By Bob Dole and Matt Bershadker
Domestic violence is often portrayed in the context of two people: an aggressor and a victim. But this leaves out crucially-involved figures who play an influential role in both victim safety and the progression of violence. Why are these figures overlooked? Because they aren’t human; they’re pets.
As National Domestic Violence Awareness Month comes to an end, it’s important to realize and remember that a victim’s concern about the safety of household pets can delay or even prevent her escape from an abusive relationship. In published studies from 2007 and 2008, one-third of domestic violence survivors say they hesitated to seek shelter because of their concern for a pet’s welfare, and as many as 25 percent report that they’ve returned to an abusive partner out of concern for their pet.
That fear is often justified. Studies show that domestic abusers often intentionally target pets to exert control over their partners – over 50 percent of pet-owning women entering domestic violence shelters reported that their abusers threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet.
Given that, in America, one out of four women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime, and a woman is abused every nine seconds, more should be done to keep victims and their pets together as both seek shelter. This includes allowing pets in the same temporary homes as victims, an accommodation offered by only three percent of domestic violence shelters.
That’s why we support and encourage action on the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, which criminalizes the intentional targeting of a domestic partner’s pet with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate. The PAWS Act expands interstate stalking provisions within the existing Violence Against Women Act to make crossing state lines to injure pets an offense punishable by up to five years in prison. The bill will also establish grants to help provide housing for both victims and their at-risk pets, and allow victims to recover their veterinary costs.
Thirty-one U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have all passed laws to protect the pets of domestic violence victims, and the PAWS Act would provide federal protections to complement these state laws.
We also encourage domestic violence shelters and victim advocates to ask incoming clients about pets in their homes as well as the threats those pets face from abusive partners. With this information, communities can coordinate with local animal shelters and veterinarians to provide pet-friendly housing options that can make a life-saving difference for victims, their children, and their pets.
Former Sen. Bob Dole’s distinguished career includes authoring groundbreaking amendments to the Animal Welfare Act. He is also the recipient of the 2016 ASPCA Presidential Service Award for his lifetime commitment to protecting animals.
Matthew Bershadker is President and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which celebrates its 150th Birthday this year.