Animal abuse linked to domestic violence

speakoutloud.net animal abuse Clare Murphy PhDThere is a strong link between harming women’s and children’s pets, or livestock, and some men’s perpetration of domestic violence. Some men threaten to harm animals, or actually harm them, or kill them as a means of coercion, control and intimidation.

This form of power and control is more likely to occur when women or children have close emotional bonds with their animals

The following Old English Proverb reflects the contemporary situation:

A spaniel, a woman
and a walnut tree:
the more they’re beaten
the better they be.

Several interviews have been conducted with women who have sought refuge in a domestic violence shelter, or sought help from a domestic violence programme. Women’s stories show that, of those women who had pets and livestock, from 24% to 80% of the women reported that their male partner had threatened to harm, or actually had harmed, or had killed their animals. Most of these studies have been conducted in USA and Canada, and one in Australia. Although there are UK studies, Fiona Becker and Lesley French (2004) said they have not yet been published in the domestic violence literature.

However, in 2008, the UK website Womensgrid Network, noted that a survey of the UK Domestic Violence Helpline run by Women’s Refuge and Women’s Aid, found that nine family pets a week are reported as abused by perpetrators of domestic violence in the UK.

Catherine Simmons and Peter Lehmann (2007) examined reports of 1,283 women pet owners who sought refuge in a domestic violence shelter in USA. Their examination found that (a) men who abused their pets were more dangerous and more controlling than perpetrators who did not; and (b) men who abused their pets demonstrated more tactics of power and control including sexual violence, marital rape, emotional violence and stalking compared with male perpetrators who did not abuse their pets.

Some men threaten to harm or kill animals to stop women leaving

When women leave, or the man finds out his partner intends leaving, some men threaten to harm the woman’s pets. The following quotes were cited in the UK document Understanding the Links: Child abuse, animal abuse and domestic violence:

“He held my daughters’ pets out of the upstairs window, and threatened to drop them if we did not return home”.

“My ex-partner threatened to kill all our animals if we left… He beat my son’s dog in a rage, she was only trying to protect us. I tried to stop him so he beat me instead”.

Some men threaten to harm animals when women show independence and self-determination

Neville Robertson and colleagues (2007) interviewed 43 women in New Zealand about their experiences of obtaining protection orders, the impact of them and responses to breaches of the protection orders.

One woman, Alice, said that her abusive partner threatened her saying that if she did not withdraw her application for a permanent protection order she would face the consequences. Then one morning when she arrived to open her shop she found two dead rabbits lying in front of the shop.

Some men kill animals to demonstrate the man’s capability of harming women and children

Frank Ascione who has written several books including Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse: Linking the Circles of Compassion for Prevention and Intervention, is an international authority on the link between animal abuse and human abuse. In his 1998 article he described the way Peggy Sue’s husband used animal abuse to demonstrate his capability of harming his human family.

He skinned a pet rabbit alive in front of Peggy Sue and their baby. Her husband then held the baby next to the screaming rabbit saying, “See how easy it would be?” This woman was eventually driven to murder her husband.

Some men harm animals to instill fear in the family

Catherine Faver and Elizabeth Strand (2007) cited several examples of men’s abuse of animals aimed at perpetuating a fearful atmosphere:

One man shot his dog several times in the presence of his wife and child. Three months later he killed his wife. Then he killed himself.

Yet another man threw his wife’s pet bird against the wall. He would not let her take the bird to the vet. She watched it suffer until the bird subsequently died.

Some men harm and kill pets to silence human victims

Several studies state that some men stab, disembowel, burn, microwave, drown and hang women’s and children’s companion animals. Yet other men have been reported to chop off animals’ heads or legs, nail them to the porch, throw them downstairs, run over them, stomp on, kick or poison the animals.

Such animal torture is a way for male perpetrators to force women and children to keep domestic violence a secret and to demonstrate what the man could do to the people in the house. Enforced silencing of witnesses to animal abuse results in isolating the victims, preventing them from telling their story and seeking help.

Some men harm animals as a way of harming women

Phil Arkow (1996), another international authority on the link between animal abuse and men’s intimate partner abuse said he was aware of:

“at least two instances in which abusive males, as a coercive control, forced their wives to keep long-haired cats even though the women were asthmatic.”

In his book The Violences of Men: How Men Talk About and How Agencies Respond to Men’s Violence to Women, Jeff Hearn (1998) shows how one man used animal abuse as a way to deliberately harm his wife:

The man said that he had intended stabbing his wife with a knife, but decided that it would hurt her more if he killed her dog. And so he did.

Some men harm animals to teach women and children subservience

Some male perpetrators teach subservience by threatening to give women’s pets away, pets have mysteriously disappeared or died, yet other men have failed to provide adequate food, water, shelter or veterinary care for family pets. Other men have caused animals to starve and have deliberately not let the family pet outside, then proceeded to beat the animal when it went to the toilet. All these actions teach and enforce women’s and children’s submission, acquiescence and silence.

Carol Adams (1998) stated that some children survivors of sex abuse have said that the abuser gained control over them by threatening to kill their pets if they did not submit to the sex abuse.

Some men use animals to rape women and children

A further violating form of animal abuse entails coercing women and children into sexual abuse by their animals. Some research studies describe situations in which men sat on women, or tied women up, and forced their male dogs to perform a sexual act on the woman. Forcing women and children to participate in sexual acts with animals, or other forms of animal abuse, are tactics that degrade the human victim.

Women’s concern for their animals may stop women from seeking help for themselves

Because of the emotional attachment many women have with their animals, their concern for the welfare of their animals delays, or stops, women from seeking a safehouse. This problem is detrimental to women’s and children’s safety. Some women have been known to live in their car for several months as a way of keeping their animals safe.

Animal abuse is a warning sign that human abuse may be present

All the studies that explore the link between animal abuse and domestic violence strongly assert that when animal abuse exists – whether that is the household pet, or livestock such as horses and cattle – this is a warning sign that there may be domestic violence, or psychologically controlling, dominating, coercive, threatening, and isolating human-to-human tactics occurring in the home.

To the contrary, when there is domestic violence in any of its physical, sexual and psychologically abusive and controlling manifestations, this could be a warning sign that, if there are animals, those animals could be being abused.

Implications of the link between animal cruelty and men’s power and control over women and children

Organisations in USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Scotland have been addressing the links between animal abuse and domestic violence by developing cross-reporting policies and strategies. However, there are legal, political and attitudinal barriers to enforcing, or developing them in the first place. I will explore some of the implications of cruelty to animals as it is linked to domestic violence in another post.

Meantime the reference list for this post is too large to record here, so I have made the list available for you here.

Request for New Zealand and UK studies

I have heard that one study was conducted at UNITEC in New Zealand with women victims of domestic violence, but I have not been able to find that study. If anyone is aware of New Zealand or UK research on the link between animal abuse and domestic violence I would appreciate hearing about it.

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Meet the Author

Clare Murphy PhD is the founder of SpeakOutLoud. Her website is dedicated to providing in-depth research about coercive control and psychological abuse. Clare mentors, supervises and trains professionals to recognise and work safely with domestic violence. She offers one-on-one counselling and consultation to those who are ready to make sense of coercive control and abuse, and to Grow and Flourish Beyond Trauma.