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Pioneer program helps abused women who stay for their pet's sake

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
University of Illinois helps women leave domestic violence by caring for their pets too

A new University of Illinois study has found women are more likely to leave abusive relationships if they know their beloved pet won’t be in harm’s way. Now they are pioneering a program to help keep women and their pets from being abused.

Many won’t leave or don’t go soon enough because their abuser has harmed their pet or threatened to do so.

One woman in the U of I study said: “He made me stand there and . . . watch [him kill my cat]. And he was like: That could happen to you.”

Jennifer Hardesty, a U of I associate professor of human development and family studies explained in a press release that abusing an animal is an effort from abusers to show their victims what they could do to them.

For their study, the investigators spoke with 19 women seeking shelter assistance about what decisions they made regarding their pets.

"For abused women, a pet can be a treasured source of unconditional love and comfort—maybe even protection—in a time of transition. Many are strongly bonded to their animals," Hardesty said.

In response to the study finding University of Illinois is offering a safe haven for women and their pets until they can find other housing options. Very few women’s shelters welcome pets because of the intense training that would be needed and because of concerns about safety.

"It would be ideal if the pet was able to stay with the woman at the shelter, but you'd need a reasonably well socialized and non-aggressive animal for that, and it would require a major shift in facilities and training for shelter personnel," said Marcella Ridgway, a clinical associate professor in the U of I College of Veterinary Medicine.

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To solve the problem, pets receive up to 30 days of care from student volunteers for women staying at two local shelters. The students also arranged visits between the women and their pets.

“Some are able to see the animal come in and then witness the reunion at the end so it's quite fulfilling for them," said Cheryl Weber, student services coordinator and grief educator at the college.

Ridgway says veterinarians can help by spreading the word about safe haven programs for pets and other emergency resources.

It’s also important to get the word out that domestic violence and animal abuse are often linked, though not everyone who abusers their partner, spouse or family targets animals too.

Other steps to take include helping clients make viable plans for long-term pet health care, remaining non-judgmental about domestic violence and working with local communities to develop safe options for pets owned by families of domestic abuse.

Shelter staff can help to by speaking with women who are victims of domestic violence about pets, understanding that every woman’s bond with their pet is different and allowing them to talk about it.

Women’s shelters could also get involved with community efforts to make sure pets have a safe place to go and are part of the planning process.

"Programs like this one empower abused women. When a woman who has been victimized makes a decision to protect a beloved pet, she's not a victim, and that's important," Hardesty said.

The U of I program will hopefully raise awareness. Women who are victims of domestic abuse often stay for their pet's sake. A past study showed 34 percent of women delayed leaving an abusive relationship because threats or actual past harm to their pets.