% of cases also included animal abuse, 93.9% of victims consider staying in the abusive relationship for their pets, and 93.7% of victims talk about the animal abuse that occurred during their relationship while at the shelter. Yet 50.9% of shelters reported not asking about animal abuse in the intake process, and only 6% of shelters allowed for companion animals in the facility “ the other 76% who answered utilized veterinarians, shelters, or community support. However, it is worth noting that the main cause of not having companion animal services integrated into the shelter was due to lack of resources (Krienert, et al., 2012).
While the vast majority of domestic violence shelters do not offer services for women and their companion animals, two shelters which have been successful in their integration of animal and human services are the Rose Brooks Center, the LACASA Center, and the Urban Resource Institute. Rose Brooks is a domestic violence organization located in Kansas that offers emergency housing which accommodates victims, their families, and their pets. Rose Brooks offers a kennel for dogs and cats as well as other animals that is always accessible to families, which opened in 2012. The companion animals are also supported by volunteers and advocates (Rose Brooks, n.d.). The LACASA Center located in Michigan offers an alternative crisis shelter for pets and their owners “ the Safe Pet Place. Opening in 2002, the Safe Pet Place offers kennels which house companion animals ranging from dogs to iguanas (LACASA, n.d.). Finally, the Urban Resource Institute (URI) in New York City, which offers services for homeless families and individuals with developmental disabilities as well as domestic violence survivors, allows companion animals to live with their owners through a service called People and Animals Living Safely (PALS). PALS, like the Safe Pet Place, offers families support for companion animals beyond cats and dogs. PALS Place, which the website states as being slated to open in Fall 2018, is the first domestic violence shelter in the nation in which every apartment unit is made for co-living, sheltering pets alongside their families in the same apartment (Urban Resource Institute, n.d.).
In 2008, Massachusetts declared domestic violence as a public health emergency (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2010). There are many domestic violence shelters across the state, yet there are none which allow companion animals to be housed with their owners. Abby’s House domestic violence shelter located in Worcester offers emergency housing for women and their children, as well as housing units. Currently, neither the emergency housing nor the housing unit allows companion animals, and the housing unit strictly prohibits them (Abby’s House, n.d.). However, the decision to leave companion animals either with the abuser or to relinquish the animal to community support, a shelter, or another party can be devastating. The inclusion of companion animal services at Abby’s House would follow successful models which employ the use of on-site kennels that are accessible to women and their families 24/7. The kennels would employ volunteers and animal advocates, following the model of the Rose Brooks and LACASA centers. A gap in the information regarding existing companion animal services is the connection to veterinary services for animals who were injured in domestic abuse situations, as well as access to regular veterinary check ups. The companion animal advocates of Abby’s House would establish connections with local veterinarians to allow for covert check ups. Abby’s House would also receive support from a recently introduced House of Representatives bill, Pets and Women Safety Act (PAWS), which would employ the Department of Agriculture to offer grants for various support services including domestic violence housing that include space for companion animals (H.R.909, 2017). Abby’s House would also accept donations for companion animal necessities such as food and toys, in addition to monetary donations and other donation options already offered (Abby’s House, n.d.).
By opening doors to companion animals in addition to children and families, domestic violence shelters would be servicing more victims and would lessen the worry and pain victims feel when they have to leave their pets behind. Through the potential support of PAWS, as well as domestic violence shelters recognizing the link between domestic violence and animal abuse through discussion of the link and implementation of services after current successful models, there is hope that the likelihood for a victim to return to their abuser will reduce, and that victims and their families will be able to stay together in a safe and affirming environment.