Fears For Pets Barrier To Escaping Family Violence


Fears for the safety of family pets can prevent or delay family violence victims leaving perpetrators – or be the reason they return – according to a new report by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

The review of Australian and international evidence reveals factoring pets into safety planning and better access to animal-inclusive crisis accommodation is critical to the safety of many victim-survivors and their children.

Report co-author and Research Officer at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Kylie Butler, said the emotional stress caused by perpetrator harm to family animals can be extreme.

‘Pets can be a significant source of joy, friendship, comfort and support, especially in times of crisis – so threats or actual harm to family animals can be incredibly distressing,’ Kylie Butler said.

‘Perpetrators can use this to manipulate and control victims – even, in some cases, making the victim feel responsible for the violence, as though their behaviours or close connection with the animal caused the violence’.

‘Many victim-survivors report staying with a perpetrator longer, not leaving at all, or returning out of fear for the animal’s safety – especially if the pet has to be left behind,’ Kylie Butler said.

Kylie Butler said practitioners, including social workers, psychologists and others who work with women and children in crisis, need to factor family animals into safety planning.

‘Ideally family animals are part of those early discussions with a victim-survivor about leaving; what plans can be put in place to ensure the safety of the pet? What needs to be packed, including food, bedding, medication, paperwork and care instructions?’ Kylie Butler said.

Kylie Butler said the evidence also identifies the need for more animal-inclusive services and shelters.

‘Accommodating family animals with victim-survivors removes a significant barrier to leaving a violent relationship, and supports recovery for both the victim-survivor and the animal,’ Kylie Butler said.

‘Given around 69% of Australian households include pets, and one in four women have experienced some form of abuse by a current or previous partner, this is a critical issue that needs to be factored into family violence policies and programs.’

When there is violence against family animals in an intimate partner violence context, dogs and cats are the most targeted – but any family animal that the victim-survivor has a connection to can be at risk, including birds, fish and horses. Violence towards pets can include threats or actual physical or sexual abuse, verbal abuse or deliberate neglect.

Many people form strong bonds with their pets. A 2023 study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found 52% of Australians consider pets to be family members, with women more likely than men to count animals as family.

Violence against family animals – whether intended to control or scare other people in the household or not – is considered a form of domestic and family violence, as recognised in the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

The new policy and practice paper Violence against family animals in the context of intimate partner violence is designed to help practitioners better understand why perpetrators use violence against pets, how it impacts victim-survivors and how practitioners can support them.

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