Pets help abused women - but may make them vulnerable


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

June 12, 2008 at 9:26 AM EDT

When the police arrived at Lindsay's Southern Ontario home responding to a domestic violence call, she refused to go to a women's shelter because she could not bring her dog.

The 42-year-old stayed with her physically abusive partner for more than two years because he had threatened to take the pet if they split up.

Another woman, Rachelle, would come home from her job at a factory and lie outside with her dogs and cats until her abusive partner fell asleep inside, making it safe to go in.

The 34-year-old said they were her lifeline before she got up the courage to leave; the only things that gave her comfort or the will to live. "If I wouldn't have had them, I would have been dead."

oth women were part of a new study by the University of Windsor that explores the often complex relationship between the victims of domestic violence and their pets.

Their names have been changed to protect their identities.

Over the past few years, women's advocates, veterinarians and researchers have begun to uncover surprising and at times troubling information about the connection, including the fact that many women often stay in unsafe situations rather than leave their pet behind.

Amy Fitzgerald, who led the University of Windsor study, said many of her subjects acknowledged that their relationship with their animals may have actually prolonged their abuse.

"For some abused women, their pets provide them with the support they need to cope with the abuse, which may result in their staying with their partner longer than they think they otherwise would have."

Dr. Fitzgerald interviewed 26 women over eight months for the study, called They Gave Me a Reason to Live: The Protective Effects of Companion Animals on the Suicidality of Abused Women, published in the April edition of the journal Humanity and Society. She found that animals can both help women and lead them to put themselves in danger. Three of the women she talked to said their pets stopped them from taking their own lives, but 44 per cent of her subjects said they delayed leaving their partners because of their animals.

These two discoveries have led her to conclude that women's shelters must begin accepting pets, so that women no longer have to choose between their safety and their animals.

Of the women she surveyed, some had been able to find family members to take care of the pet temporarily, but others had left their pets with their partner. Some women even sneaked out of shelters to go home and check on their pet, putting their safety at risk.

Dr. Fitzgerald is calling on shelters to add facilities for pets so that women do not have to agonize over the decision to leave a dangerous relationship.

"If we're serious about wanting women to feel comfortable leaving abusive partners and feel that they can protect their children, we need to remove as many barriers as possible," she said.

Lesley Ackrill, a spokeswoman for Interval House in Toronto, said the women's shelter cannot currently accommodate pets, but she agreed that shelters must begin to think about the issue.

"If they've witnessed their pet being abused, to have to leave it there with the abuser would be horrible, horrible," she said.

She does not know what kind of regulations would have to be met in order for a shelter to house both people and pets, and said it is something Interval House should explore.

But Ms. Ackrill said Canadian shelters also have to take into account the myriad cultural and religious backgrounds of the women they care for, some of whom have very different attitudes toward animals.

"Some of them say they can stay in their room and sleep on the bed, and other people they're not allowed to be touched by a pet," she said. "It is a lot more complicated than you would think."

In the United States, steps are already being taken to implement change.

The American Humane Association has developed the Pets and Women's Shelters (PAWS) Program to help shelters incorporate animals.

They have produced a 40-page guide to integrating pets, from the logistical issues of where to put them to contending with the cultural issues of their diverse residents.

Although more than 700 shelters across the United States provide assistance or referrals for placement of pets, only four shelters currently provide on-site housing for animals.

This year, the AHA hopes to see 15 PAWS programs launched across the country.

In Ontario, women are currently referred to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association's SafePet Program, in which local vets will board animals while their owners are in the shelter system.

Debbie Stoewen, a vet with the Pioneer Pet Clinic in Kitchener, Ont., sees a constant stream of pets referred through the program.

In April, she housed a dog and two cats for a woman for more than a month, even though the SafePet program generally houses animals for a maximum of two weeks. Most animals are placed with foster families, but Dr. Stoewen said these animals stayed with her.

"With this one particular woman, she did not want her pets separated," she said. "So they stayed within our clinic."

Women who use the service can arrange to visit their animals, but Dr. Stoewen agrees it would be better if the pets could stay with their owner throughout the traumatic ordeal of starting their lives anew.

For more information on the SafePet program, visit For the PAWS program guide, visit



Our commentary in the Globe and Mail

Ottawa Mens, from Ottawa, Canada) wrote: Remember, for every abused woman there is an abused man. Abusers are generally those with the power in relationships of any form.

Often psychological abuse is far more damaging than physical violence. Just ask any man who can't see his kids if he would take another smack in the head in exchange for seeing his kids. Thats a literal no brainer.

Pets are used as weapons. Many women and men who cannot have children or cannot afford to have children devote their affection to a pet. Its a form of replacement of love and affection that could be essential to anyone going through severe stressors of any form.

Some will attempt to harm or kill a pet. A classic example is taking the partner's pet to the vet and having it "put to sleep".

It's not a criminal offense, it means diddly squat in family or criminal court but it is in effect a hell of a lot more damaging than any physical assault.

So what does it mean? Those who will harm a pet or have a pet put down to cause emotional harm are some where off the normal mental health scale and earning a score in the direction of being a psychopath, it indicates a propensity to seek gratification and pleasure by causing harm to others and that's not unique to men or women.

When you read this article about "women's shelters" spare a thought for the fact that for every abused woman there is an abused man and abused men in Canada don't have any shelters to go to let alone a place for their pets.

Our government sends judges to "feminist brainwashing courses" where they get "reeducated" on feminist doctrine all portraying men as violent abusers and women as victims.

Our police forces operate with a knee jerk reaction to any call by a woman making almost any outragious complaint without any evidence while all too frequently thinking its funny when attending a call where the male is the obvious victim and guess who usually gets charged.