The link between animal abuse and domestic violence

animal abuse and domestic violence

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting a link between animal abuse and family violence. Vets are in a position to help—but it’s a highly complex issue that requires tact and sensitivity. Susanna Nelson reports

For many vets, particularly those who work in emergency and critical care, the signs may be disturbingly familiar: the animal with an injury that doesn’t tally with the owner’s account of how it occurred; the lack of history or notes; the concerning behaviour of the owner or the pet. But it can often be hard to know what to do if you are suspicious that an animal has been deliberately harmed, or how to help that animal’s family.

The connection between cruelty to animals and violent crime has been accepted for many years, and research now indicates that companion animal abuse is a risk factor for violence within that animal’s family. 

“Animal abuse and interpersonal violence are highly interrelated, and there is a large volume of evidence to show they’re linked,” says Dr Elise Boller, senior lecturer in Emergency and Critical Care at the Melbourne Veterinary School.

Research from various sources indicates that between 53 and 85 per cent of women who experience family violence report acts or threats of abuse to the pets in their home. This can be an act of spontaneous aggression or a calculated action designed to terrify and control those living with the perpetrator. 

Dr Boller is involved in teaching and curriculum development, creating tools for vet students and nurses to help them identify the signs of this disturbing societal problem and refer clients safely. She and fellow academic, sociologist and senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Health Sciences, Dr Kristin Diemer, are working to raise awareness of the nexus between animal maltreatment and family violence. 

Pets may be used as a bargaining chip in family violence. A victim may be lured back to an unsafe situation because of threats to harm an animal still in the perpetrator’s care or may feel reluctant to leave the situation because of threats to harm or mistreat the animal. “Perpetrators can take advantage of victims’ sense of responsibility and compassion for animals,” says Dr Diemer.

“There is a high percentage of women who have delayed leaving violent situations because of fear for what will happen to their pets—and they can’t bring them with them to most shelters,” says Dr Boller. 

Telling signs

According to Dr Boller, there are some indicators that an animal may have been deliberately harmed

“One of the most important things is that the history is vague, or it is discrepant from the severity of injury that the animal has,” she says. 

Look for a pattern of injury on the animal; there are often characteristic features indicative of non-accidental injury in pets. Other injuries are much harder to discern. “You put all of those things together to decide whether the story fits together,” Dr Boller says. “And if it doesn’t, ask yourself if the person in front of you could be in danger.”

“Animal abuse and interpersonal violence are highly interrelated, and there is a large volume of evidence to show they’re linked.” —Dr Elise Boller, senior  lecturer, Melbourne Veterinary School.

A range of behavioural clues from both the pet and the owner can also betray the owner’s role: as either perpetrator or victim. “Clues from the owner include a history that is inconsistent with the findings, or no history,” says Dr Boller. “The owner can’t tell you what happened, or you hear conflicting stories. It could be that the pet has previous injuries, or there have been other pets in the past with injuries—or other pets that have died.” 

If the client is new to you, it could be because they have been vet hopping in the hope that a pattern won’t be recognised. There could be new puppies and kittens and no sign of previous pets. 

It might be unclear who the animal lives with or who owns it. The owner could be behaving oddly towards staff or the other family member in the room. They might not be offering what appears to be genuine concern for the pet. Then you could also look for clues from the pet—is it behaving fearfully? 

Taking action

What should vets do if they put the pieces together and suspect family violence? “Rule one—don’t be judgmental,” advises Dr Boller. “You might have a victim in front of you. If she feels judged about the condition of her animal, it will be a very long time before she trusts anyone again to open up about what she’s going through.”

Be careful about automatically giving out information, particularly where a pet is microchipped. “There are all sorts of complexities regarding pet ownership and the tracking system,” says Dr Diemer. “If the perpetrator is listed as the registered pet owner, he can call up and find out where the pet is if she has taken it for safety reasons.” Similarly, if you suspect a domestic violence situation and both the perpetrator and the victim are in attendance, it is not safe to raise the issue of family violence in front of them.

“A vet’s priority is to look after the best interests of the animal, but we realise that the health of people and the health of animals are intertwined,” says Dr Boller. “If an animal seems to have a non-accidental injury, you must consider whether the owner might be at risk as well—and just ask: ‘Do you need any help keeping your pet safe at home?’, or ‘Do you feel safe at home?’.”

Dr Diemer agrees. “It’s about safe ways to ask questions, supporting the pet as well as the family—so you keep them coming back rather than running away,” she says.

“You may just ask simple, gentle questions at the beginning and create a supportive environment so the person who brought the pet in can come back. If the pet is injured again or not healing, find a way to ask more questions.” 

It’s important to keep detailed notes. This documentation can later be used to support a victim’s subsequent application for an intervention order. Similarly, if the abusive partner is the registered owner and the victim wants to take the pet with her, she might need some documented evidence from you. 

“At the moment we’re raising awareness of the issues and complexities,” says Dr Diemer. “We’re working on developing referral pathways and resources to assist vets, vet nurses and practice managers. It’s important to know what the family violence support services are in your local area; 1800 Respect is a good resource if you are unsure where to start.

“There are three prongs: to be able to train vets in a way that’s safe and effective for both their practice and the families; to be involved in some of the research so we can record this data to build the evidence base, and so we can document the injuries to pets that may have a family violence-related injury,” Dr Diemer says. “We need data, and vets can help with this.” 

If you can help Drs Boller and Diemer with their work, email: k.diemer@unimelb.edu.au


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