The cases bear remarkable similarities. A woman in a long-term abusive relationship. A man with an explosive temper uses threats and violence to maintain control and frighten everyone in the home. A beloved family dog. A treasured cat. Children who bear witness to everything.

Sometimes, the animal gets lucky—a black lab, Lola, showed up at animal sanctuary Pasado’s Safe Haven with hundreds of stitches and missing eight teeth. Prosecutors say the animal’s owner had used a pitchfork, pocketknife and crowbar to try to destroy the trusting family dog. The owner had already murdered and burned the family rabbit alive. The dog lived, after extensive care and healing.

These cases aren’t unusual. In fact, up to 70% of the rescued animals that come to Pasado’s Safe Haven hail from homes where domestic violence is suspected.

“The abuser sees animal threats and abuse as a method of control and an approach for terrorizing victims,” says Kirsten Gregory, director of animal cruelty response and prevention at Pasado’s Safe Haven. “It’s not uncommon for domestic violence abusers to kill, injure or threaten even the friends of victims’ pets, or family members’ pets — even threatening their partner’s mom’s cat. Folks making those threats often end up committing some form of abuse or violence toward that animal.”

Decades of research show a link between domestic violence and abuse. Studies show between 50% to 70% of female domestic violence survivors with pets say their abusers threatened, harmed, or even killed their animals.

Roots of abuse

According to the Humane Society, studies show those who intentionally abuse animals are more likely to be men, and the animals most targeted for abuse are dogs and cats. Links between animal abuse and domestic violence can look like:

  • Refusing to allow a partner to take an animal to the vet or spend money on pet food.
  • Threatening to harm or kill a pet if a partner leaves.
  • Blaming the victim for the abuser’s cruelty toward the animal.
  • Killing a pet, then acting like it ran away.
  • Harming children’s pets in front of children.

Unfortunately, studies also show that when children observe animal abuse or domestic violence, they’re at greater risk of continuing the violence cycle as adults — either living with an abuser or committing abuse themselves.

Animal abuse can indicate other violence in the home toward partners, children or older people. Not all domestic violence involves intimate partners — several rescued animals in Washington also led to the rescue of neglected elderly adults, according to Pasado’s Safe Haven.

But Washington law enforcement officers are now being trained to recognize signs of animal abuse — whether a limping cat or a dog with a damaged eye socket. Pasado’s Safe Haven provides technical assistance to law enforcement, when suspected animal abuse occurs. The nonprofit works with law enforcement and animal control organizations as a partner, gently encouraging, following up, and coordinating resources.

That might look like providing forms needed to investigate animal abuse or neglect, lining up a veterinarian to accompany and evaluate animals after gaining a search warrant, providing transportation for animals to Pasado’s, or assisting veterinarians in writing a forensic report on abuse observed. “The animals act as evidence in prosecution,” Gregory says. “We remove any obstacle.”

Leaving abuse behind

Some partners feel trapped in a Catch-22, as many shelters don’t accommodate pets, but the animal could be harmed if left behind. Some organizations work with domestic abuse survivors to take in the family’s animals. The survivor feels she can depart and can welcome furry family members once in a safer, more stable situation without the abuser present.

Survivors are often more likely to discuss animal mistreatment first with law enforcement or Pasado’s. Prosecutors may be able to make animal abuse charges stick, even if an abused partner decides not to testify about other violence in the home.

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“Unfortunately, what we often see is that a victim of domestic violence whose pet has been injured or killed by an abuser at some point pulls back and doesn’t want to pursue the case,” Gregory says. “But if we’ve already developed a case of animal cruelty, that gives law enforcement another way to pursue the abuser, even if the victim doesn’t participate.”

Sentencing isn’t quite where it might be, though. “Heinous acts of cruelty are sometimes only given community service and a fine,” Gregory says. However, those convicted of animal cruelty are forbidden from owning another animal.

“I wish more people knew how strong the correlation is,” Gregory says. “When or if you see an incident of animal abuse or cruelty, it should raise giant red flags to look at what’s happening to humans in the family unit. More animals and humans can be protected through awareness.” 

It’s also important for individuals experiencing domestic violence to know that court protection orders can include pets and that there are an increasing number of domestic violence shelters across Washington State that accept pets or can help make arrangements for their care.  The Animal Welfare Institute’s Safe Havens Mapping Project is one resource for locating organizations and services that assist people in domestic violence situations and their animals.

Note: If you see animal cruelty occurring, it may be a symptom of other problems in the home. Report promptly by calling 911 or reading Pasado’s tips on reporting animal cruelty.

Pasado’s Safe Haven has a comprehensive approach to fighting animal cruelty. In addition to investigating crimes against animals and providing sanctuary to abused animals, they advocate for better laws to protect animals and educate the public about how they can help.