By Crystal Giesbrecht, Director of Research and Communications, Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS)
The link between intimate partner violence (IPV) and animal abuse has been documented in research for two decades. Victims of IPV commonly experience their partners mistreating their pets. There is also evidence that child abuse, animal abuse, and IPV frequently co-occur. Not only are children often abused when IPV and animal abuse are taking place, they are harmed by exposure to IPV and threats toward pets. As Phil Arkow, Coordinator of the US National Link Coalition stated, “Whenever one member of the family is abused, all others in the family are at risk.”
In 2016, the Saskatchewan SPCA led a research study, in partnership with STOPS to Violence and PATHS, to examine the link in Saskatchewan. This study included surveys and interviews with animal welfare and human service professionals. In 2020, I conducted another study which included online surveys for human service and animal welfare professionals, victims/survivors who owned animals, and the general public, as well as interviews with people who had experienced IPV and owned animals. This research is part of an ongoing partnership between PATHS and the Saskatchewan SPCA, where we are working to find ways to keep people and animals safe. One goal was to build upon the previous research, to explore what had changed in terms of service providers’ awareness and practices supporting survivors of IPV who owned animals, including service providers who serve rural communities and the north. Additional goals of this research were to learn more about the intersection of IPV and concerns for animals in rural and northern areas of Saskatchewan, including experiences of survivors who owned livestock or lived on farms and the experiences of service providers who have assisted them, and to learn more about the experience of survivors of IPV who had sought assistance (including from domestic violence shelters and animal safekeeping programs) and those who had not.
The online survey for the general public received 176 responses which provided insight into public awareness of the link. Almost all of the respondents agreed with the statement by Phil Arkow that “when animals are abused, people are at risk and when people are abused, animals are at risk.” They also agreed that safety and safekeeping of animals can impact an individual’s decision making and planning to leave a relationship where IPV is taking place. Responses from members of the public tell us how family, friends, neighbors, and workplaces support people who experience violence and own animals—42% stated that they had known someone who experienced IPV where their animals were also abused, neglected, or maltreated and several respondents knew more than one person who experienced IPV and animal maltreatment. Approximately one fifth (19%) had helped someone to plan for safekeeping of their animals.
Respondents to the human service professionals’ survey included domestic violence shelter and service staff, victim services workers, police, lawyers, mediators, counsellors, healthcare workers, and government staff. Respondents to the animal welfare survey were from veterinary clinics, animal rescues, humane societies and SPCAs, animal protection, and pet fostering. Responses were collected from 171 service providers from the far north to the south of Saskatchewan.
Sixty victims/survivors of IPV participated in the online survey. These were 98% women and 42% resided in rural communities, 10% were from farms, and 5% lived in northern Saskatchewan. Nearly all (97%) of the survivors who responded to the survey owned a pet and 18% owned livestock. Most commonly, survivors who owned large animals owned horses– some owned both horses and cows and a few owned pigs, sheep, or chickens. Many who owned livestock also owned pets, most often dogs or cats.
Interview participants included 15 women from rural and urban Saskatchewan communities. These women owned various types of animals and they shared information that is immensely valuable for helping to understand how ownership of different kinds of animals impacts survivors differently.
Ownership of Animals
Stories shared in the various pieces of the research illustrate the different forms of animal ownership and the ways that animal ownership impacts survivors in planning for safety for themselves, their children, and their animals. For example, people own horses to ride for recreation, but they are also a significant financial investment, and an income source for people who do riding lessons or training. Some women had their horses boarded where they would go to ride, others had several horses located on their rural property. Respondents cared for pet cats that lived indoors as well as farm cats that stayed in out buildings. Whether animals are indoor or outdoor, survivors are responsible for animals and plan for animals’ safety as well as their own.
Sometimes pets in harm’s way belonged to the victim or were owned jointly, adopted while in the relationship. In other cases, a pet belonged to the abusive partner, which limited the victim’s ability to leave with it, rehome it, or seek care for it. Some respondents shared that they could protect and care for their partner’s animals while in the relationship, but feared for those animals after leaving. The same concerns exist when it comes to livestock. In some cases, victims had their horses before they started relationships. Some participants owned large animals in a joint partnership. Respondents who were victims of IPV reported doing more of the care for animals, including feeding, cleaning up, and providing access to veterinary care. This has serious implications for animals’ well-being if the survivor is unable to continue providing this care when escaping a relationship where IPV is taking place.
“I’m the one that took care of them until I left the farm when he threatened to kill me. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do because I knew the farm animals would be neglected.”—Survivor
Animal Abuse and IPV in Saskatchewan
Just as IPV refers not only to physical violence but includes psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, and spiritual abuse as well as harassment and controlling behaviours, animal abuse also encompasses a range of behaviours including threats to harm, physical neglect, emotional abuse, and physical abuse. Eighty percent of IPV survivors reported in the survey that their animals had been subjected to at least one form of animal abuse. Survivors who participated in the survey and interviews experienced potentially lethal violence and some reported their animals being killed. It is clear that risk does not end after the relationship ends—survivors reported that they had feared for their lives, as well as the lives of their animals, after exiting the relationship.
Service providers and survivors provided examples of ways that IPV and animal abuse intersect. Perpetrators of IPV use animals to manipulate and control victims. Human victims put themselves in harms’ way to protect their animals and pets were harmed trying to protect their humans. Restricting victims’ access to the family finances and prohibiting veterinary care are two common forms of abuse that have significant negative impacts on human and animal victims.
Approximately one-third of survivors with children reported that their children witnessed pets or livestock being threatened or harmed. In situations where IPV is occurring, children are exposed to both abuse of the victim parent as well as animal abuse, and are at a high risk of being targets of abuse themselves.
For many survivors, IPV did not start in their relationships right away—their partner began to enact abusive and controlling behaviours once the victim was invested in the relationship. Some survivors stated that they had not been aware of the warning signs and they did not recognize the red flags. For some whose partners abused animals, this was when they realized how bad things were.
“It is when he started abusing my dogs that I realized how bad the situation was. Before then, I was simply accepting his abuse.”—Survivor
For some of these survivors, their desire to keep their animals safe motivated them to end the relationship.
Planning for Safety with Animals
It is necessary to assess risk to people when indicators of animal abuse are present and to assess risk to animals when indicators of IPV are present. Victims are at risk both because someone who harms animals is especially dangerous to people and because ownership of animals is barrier to escape. Even when a perpetrator of IPV has not harmed or threated animals, caring for animals impacts how survivors respond to IPV and plan for the future.
Survivors who owned pets and livestock identified several barriers to seeking assistance and ending relationships where IPV was taking place, which included not wanting to be separated from their animals, concerns about being able to continuing to provide care for their animals, and concerns for animals’ safety if they were left behind with the partner.
When survivors cannot take their pets with them when they leave, they may end up returning home to care for, visit, or attempt to retrieve the pet, putting their own safety at risk. Livestock owners do the same, returning to the farm or ranch to feed, water, and care for animals.
Positive working relationships have been developed between IPV agencies and animal rescues and animal shelters, as well as veterinarians. There are agencies that support survivors by temporarily caring for their animals in an animal shelter or placing them with a foster family while the survivor is at a domestic violence shelter or is relocating. Availability of animal safekeeping programs depends on someone’s location in the province or their ability to travel to one of the communities where domestic violence and animal safekeeping services are available.
It is common for people who own companion animals to have a strong bond with their pet. For many adult and child survivors who have been isolated from other social connections and have endured abuse, pets are a vital source of comfort and support. Large animals, such as horses, are similarly comforting.
“My dog helped me get through the situation and come to the conclusion I needed to leave in order for both of us to be safe.”—Survivor
For survivors whose lives are in a state of upheaval (sometimes losing access to their home and possessions, leaving their community, their job, and their connections), losing access to their animal companions exacerbates the turmoil that they and their children are feeling. Service providers stated that being separated from their owners is upsetting for pets, as well. This separation can also have implications for animals’ physical health and well-being if the survivor is no longer able to care for them.
Rural, Remote, and Northern Communities
As well as responsibility and care for livestock and financial investment in animals, victims of IPV in rural areas are faced with several unique risk factors and barriers to safety including geographic isolation (exacerbated by weather, inaccessible roads, and long distances to services and supports); emergency response time; limited housing; limited domestic violence services; and lack (or perceived lack of) of anonymity and confidentiality. A shortage of resources (including veterinary care, animal shelters, and fosters) in rural communities was noted by respondents. Of course, Saskatchewan’s rural communities are diverse, and barriers and access to services, as well as safety considerations, differ for people living in small towns, on farms, on First Nations, or in northern areas.
Domestic violence shelter workers shared challenges for clients who must travel to shelter from fly-in communities. If they want to bring a pet with them, they need to pay for a flight for the pet or surrender it and in many northern communities there are no animal shelters or other welfare organizations. Other shelter workers shared that clients travel hours in taxis from rural areas to get to shelters.
Challenges and Recommendations
Human service and animal welfare professionals, survivors, and members of the public provided suggestions for improving responses to IPV and animal abuse and meeting needs for animal safekeeping in Saskatchewan.
The utility of Emergency Intervention Orders- temporary orders that grant the victim the right to stay in the home while the perpetrator is removed from the home- was mentioned by professionals and survivors. For pet owners who are experiencing IPV, staying in the home (while the partner is required to leave) allows them to continue living with their pets without the need to seek emergency animal safekeeping after a violent incident has occurred. For survivors who own livestock, staying in the home allows them to maintain the animals’ care and feeding, without requiring the victim to return to the home where the partner still resides to provide this care. While an Emergency Intervention Order will not be a safe choice in all situations of IPV, professionals must inform survivors of the options that are available so that survivors can choose what they feel will work for them.
Results of the study indicate the need for training for professionals who work with victims of IPV on the dynamics of IPV; the link between IPV, animal maltreatment, and concerns for animal safekeeping; and the intersection of IPV and animal maltreatment with child abuse. Just as the most dangerous time for many victims is when they have ended the relationship or are planning to leave, danger to animals can also escalate when the victim has left or is planning to leave. IPV does not just end when the relationship is over and danger to human and animal victims can be ongoing. Therefore, it is necessary to always include animals in safety planning and for professionals to have the necessary training and information to assist people at risk in planning for their animals’ safety.
Many respondents reported receiving support related to the IPV they were experiencing, as well as assistance with temporary animal safekeeping, from family and friends. Increasing public awareness of the dynamics of IPV and the connection to animal ownership will help to ensure that survivors receive a supportive response when they reach out for assistance.
The need for pet-friendly domestic violence shelters was a resounding theme in this study. While most domestic violence shelters in Saskatchewan are not equipped to accept pets at the present time, examples were shared of agencies that had accommodated women with companion animals. Currently the Saskatchewan SPCA, PATHS, and STOPS to Violence are working with Praxis Consulting to develop a business plan for pet-friendly domestic violence shelters, with the goal of assisting some shelters in Saskatchewan put in place the funding and the infrastructure they need to become pet-friendly.
Fostering and safekeeping at animal shelters are important and research participants expressed the need for expanding the availability of these programs. Even as some IPV shelters are able to become pet-friendly, there will be families that safekeeping off-site will work better for. Respondents also highlighted barriers that exist in rural communities, given distances between service providers and a lack of animal welfare (and IPV) service providers in small communities. These gaps in service provision point to the need to create more safekeeping options and to develop partnerships with businesses and local volunteers to provide assistance in rural areas.
Even if a survivor and their pet are able to access a pet-friendly domestic violence shelter or an animal safekeeping program while in the process of leaving a relationship, barriers to securing more permanent housing remain. Survivors often struggle to find rental housing to move to after an initial stay at a domestic violence shelter. Many respondents in the study pointed out that the majority of publicly funded social housing in the province does not allow pets, and indicated that changing this to allow companion animals would go a long way, as would condo boards and landlords considering how their policies can maintain cleanliness and safety without having to exclude residents with pets.
While the present study adds to what we know in terms of owning livestock, the results make it clear that finding solutions for survivors who own livestock poses significant challenges. Respondents offered suggestions; however, more work is needed to develop practical solutions. This study added to our knowledge of the ways that people who experience IPV and own animals are impacted and challenges and solutions encountered by survivors, human service and animal welfare professionals, and community members. These results will inform the work of PATHS, the Saskatchewan SPCA, and our partners.
More results from this research are available at pathssk.org/research and violencelink.ca. To find a domestic violence shelter or service in your area, click “Get Help Now” on pathssk.org or see the Abuse Help Lines pages in the front of your phonebook. To find animal safekeeping programs and more information about planning for animals’ safety, visit violencelink.ca.