Our pets are family members. They quickly become integrated into most aspects of our lives. It can be hard enough to make arrangements for pets when needing to move, or even just go on vacation. When it comes to leaving a domestic violence situation, it becomes exponentially more complicated.
People facing abuse often hesitate to leave the situation due to fear of abandoning their pets. Women are usually the primary caretakers of household pets, and don't want to leave animals in harms way or risk not seeing them again. According to RedRover, a nonprofit organization dedicated to taking animals out of crisis situations, 48 percent of women in shelters delayed leaving an abuser, or have returned after leaving, out of fear that their animals would be harmed.
The consequences for pets living in an abusive home
The connection between animal and human abuse is undeniable. According to Rachel Stevens, a program manager with RedRover, 71 percent of pet-owning women entering shelters reported that their batterer had hurt or threatened family pets for revenge or control. "Both pets and people are at risk in an abusive household, but unfortunately most domestic violence shelters do not accept pets," she admits. RedRover created the Safe Housing grant program, which helps shelters create safe spaces for furry family members in need. "We want shelters to know that offering pet-housing options helps families remove a barrier to safety and allows people and pets to escape abuse together."
Breaking free from domestic violence
Stevens believes removing this hurdle for women is the next logical step in the evolution of services and resources available to survivors. No one should have to choose between family and safety. "Pets provide comfort and stability during a tumultuous time, especially if there are children involved. The pet is perhaps the one thing reminding the family of home while they are in the shelter, and can provide unconditional love and support needed to make it through a challenging time," Stevens says.
There are several online directories, like SafePlaceforPets.org, that list domestic violence shelters with pet resources by area. The first step is to let the domestic violence shelter know you have pets. There may be a local organization with resources to house the pets while staying at the shelter. If not, reaching out to friends and family may be worthwhile. The Humane Society of the United States encourages victims to contact nearby animal shelters, veterinarians, or boarding kennels to see if they have a safe haven for animals program or can provide temporary care for your pet."If the domestic violence shelter cannot accept pets, and there are no community resources available (such as foster homes), RedRover offers Safe Escape grants, which will pay to board the animal while the client is in shelter," Stevens recommends.
Starting over, pets included
The resources available for pet owners in a domestic violence situation will vary greatly by area; this can be good news and bad news. Sharron Brady, Director of the Kedish House Domestic Violence Program in North Dakota, actually believes their rural setting is an advantage over more urban areas. "I've sheltered pets at my own house, and some of the motels we work with for shelter will allow animals in so they can stay with their families ... A local groomer has even offered to board pets. There are a lot of people we could call if we needed help locating a place for a family's pets in need," she thankfully notes. Law enforcement can rescue and remove an animal from the home that is suspected to be in danger. Brady has even had the ability to include pets in protection orders as "property" so the survivor can regain ownership. "I would never tell a victim to just leave a pet. We will find a way to handle the situation ... Pets play a very important role for victims leaving an abusive home. They help soothe kids that have had to leave everything behind. Just to hold them and stroke them is comforting," Brady says.
Even if temporary housing doesn't allow animals, community organizations may be able to offer financial assistance for cat/dog boarding kennels, and small animal rescues may volunteer to find a temporary foster for exotic pets. Keep in mind the transition is stressful for the pets, too, and it's ideal for them to stay together if there are multiple. "It helps to send them with a soft towel or blanket that smells like home if the animal has to be housed separately or put in a kennel," Brady advises.
No one should have to choose between safety and a beloved family member. While it's true only a staggering 3 percent of domestic violence shelters have accommodations for pets, resources are available. Luckily, organizations like RedRover exist to provide financial assistance for domestic violence survivors and their pets. RedRover offers grants to local shelters wanting to make more room for pets from violent households, so hopefully this small percentage will continue to increase.
If you are a victim of domestic violence and need immediate assistance, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799-7233.