By: Sarah Kelley, AmeriCorps Program Coordinator
For many of us, pets are like family. During the pandemic, we turned to our pets as a way to cope with loneliness, boredom, mental health challenges, and stress. For individuals who have experienced past traumas like domestic violence and homelessness, pets can play an especially important support role. When thinking about domestic violence, you might not immediately consider the impact violence has on pets in the home or what role animals play in the abuse. However, domestic violence advocates are increasingly aware of the strong link between animal abuse and domestic violence. Given that approximately 85 million American households have pets, and over 10 million people are survivors of intimate partner violence every year, the number of domestic violence incidents that involve pets is significant (The Safe Haven Network).
The unconditional love and support from a pet can have many benefits, including reducing our stress, social isolation, depression, and blood pressure. Animals can also increase our quality of life, happiness, prosocial behaviors, and allow us to feel needed as caregivers and nurturers. Many pets, especially dogs, can be extremely loyal and protective of us. This strong bond between pets and their owners can be used manipulatively, especially in cases of domestic violence. Animals can be used by abusers to reinforce power and control over someone, to terrorize or frighten them, eliminate a source of comfort and support, or coerce someone into staying in an abusive relationship longer. In fact, 65% of domestic violence survivors report feeling unable to leave their abusers because of concern for what will happen to their pet when they leave (Partners for Peace).
So, what can we do about this? One important step we can take to help individuals trying to leave abusive situations, is advocating for shelters that allow people to bring their pets. Many of us aren’t aware of how few homeless and domestic violence (DV) shelters actually allow animals. The SAF-T Program is a global initiative helping domestic violence shelters to create on-site pet housing for families fleeing violence. Their website tracks a growing list of pet friendly DV shelters throughout the world. Currently the site has 236 shelters listed for the United States, which means that on average each state has less than 5 Pet-Friendly DV shelters available. Despite the fact that Chicago is the 3rd largest city in the country, and that domestic violence calls surged during COVID-19, there are currently no pet-friendly DV shelters in the city. The closest pet-friendly DV shelter is in Quincy, IL, which is about a 5 hour drive from Chicago.
Having shelters available that recognize the power of the human-animal bond can help survivors heal faster and avoid homelessness. Many survivors will choose homelessness over separation from their pet, even if that means living in their car for multiple months at a time. It might be easy to walk down the street and pass judgment on a homeless person with their dog or think, “Can this person really take care of their pet?”. It is a common misconception that people experiencing homelessness can’t take care of their pets. Organizations like The Safe Haven Network are trying to combat stereotypes against homelessness and animal companionship, and help people understand that pet-owners experiencing homelessness are not much different than pet-owners who are housed. They love their pets, treat them like family, and will do whatever it takes to take good care of them.
For people experiencing domestic violence and homelessness, a pet can be the one thing that gives them the love, courage, and strength to face the day. A dog or cat can be a lifeline for their owner and a reason to survive and get out of a harmful situation. As a community, we can spread awareness about the link between animal abuse, domestic violence, and homelessness. We can also advocate and empower shelters to start making pet-accommodations and help them see the immense value of allowing individuals to remain with their pet.
If you are interested in advocating for this cause, please consider donating or volunteering your time with The Safe Haven Network.