In the United Kingdom, there’s a growing awareness and proactive response to domestic abuse and violence within the Police and legal firms. Law enforcement now diligently attends to emergency calls and subtle pleas for help from victims. The tragic murder of Clare Wood spurred her father’s successful campaign for Clare’s Law, affording individuals the ‘right to know’ and ‘right to ask’ about their partner or spouse’s history—an essential resource now prominently featured on police websites nationwide. Organisations like Refuge and Respect support individuals in abusive relationships, regardless of gender. Additionally, hospitals contribute to raising awareness by displaying posters in consultation rooms, highlighting one prevalent injury associated with physical abuse: chest injuries.
But there is the harrowing landscape of domestic abuse directed at pets in the same setting as the human abused victim. Pets often bear the burden of being the silent victims, suffering behind closed doors at the hands of abusers. It is the stark, heartbreaking reality of pets in domestic abuse. While the focus of such abuse primarily revolves around controlling the human victim into submission, pets are tragically exploited as an extension of this manipulation. This exploration, physical and verbal abuse takes its toll too – animals develop fear and shutdown, health deterioration, or fear aggression as the canine pet steadily climbs the ladder of aggression. A vet, the dog warden and rescues may never know about any animal’s past. Therefore, the abandoned animal, the pet handed into a rescue or taken to a veterinary practice for euthanasia by the unregistered keeper, is misunderstood leading to tragic consequences.
Domestic abuse – written with authority
The bond between victim and their pet is exploited
Victim: partner or spouse
Abusers recognise the deep bond between their victims and their beloved pets, exploiting it to tighten their control over the abused. However, in contrast, during the early stages of the relationship, the abuser will portray themselves as an animal lover to gain points with the person they selected as their next victim. Some abusers will adopt a pet from a rescue centre as a gift for their victim then as the bond grows, the pet becomes the pawn for control and destroying the victim. Typically, this is during the Love Bombing stage.
Their portrayal of love for animals may continue combined with subtle threats, with abuse directed at the human victim escalating. The abuser ‘plays’ outsiders, even the victim’s family, into believing he or she is wonderful. Behind closed doors, the abuser tears the victim apart with words, actions, and initial physical actions. Week by week the abuser grows in power, and the victim becomes more terrified and vulnerable, existing in a dark world of fear, entrapment and suicidal thoughts. Read more about the series of abuse – do you recognise any signs?
Knowing that you’ll leave your pet in the hands of the abuser can stop you from committing suicide. Still, the spiralling descent of worthlessness, losing your ‘identity’, anxiety and physical abuse seriously affect your mental health. The victim will protect their pet, living in fear of harm and the bond between the owner and pet stops them from leaving the abusive environment, fearing for the pet’s safety if they escape.
Unfortunately, refuges do not accept pets. This presents a major and dangerous problem leaving if you are without family.
The behavioural consequences of an abused pet
A study conducted by a charity (Refuge4Pets) aimed at rescuing animals and victims from domestic abuse has found that animals were also abused in 88% of cases surveyed. It also found that 1 in 10 cases involved an animal being killed as a means of intimidation.Vet Times – November 2021
In an even darker twist, abusers deliberately harm pets to assert dominance and instil fear in their human targets. These defenceless animals are subjected to physical violence, leading to aggression or fear-aggression. Some pets may instinctively protect or guard their abused owners, placing themselves in harm’s way.
Similar to humans, an animal can only take so much. Using dogs as an example, the canine ladder of aggression is a dog’s way of communicating fear. Ignored, it peaks to growling, snapping and biting. Too many dogs are euthanised for behavioural issues but again, like us, experiencing abuse profoundly affects physical and mental health.
Fear from Abuse – The victim will be terrified of the abuser, especially when they sense the ‘change’ is happening at any given time of day. When a pet is constantly beaten, screamed at or witnesses physical or verbal abuse towards its owner, or senses an unhealthy situation or lifestyle, or the unhealthy mental changes towards its owner, it may shake, urinate, chew, hide, and even lose weight and eventually become verbally distressed when touched.
The toll of domestic abuse on pets is evident in their behaviour and health. Many pets experience weight loss and suffer from nerves because of the constant fear they endure. Physical injuries may also be prevalent.
Fear Aggression from Abuse – cats may lash out with claws, dogs may display aggression through growling and baring teeth, and small animals may bite. Repeated abuse overwhelms pets emotionally, turning fear into aggression. Injuries often result from this perpetual torment.
Guarding the Victim – the deep pet-owner bond enables pets to sense emotional shifts. Dogs may take on a protective ‘guardian’ role, shielding their owner (a victim) from the threat of physical harm or the presence of the abuser.
I recently met a couple who adopted a dog from a domestic abuse home. The dog had suffered from regular head beatings and guarded its owner from abuse. In its new, safe environment, the dog initially guarded the woman but eventually grew to trust the husband and the guarding stopped. The dog remains wary of strangers when out with the female owner but gradually grows in confidence and trust. Any dog, when a victim of domestic abuse, needs recovery time following mental and physical abuse and a rescue, vet or pet-parent must offer patience, support and understanding.
Denying Welfare – the abuser will deny a pet food, starvation, veterinary visits, and medication. Another trait of the abuser is financial control – a victim may experience frequent threats of withholding money and often carry it out.
Shutdown – like humans, pets can only take so much of abuse. As a human victim, you reach the edge of coping mentally. We cry. We feel suicidal because it’s the only way to escape mental or physical torture. The same applies to pets. How often have you seen a photograph from a rescue centre showing a dog sitting facing the wall?
Euthanasia or Abandonment – The narcissist abuser will go to any lengths to destroy the victim mentally. In some distressing cases, the abuser may present the victim’s beloved pet for euthanasia, thus manipulating and breaking the victim emotionally. Because of the strong bond between a pet and a victim, having a beloved pet secretly euthanised is one way to break the victim in a big way. Tuks Law fights against the euthanasia of healthy pets. They are also campaigning for rescues and veterinarians to record all euthanasia cases and to check the person presenting a pet is the registered keeper. An abuser’s trait is to destroy anything you love and cherish. Their ultimate goal is to control, manipulate and exert power over you by gradually destroying these things, living or material, over time.
Another decision some abusers may make is to abandon a pet, allowing the victim to believe the pet escaped the home or run off. The pet is left to fend for themselves in a world they don’t understand.
Becoming a pet foster parent WILL save lives
A welfare charity has issued an urgent appeal for new foster carers to come forward to help dog owners fleeing from domestic abuse.
Leaders of the Freedom Project, which is managed by Dogs Trust, say demand for its services has risen by 23% in the past year alone.
Research by the charity has found that an overwhelming majority of professionals working with domestic abuse survivors have identified the use of animals as a means of perpetrators controlling their victims.Vet Times – August 2023
It is disturbing knowing some abusers may use pets as a pawn, threatening to harm or even kill them if the victim resists their control. With ongoing physical, coercive and mental abuse, a victim eventually shutdowns too. Pushed to the brink, a victim may rarely but suddenly stand up to the abuser with a raised voice. But this makes the situation worse as the abuser wants you to react. You are then punished and your pet might be too.
Watch the Video: Dogs Trust – real-life stories (contains upsetting content)
I have already mentioned that in the early stages of a relationship, the abuser will express love for animals, matching your love of pets and your own. The abusive narcissist does not have empathy and is experienced in deception. If you are an animal lover but do not have a pet, some abusers will surprise you with a gift – adoption from an animal rescue. Their aim is not a gift to make you happy. The ulterior motive is to deepen control over you and potentially use the animal’s vulnerability as a means of control.
The abuser will go to extraordinary lengths to isolate victims from family and friends. Two examples are – persuasion to sell your car and burning or getting rid of your mobile phone. The victim keeps their suffering hidden, concealing the abuse from the world out of shame and fear of judgment. You lose your identity and Will, and the growing threats of your pet being harmed if you leave is terrifying.
Regrettably, any refuges serving as temporary sanctuaries for individuals fleeing domestic abuse often present a significant challenge by not accommodating pets but give four recommended charities to contact. It’s heartening to note that several charitable organisations in the UK provide temporary foster care under a domestic abuse scheme for a diverse range of pets and livestock.
So help is provided for your pets but more charities are needed. These charities offer a safe and secret haven that protects your pet while you stay in a refuge. Charities also rely on foster parents and Dogs Trust, as one example, welcomes more applications for foster carers; in turn, the lives of animals of all sizes and species have a future. Before becoming a foster parent, I recommend reading about domestic abuse and violence and understanding that some pets need longer to adjust emotionally than others, like us.
As a foster parent, you will never meet the owner, and the owner will never know your location. The exchange of an animal and their location remains confidential. Through the charity you will receive updates and often, photographs, giving you the opportunity of reassurance that your pet is happy and safe.
Can you dedicate six to nine months to a pet-victim of domestic abuse?
“Cats Protection and Dogs Trust say referrals to their initiatives to help pet owners fleeing domestic violence have soared by nearly 60% this year (2022).”
Trapped in the cycle of abuse, many victims stay with their abusers because a domestic abuse refuge often cannot accommodate pets. Therefore, it is essential to highlight the schemes these charities offer to help victims, both humans and animals, live safely and begin to restart their lives.
- Dogs Trust – Freedom Project
- Cats Protection – Paws Protect
- Endeavour Project – cats, small animals, fish, reptiles. Partnered with Dogs Trust for canine help
- Refuge 4 Pets – includes livestock, horses, exotics, small animals, birds, fish, horses, birds
Read my article 4 Pet Charities Offering Foster Care for Domestic Abuse Survivors. The article also gives an insight into what happens to someone in a domestic abuse relationship.
Watch the Video: Dogs Trust – Finding Freedom
Are some animals slipping through the system?
“Vets fall into three categories:
The Links Group with Dogs Trust, Paula Boyden BVetMed MRCVS
- Don’t hear, don’t see…
- See & hear but don’t want to know …
- See, hear and want to help …”
Read more at The Links Group (contains upsetting content)
It is essential to be alert ….
- Animals presented for euthanasia
- Animals with injuries
- Animals with behavioural issues
- Animals with weight loss and deterioration with a life-long illness
Rescue centres, dog wardens and veterinary practices must be aware of the significant damage of emotional and physical injuries. As a human victim, suffering mental and physical abuse for a prolonged period takes its toll, and facing the simplest tasks such as getting up, making a coffee or even leaving the house is hard. A pet, dependent on us, experiences the impact of mental and physical abuse, too. Close to the victim, a pet can also react through health issues or emotions because of the abuse towards its owner.
Although domestic abuse is becoming more well-known, there must be more guidelines and transparency for rescue centres and veterinary practices about pets’ injuries and deaths in domestic abuse cases. Posters in waiting rooms, consultation rooms, reception areas, pet retailers, and on social media must exist to bring awareness and warning about domestic abuse:
- Pets can face harm and death
- Where to find information about domestic abuse (eg early signs)
- Keeping your pets safe
- Clare’s Law
- Charities offering pet fostering
- Become a pet fosterer
Regarding rescue centres, animals with severe or mild behavioural issues could suffer from domestic abuse repercussions. Therefore, animal behaviour needs more understanding of why it’s happening, the causes and the time needed for rehabilitation.
If an animal is to be euthanised because of behaviour resulting from domestic violence but can be rehabilitated, death is unfair to an innocent animal. Animals brought in for veterinary consultation and suffering from injury could be from domestic violence – identifying the pet owner’s behaviour is not the vet’s job. Still, concerns can be voiced to the Police that they are concerned about domestic abuse. The Police investigate because the owner could be subjected to similar violence in the home. They will ask you questions, and any harm to animals.
Again, the plight of these innocent creatures highlights the urgent need for more comprehensive support systems that encompass both human and animal victims of domestic abuse.
Currently, the UK faces a cost of living crisis, and rescue centres are facing the impact as more and more pets are surrendered, but charities helping victims with fostering continue. Those charities helping pets from domestic abuse will understand behavioural issues. However, other rescues may lack knowledge and resources when an animal has behavioural issues and may decide euthanasia is preferable because a surrendered or abandoned animal is unadoptable.
Remember, these pets never chose to live in a world of mental, physical and health abuse.
By addressing this aspect, we can protect the vulnerable and provide a glimmer of hope to those trapped in the darkness of domestic abuse. Only then can we truly advocate for the voiceless victims and break the cycle of violence that traps them.
How do I know if my partner has abused others?
Clare Wood was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Her father initiated Clare’s Law, which you’ll find on Police and Government websites. Clare’s Law gives you the ‘right to ask’ and ‘right to know’ whether your partner has a history of violence. It is a long process, but worth applying if you have concerns about how your partner is towards you.
If you are uncomfortable with the slightest and brief change in your relationship, read about narcissistic behaviour and signs of domestic abuse. In the early days, I put two moments down to a ‘bad day’ or a little too much alcohol. I never once considered those moments to be an insight into what was to come and this is why I want you to take note. When in a domestic abuse relationship and an abuser has power over you, it is not easy to leave.
Under Clare’s Law, your partner’s history will only be logged if previously arrested. I called 999.
“Why didn’t you just leave?”
This is a common question asked by those who have never experienced domestic abuse. As mentioned, a narcissistic abuser will destroy your personality, mental health, confidence, and identity, and hurt you. You become terrified. They will threaten you and your pets if you leave.
Someone in a domestic abuse situation needs external help—someone who can step forward and plan the escape from this type of relationship. If you have no one, please call Refuge, or Respect, a Men’s Advice Line. Making calls can be difficult and dangerous when in a controlling relationship.
Keeping the link between fosterer and pet owner
When the victim and pet are separated – the victim is safe in designated accommodation and the pet is safe in a foster home – it can be challenging emotionally combined with worry about not having a pet by their side. A charity will be the ‘go between’ and will pass updates and photographs from the foster parent to the owner.
- Pay attention to negative signs in the early stages of a relationship
- Apply to Clare’s Law if you have concerns about your relationship
- A third party can apply if concerned about a friend or family
- It is complex and can be life-threatening when planning or leaving the abuser
- You and your pets do need third-party help – find someone you trust
- Pets will be used, abused or killed
- If you can, contact charities who help with domestic abuse
- Always delete history on your mobile and other devices
- It is emotionally and mentally challenging, but you and your pet can start a new and safe life together
Feature image credit: Mylene 2401 from Pixabay
Written with authority