THE BLOG
02/11/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2013

This Valentine's Day, Remember All Victims of Domestic Violence: Both Humans and Animals

In my last article, I introduced the notion that there is a strong connection between human and animal welfare. This connection is particularly evident in domestic violence.

Last month, in Lake Charles, LA, a man was arrested for beating his girlfriend, Tiffany Nocosia, and killing her dog. The girlfriend described the horrific scene:

"He grabs my dog and slings her across the room against a wall. I go to pick her up ... she still is breathing and twitching so I started to try and revive her. He comes and says I'm going to make sure that dog is dead and continues to throw her against the wall," said Nocosia. "A four-pound little innocent dog. She then defecates and he rubs it in my face."

Sadly, incidents like this one are far from isolated, instead occurring in homes across the U.S., and worse yet, these crimes appear to increase during holidays like Valentines' Day. So as Valentine's Day approaches, we should be vigilant for any signs of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is one of the most pressing public health issues we face. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 69 percent of women report physical abuse by an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime (1). Worldwide, approximately 40 million children are abused yearly (2).

Still unrecognized by WHO, CDC and other public health organizations, however, is the fact that animal abuse is one of the most reliable indicators of domestic violence. Research has substantially linked the abuse of animals with other forms of violence.

Companion animals are increasingly viewed as family members. Almost two-thirds of U.S. households with young children have companion animals and in one study, 7-to-10-year-old children named on average two animals each when listing the 10 most important individuals in their lives.

Harm to companion animals can cause tremendous grief and anxiety in their loved ones. Unfortunately, abusers will exploit these close relationships, which risks the lives and well-being of both the animals and the abused family member(s). This is often done as a means to exert control and intimidation over other members of the family (3.4). For example, an abusive father may hurt the family dog in order to scare his spouse or children into submission.

Battered women often refuse to escape their abusive situations because they worry about the repercussions to their companion animals left behind. In a survey of 107 battered women, almost half of those with companion animals reported that their abusers threatened or harmed the animals (5).

Indeed, among women with animals, a threat of harm against the animals is one of the most common reasons for their delaying seeking shelter from partner violence (6,7). Because most women's shelters do not allow animals, women are usually left with two options: to either stay with their abuser or leave their animal behind and risk that the abuser will harm the animal out of vengeance.

There have been some efforts to create shelters that take in all victims of violence -- both human and nonhuman. However, the number of shelters providing such services is still only a handful. We need far more of these shelters to help abuse victims escape their violent situations.

Helping women and children leave violent households earlier by providing combined human-animal shelters not only helps all victims, but may also help thwart the cycle of violence. Children who witness domestic violence or who are victims of violence are much more likely to abuse animals themselves.

For example, in one study, a shocking 88 percent of families in which children were physically abused also had histories of animal cruelty (8). The fathers committed two-thirds of the animal cruelties and the children themselves committed almost one-third. Children harming animals is a clear warning sign that they are also at risk for harm.

Despite the connection between animal abuse and other forms of violence, cruelty toward animals is still often regarded (mistakenly so) as isolated incidents and given low priority as a societal issue of concern. As long as we turn a blind eye toward animal abuse, we will continue to foster an environment that perpetuates all forms of violence.

Each one of us can help stop this cycle of violence. Support the enactment and enforcement of stronger animal cruelty laws. Crimes against animals are often ignored, given low priority or under-punished (9). Encourage lawmakers to create online registries of animal abusers, similar to those of sexual offenders, and laws that allow judges to include animal companions in court-issued restraining orders against domestic abusers. Finally, if you suspect animal abuse, please don't ignore it -- report it to the proper authorities. By taking these actions, we can take a stand against violence, including violence against the most vulnerable.

Dr. Akhtar is the author of the book: Animals and Public Health. Why Treating Animals Better is Critical to Human Welfare. You can learn more at her website.

References:

1. Harvey A, Garcia-Moreno C, Butchart A. Primary prevention of intimate partner violence and sexual violence: Background paper for WHO expert meeting. May 2-3, 2007. World Health Organization; 2007.
2. World Health Organization. Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect: Making the links between human rights and public health. Geneva; 2001.
3. Gupta M. Functional links between intimate partner violence and animal abuse: Personality features and representations of aggression. Society & Animals 2008; 16: 223-242.
4. Gallagher B, Allen M, Jones B. Animal abuse and intimate partner violence: Researching the link and its significance in Ireland--A veterinary perspective. Irish Veterinary Journal 2008; 61: 658-667.
5. Flynn CP. "Women's best friend: Pet abuse and the role of companion animals in the lives of battered women" Violence Against Women 2000; 6: 162-177.
6. Faver CA, Strand EB. To leave or stay? Battered women's concern for vulnerable pets. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 2003; 18: 1367-1377.
7. Ascione FR. Battered women's reports of their partners and their children's cruelty to animals. Journal of Emotional Abuse 1998; 1: 199-233.
8. DeViney E, Dickert J, Lockwood R. "The care of pets within child abusing families" International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems 1983; 4: 321-329
9. Flynn CP. "Acknowledging the zoological connection: A sociological analysis of animal cruelty" Society & Animals 2001; 9: 71-87