“There is no doubt that there is a link between animal abuse and human abuse,” says Dr. Rhonda Schulman, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “The statistics are frightening, but it is important that everyone, including veterinarians, recognize this serious problem because animal abuse in a home is very likely a sign of an even bigger problem within that family.”
It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of pets living in homes where domestic abuse is taking place are either abused or killed, and nearly 60 percent of women who seek assistance from shelters to escape abuse have had a pet killed by an abuser.
In an abusive situation the family pet is often used by the abuser as leverage to control the person being abused. Threat of harm to a beloved pet can be a very powerful tool for the abuser. Abuse of the pet is also a way to inflict mental anguish on the abused. Many women are reluctant to leave the abuser for fear that the pet will be harmed.
Until recently there have been few options for abused women with pets. Now domestic violence shelters have begun to implement ways to protect not only the women and children but their pets as well.
“Abuse can also be self-propagating within a family,” says Dr. Schulman. “For instance, the mother or father abuses the child and then the child abuses the pet. This is sometimes the only way that the child can assume any sense of personal power.”
Witnessing the abuse of a family pet can influence children to become abusive later in life, because they have learned the behaviour through observing and through identification with the abuser. Studies have also shown that children who torture animals are at higher risk than others to grow up to use violence against people. Many adults who have committed serial murders or mass violence tortured animals as children.
“This means that if a child is exhibiting this sort of behavior, it is extremely important to take it seriously and intervene while there is still a chance to positively influence the child’s development,” says Dr. Schulman.
“Veterinarians are starting to take a more active role in spotting abuse and providing help for people who are in abusive situations; however, many veterinarians still do not ask questions when presented with suspicious circumstances, either because they do not wish to be involved or because they don’t know how to help,” says Dr. Schulman.
It has been shown that woman in abusive situations will seek medical care for themselves and their pets when they feel it is safe to do so. They may not volunteer how the injuries came about, but may give such information if asked. “Sometimes all it takes is asking,” says Dr. Schulman. “As a profession, veterinarians need to start getting involved. Simply posting flyers for the local women’s shelter in the veterinary clinic might encourage women to seek help if they need it.”
Part of recognizing abuse is knowing what to look for. Abuse can be suspected if the family has many pets but none of them seems to live longer than a couple of years of age or if there are repeated incidences of blunt trauma to the pet, such as an abnormally high number of “hit by car” accidents.
“In order to help people at risk, we all have to work together, and that includes professionals in all areas of health care, including veterinary medicine,” says Dr. Schulman.