Animals often suffer too in homes where violence resides

FEAR: The abuse animals experience ranges from neglect to cruelty. Picture: Shutterstock
FEAR: The abuse animals experience ranges from neglect to cruelty. Picture: Shutterstock

Domestic and family violence (DFV) is unfortunately common in our society, but many people don't realise that animals can also be victims of domestic and family violence.

A systematic review undertaken by Australian researchers found that the prevalence of animal abuse in households where DFV occurred ranged from 12 to 89 per cent.

The reason for this wide range relates to differing definitions of animal abuse between studies.

The reality is that the rates of animal abuse are high in households where DFV occurs.

Animal abuse is, of course, an animal welfare issue and it can be active (deliberate acts of cruelty designed to hurt) or passive (neglect or deprivation).

Animals that came from households where DFV occurred were less likely to receive regular veterinary care or routine vaccinations.

We know that animals can be physically and psychologically harmed by abuse, and are sometimes killed by DFV perpetrators, but in the context of DFV, animal abuse is a known indicator for serious risk to human life.

Women who reported that their partner had abused animals were more likely to suffer from more frequent, severe forms of abuse at the hands of their partner.

Perpetrators of animal abuse showed more controlling behaviours towards their partner.

In Australia, on average, one woman is killed by a current or former partner every week.

Threatening to harm or kill a family pet is one of the three highest risk factors for stalking and domestic homicide.

A recent study by Domestic Violence NSW found that 48 per cent of victim-survivors delayed leaving a DFV situation due to fears about what might happen to their animals if they left them behind.

Furthermore, victim-survivors are usually very attached to their animals, who are an important source of emotional support during difficult times.

It can be very difficult for victim-survivors to find safe, affordable, pet-friendly accommodation, often at short notice, and while dogs are the most common victims, any type of animal may be abused, including horses and farm animals.

Transporting and accommodating these animals can be logistically challenging.

For these reasons, it is important that veterinarians, domestic violence service providers, local government companion animal services and police - especially domestic violence liaison officers or DVLOs - understand the link between animal abuse and DFV.

Organisations including Lucy's Project, the Australian Veterinary Association and RSPCA NSW have provided recent resources to train those working with persons who may have experienced DFV to put them in touch with services that can provide practical help for humans and animals.

Increasingly, domestic violence shelters are providing safe accommodation for animals so that all victim-survivors can be safe.

RSPCA NSW runs the Community Domestic Violence Program, which can help organising short- to medium-term housing of animals from DFV situations.

Changes to the NSW Crimes Act in March 2021 ensure that it is an offence to harm or threaten to harm an animal.

Additionally, Apprehended Violence Orders explicitly prohibit a defendant from harming an animal belonging to or in care of the victim-survivor.

If you are in a situation where a partner or family member has threatened to harm yourself and/or your pets, contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), your local police domestic violence liaison officer, the RSPCA or the Animal Welfare League.

If you are in immediate danger, call emergency on 000.

REFERENCE

Cleary M, Thapa DK, West S, Westman M, Kornhaber R. Animal abuse in the context of adult intimate partner violence: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior 2021;61:101676.

Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.