Part of the family: Why domestic violence victims won't leave unless their pets are safe

Domestic violence affects everyone who resides in a home where it occurs. That includes humans and pets.

Ninety-five percent of Americans consider their pets to be part of the family. These animal family members are often a critical component of households, providing comfort during life’s hardest moments and enhancing joy during life’s best.

Yet, despite their important role in the household, pets are rarely included in domestic violence prevention or intervention initiatives. This glaring omission results in failure to protect not only pets but also the humans who are often so tightly connected to them.

When communities do not include pets in their domestic violence intervention planning, perpetrators may be more likely to target them in acts of abuse. Perpetrators often threaten or abuse pets in the home to further control and prevent victims of domestic violence from reporting abuse to authorities.

Children often witness abuse of animals

When children reside in the home, perpetrators will go out of their way to make sure the children directly witness the animal abuse – often to inflict as much emotional anguish and harm on the household as possible.

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Acts of pet abuse in this context can be extremely effective in delaying reports of domestic violence. My recent study in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that victims of domestic violence, on average, will experience 10 incidents before calling 911.

When the domestic violence perpetrator also harms animals in the home, victims wait until they experience 20 to 50 violent incidents before calling 911. This critical delay in reporting can span eight to 12 months and results in extreme danger for all who reside in the home. Acts of domestic violence during this “critical delay” seem to increase in severity and frequency with each occurrence.

Children reside in 59% of homes where domestic violence is reported and are significantly harmed emotionally and psychologically by these abusive acts.

Pets can play a critical role in the lives of children who witness domestic violence by providing stability, support, comfort, consistency and love. Children may form significant attachments to pets and depend upon them for health, well-being and even survival. Studies find that pet dogs can be a better buffer against the emotional effects of exposure to abuse and stress than a child’s own caregivers.

The importance of working to protect humans and pets from abuse is evident in the growing mountain of academic literature on the topic and is echoed by the voices of victims and survivors themselves.

An international survey indicated that 87% of domestic violence victim respondents felt a safe place to bring their pet would make their decision to leave the violent home and relationship easier.

Few shelters for victims will accept their pets

Despite this overwhelming response from victims, pet-friendly service options continue to lag. (For a searchable list of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, visit

To fill this gap in services, some communities offer “fostering” options for pets when their humans enter a shelter. These programs are certainly helpful in keeping humans fleeing a dangerous home from having to leave their pets behind.

Even so, these foster programs still result in separation at the very time these human-pet pairs need each other the most. This separation can result in significant anxiety for both humans and pets and add an additional layer of emotional trauma.

Younger children are unlikely to understand that a pet is “safe” in a home they cannot see. “Safety” is unfortunately a concept unknown to many children who reside in abusive homes.

While barriers to sheltering pets exist, none is insurmountable, and the clear upside to working through any barriers far outweighs them. There is no excuse for our continued failure to protect vulnerable pets from abuse along with their humans. Finding ways to adapt domestic violence shelters to allow for pets is not about choosing pets over people, but rather about getting human-pet pairs to safety who would otherwise never come.

One cannot expect victims of domestic violence to believe we are wholeheartedly in their corner while we continue to force them to leave their pets behind in a dangerous home. When humans are abused by humans, they often understandably struggle to trust other humans. Animals are critical to the domestic violence recovery, healing and rebuilding process – when they are permitted to take part.

We must work to better protect pets in homes where domestic violence occurs not only because they deserve safety but also because when they are safe their humans are safer too. The well-being of humans and animals in these homes is often so intertwined that we cannot best protect either unless we work to protect both.

These pairs have hurt together for so long, it’s time we let them heal together.

Andrew Campbell, founder and CEO of Campbell Research & Consulting, is author of "Not Without My Pet: Understanding the Relationship Between Victims of Domestic Violence and Their Pets."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Domestic violence: Helping victims includes protecting their pets