In Domestic Violence Situations, Pets Need Protection Too

Michigan enacted domestic violence legislation May 3 that adds companion animals to personal protection orders, making it the latest state to acknowledge the role pets play in domestic violence situations. Currently, 29 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have laws with provisions that allow pets to be included in personal protection orders.

“A lot of our domestic violence laws were antiquated,” said Michigan state Rep. Robert Kosowski, who proposed adding the pet-protecting legislation to his state’s domestic violence bill package. “I thought this was an easy solution to make sure that pets weren’t being used as pawns in domestic violence situations.”

Minnesota tracked the number of companion animals added to personal protection orders since a 2010 amendment to a domestic violence law allowed the court to protect animals owned by either the petitioner or respondent. In 2010, 167 personal protection orders included pets; in 2013, that number jumped to 1,067.

According to a study by the Humane Society of the U.S., 71 percent of pet owners entering domestic violence shelters report that their batterer had threatened, injured or killed family pets. A study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had similar results, finding that 68 percent of battered women said their abusers had been violent toward pets or livestock; more than three-quarters of these cases happened in the presence of the women and/or children to intimidate or control them.

Injuring or killing a pet can be used both as a means to abuse victims in domestic violence situations and as a method to keep victims from leaving.

“Pets are sometimes the only being in these victims’ lives that give them unconditional love and lack of judgment,” said Laurel Meleski, a program coordinator at Red Rover, an aid organization for animals in crisis. “When they get to a point of leaving the thought of leaving behind that perfect being that loved them when no one else did is something they can’t imagine doing.”

Because few domestic violence shelters accept pets, less than 5 percent by some estimates, victims often must either leave their pets behind or take them to an animal shelter. Non-profit organizations like Red Rover have to fill in the gaps when domestic violence shelters lack the resources to take in pets. Their Safe Escape grant program helps survivors cover the cost of kenneling and veterinary care for their pets while they're in a domestic violence shelter. Their Safe Housing grant program helps domestic violence shelters build animal friendly spaces in a safe house, so pets and people who escaped together can stay together, according to Meleski. They’ve also built a website,, which provides a directory of housing and other resources for pets and their owners who are trying to escape domestic violence.

At the federal level, the Pet and Women Safety, or PAWS, Act, introduced into the U.S. Congress in March 2015, would prohibit threats or acts of violence against a person's pet under the offenses of stalking and interstate violation of a protection order and require the "full amount of the victim's losses" for purposes of restitution in domestic violence and stalking offenses to include any costs incurred for veterinary services for the victim's pet. Additionally, it directs $3 million in annual funding to increase the number of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters.

“Victims of domestic violence should not have to choose between their own safety and the safety of their pets, and that’s why the PAWS Act is so important,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who cosponsored the Senate version of the bill, during a visit to the Monroe County Crime Victims Resource Center in New York. “All too often abusers use family pets as leverage against their victims and this legislation targets the neglected circumstance that results from this type of abuse—one where abusers use beloved pets to maintain control over their victims. The PAWS Act will finally provide domestic violence victims who are pet owners with the opportunity to keep their families together while escaping a dangerous situation.”

Seven states—Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada and Tennessee—have laws in place that define animal abuse as an act of domestic violence.

Meleski said laws that recognize the intersection of domestic violence and animal abuse have helped the “slow spread” of education about the added barriers to escape faced by abuse victims who count animal companions as part of their families.