Protecting All the Victims of Domestic Violence

03/05/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated May 05, 2015

2015-03-05-1425569756-7110390-dogg2.jpgIn America, one out of four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and a woman is abused every nine seconds. Many of these women survive by courageously leaving their homes and finding safety in area shelters. But for some, the decision to save their own lives becomes much more difficult when pets are involved.

M., a domestic violence survivor, chose her life over her home, but says she "would have left much sooner" if she knew she could protect her pets. M.'s abuser killed her dog and cat and used the act to threaten her daughter's life and prevent M. from leaving.

K., a 34-year-old mother of two, delayed leaving her abusive husband because none of the domestic violence shelters in her area would allow her to bring her dog, to whom her children had become very attached.

Another survivor, P., said her boyfriend dangled her beloved cat out the window and threatened to kill the cat if she upset him. The abuser set fire to the victim's apartment and her cat perished from severe smoke inhalation. P. eventually found protection for herself and three new cats in a pet-friendly shelter.

These stories are not unique. As many as 25 percent of domestic violence survivors have reported returning to an abusive partner out of concern for their pet. And that fear is often justified. Recent studies demonstrate that abusers intentionally target pets to exert control over their intimate partners -- 71 percent of pet-owning women entering domestic violence shelters report that their abuser threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet.

This point bears repeating: Victims ready to escape from abuse are instead risking their lives to protect beloved family pets. No one should have to make the impossible choice between leaving an abusive situation and ensuring a pet's safety. Yet despite the urgent need, only three percent of domestic violence shelters nationwide are able to accommodate victims' pets.

That's where the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act comes in. Reintroduced in the U.S. House of Representatives today, this bipartisan bill criminalizes the intentional targeting of a domestic partner's pet with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate.

It also establishes a federal grant program to help victims safely house their pets, and adds veterinary care to the list of costs that victims can recover. Additionally, the PAWS Act strongly asserts the need for states to expand their legal protections for the pets of domestic violence victims.

To date, more than half of U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, have taken similar legislative action to protect the pets of domestic violence victims, but no federal legislation has addressed this issue before now. The federal protections offered by the PAWS Act will help victims and their pets escape abusive environments and seek the safety and shelter they need, across state lines if necessary.

Encourage your representatives to join the nation's leading domestic violence and animal welfare advocates in supporting the PAWS Act. As is true in many instances, when we protect pets, we protect people.