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My Saving Grace: Making the link between animal abuse and domestic violence.

Make the Link,
Act for Animals,
Change the Story

The Link between Domestic Violence and Animal AbuseThe Link between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse

Daily life for many of us begins with a greeting. We all have our own way to wake to the new day and prepare for the task of living. For many, that ritual at days start includes an interaction with a companion animal. A pat on the furry head of a beloved dog, an awkward walk around the shadowing cat, a peek into the hutch of a resident rabbit or a cocked ear to hear the sound of a bird chirruping into the morning. Having made our connection we face our day.

Australians have one of the highest companion animal to people ratios in the world. We consider ourselves a nation of animal lovers. We tell stories about the heroic deeds of animals and we create narratives about our adventures in which animals accompany us. It would seem to be a dark day indeed when “everyman and his dog” faded from the landscape of our culture.

Love of animals is a universal impulse, a common ground on which all of us may meet. By loving animals and understanding animals perhaps we humans shall come to understand each other.

Louis. J. Camuti
63% of Australians own a pet

The loveliness of this picture however has a competing and unheroic story of sadness and violence. For as there is uplift and joy in our connection with companion animals there is also vulnerability. We suffer when they are hurt, we grieve when they die and we feel guilt when we cannot protect them from harm. In many ways our devotion to our companions holds our hearts captive.

This close bond is recognised and often used by perpetrators of domestic violence to intimidate, punish and control victims.

Research indicates that over 70% of reported incidents of domestic violence included the abuse, torture or death of a companion animal.

In this situation, victims of domestic violence live with an impossible choice. How to leave a violent relationship when you cannot find a safe place for your animals? How to leave behind, in harm’s way, your saving grace?

Up to 48% of women delay leaving their violent partner for fear of what will happen to their pet.

My Saving Grace speaks for this impossible choice utilising the stories, research, insights and expertise of people who share a connection with animals. People who hope to make the choice to wake to a new day in safety possible for the human and animal victims of domestic violence.

Make the LinkMake The Link

Throughout this website you will see references to "The Link". This is fast becoming the most accepted and researched theory behind the interconnectedness between animal abuse and domestic violence. The video animation below quickly and clearly explains what The Link is. Feel free to share this video by clicking on the Share button.


How to use this websiteHow to use this website

Our hope is that you will use this website to strengthen your advocacy for animals and people. In whatever context you sit, we want you to have the tools that you need to raise your voice for change. My Saving Grace has been designed to bring you the stories of animal abuse and domestic violence in the hope that you will start a discussion within your community.

We ask that you listen for the stirrings of hope from the animals, and people, who know a kinder world is within reach. You can do this by reading and sharing the information on this website, and keeping an eye out for animal abuse and domestic violence in your community and speaking out for change where you can.

Please make the link, act for animals and change the story.

We divided the website into chapters, each tackling a different angle relating to the link between animal abuse and domestic violence. We spent three years collating the information so please don’t feel you need to read it all in one go! Dip in and out in your own time.

The Resources page houses all sorts of further information for you to download and link to. Keep up to date with the latest news surrounding these issues via our Facebook page or on Twitter. You can get in touch with us via or social media.

Read, share and spread the word. To assist you we have made it easy to share useful content and have marked the content that is subject to copyright.


Some of the content in this website may be disturbing.

The information contained in this website was correct at time of publishing however details may change.

Please get in touch with your local domestic violence and/or animal rescue services and organisations for up-to-date information.

Chapter 2 Tracey’s Story:
Freedom from Fear

Tracey was in a violent relationship for 12 years. During that time her partner harmed her and the children - emotionally, sexually and physically. He also killed the family pets, using the animals as a way to exert power and control. This form of manipulation and violence are often used to 'groom', or control, women in domestic violence relationships.

Tracey and her children eventually escaped, however they are only just beginning the lifework of rebuilding their connection to each other, and the world.

I was a single mum renting a house and the landlord actually became my partner, Tracey says. It was a whirlwind romance, it just happened so quickly.

“On reflection, I now see that that’s part of the way they groom you, but at the time I had no clue.”

They both had dogs at the time – he a Rottweiler called Shadow, and Tracey a very old German Shepherd rescue dog, called Khan.

A photo of a little girl with a German Shepherd dog
© Tracey's rescue dog Khan with her daughter.

I fell pregnant more or less straight away and my partner suggested that we get my daughter a puppy, Tracey says. He said it would help her with feeling disassociated once the baby came. I thought it was a great idea.

Tracey’s partner brought home a little Staffy, which Tracey and her four-year-old daughter fell in love with straight away. They called him Bongo.

He was the cutest little puppy, Tracey says. But straight away my partner laid down rules that my daughter wasn’t allowed to play with the puppy. I didn’t understand this because for me, it was the social interaction with the pets that you enjoyed.

Tracey’s partner was adamant. He said it would make it disobedient and wild and he didn’t want a vicious dog around his baby once it was born. This attitude was also part of the grooming process.

When he wasn’t around I allowed my daughter to play with the puppy, and I’d play with the puppy too, Tracey says. About two weeks after getting the puppy he came in [from the shed] and found my daughter playing with it, she says.

He instructed me to get the puppy and my daughter and put them in the car, and he went back out to the shed. He came out to the car with a hammer and a bag, and he threw them into the back seat. We drove out into the scrub. I don’t know how long we drove for but I was feeling so apprehensive.

“He went down a tiny little off-the-road track and pulled up. He took the puppy, without saying much to us, and took the hammer and bag and walked into the bush where we couldn't see him.”

Tracey and her daughter were sitting, silent and scared, when they started to hear Bongo’s cries of pain. After a while the noises stopped, and Tracey’s partner came back to the car. He threw the hammer into the car but the bag didn’t come back with him.


“It was the start of the control and force”

Duration 00:23

Tracey now recognises this as a tactic he used to control their behaviour but at the time she couldn’t work out why he had done something so horrible. I was perplexed because I’d never met someone who had demonstrated this type of behaviour, Tracey says. It was pretty much the start of the control, excessive control and force.

Tracey went on to have three more children and similar events happened, with him also killing the family cat to emphasise what he was capable of doing.

Afterwards I didn’t know what I was meant to feel or how I was meant to behave, Tracey says. All my behaviours I looked to him for because if I displayed the wrong emotion or said the wrong words, it would result in consequences.

“He constantly told me I would die and my children would die. I'd seen him perform it first-hand, killing pets. You just live in fear and you’re too scared to leave because that’s what will trigger him into coming after you.”


“It’s hard to explain how you can keep with this person after the abuse”

Duration 00:21

When Tracey and her children finally fled the abuse they went to the local women’s refuge but were unable to have pets there.

That broke my daughter’s heart, she says. This was the second cat that she’d lost and she was convinced that dad was going to harm the cat. I made a promise to her that as soon as we were resettled and in our own home that I would get her a pet.

Tracey’s ex-partner was gaoled for 14 years with 22 charges of child abuse, death threats, assaults and neglect. Tracey says the jury’s reaction to the abuse of her pets was, in a way, stronger than that to the abuse of her and her family.

People seem to be able to empathise more with animals than humans, she says. I still cannot explain that myself other than most people have pets so they can relate to - you know, when they hear of the abuse they picture their own pet going through that and how traumatising that would be for them.

After leaving the refuge for a home of their own, Tracey was true to her promise and got her daughter a cat, Whiskers. Discovering he suffers from separation anxiety, Tracey got another cat, called Ferrari to keep him company.

A photo of two cats licking each other
© Whiskers and Ferrari keeping each other company.

Now we’ve got two furry bundles that leave cat hair everywhere, as well as a puppy named Suki, Tracey says. But they’re part of our family and it’s a healing process for the kids. They display the love that they were unable to show pets before.

“It's taken me a long time to get the courage up to have another pup. But the pets aren't viewed as something that's traumatic anymore.”

Woman sitting with a dog in a park
© Tracey in her local park with Suki.

The abuse becomes a life-long trauma that stays with you, she says. But there's nothing to be ashamed of. You believe that it’s your fault - if you didn’t say that word or didn’t put that dress on the abuse wouldn’t have happened.

“But the abuse,
all that responsibility
belongs with the abuser.
It’s not your fault.”

Tracey is clear that the work of reconnecting with the world is challenging for her and her family. She offers encouragement to other people in similar situations to share their stories and says it also assists other victims who are currently stuck in abusive relationships to know that they can get out and life can get a lot better.

Looking back, I'm amazed of what I went through. I’m free, my kids are free and our home is safe.

Chapter 3 Sheltering Animals
and Humans

One of the greatest challenges facing women leaving a domestic violence situation is finding pet friendly emergency accommodation. With just a few organisations in each state offering this service, many women delay leaving, fearing their pets will be harmed if left behind. Several Australian groups are working hard to overcome these challenges by providing services from refuge based pet care to fostering.

The decision to leave a domestic violence situation can be put off because of family pets, especially where violence toward the animal or threats of animal abuse have been made. New South Wales organisation Domestic Violence Service Management (DVSM) offers ways for women, children and their pets to find their way back to safety together.

In 2016 DVSM redesigned one of its refuges to house women and their children, as well as pets. Funded by NSW Family and Community Services, the modified site has room for five families, including their pets, at any one time. There’s also a purpose-built set of kennels with separate areas for cats and dogs.

A photo of a backyard area with children's play area
© The outside area of DVSM with the dog kennels positioned far left.

Amanda Greaney is contracts and operations manager for DVSM and says although the service has its limitations, it has helped many women in the decision to leave domestic violence.

When leaving with their animals:

  • 92% were turned away from refuges
  • 70% were turned away from government rental
  • 60% were turned away from private rental
  • 33% were turned away from family and friends
(Tong 2015)

The positive part of our offer is that it prevents some families from having to separate from their pet, or to delay their choice to leave a partner of violence where the concern for family pets was influencing a delay, she says.

We know, however, that it's not pet-friendly in the truest sense of the word. Many families would consider their homes pet-friendly, meaning pets can roam freely, but this is not possible. We have a duty of care to all residents and we know that the pets themselves have been affected by domestic violence, which may have adverse effects on their behaviors.

What we do offer is a stepping stone that allows the family unit (pet included) to remain together as they reside at the refuge and secure stable housing.

Despite the
high ownership
of animals...

...only a few
women's refuges
are pet friendly.

Research highlights the benefit of keeping owners with their companion animals together. However this is not always possible and support for this practice varies amongst those in both animal and welfare sectors. In WA, the Pat Giles Centre began offering a pet fostering service and Victorian organisation Pets in Peril has lobbied for the perpetrator of domestic violence, not the victim to be removed from the family home.

The Safe Families, Safe Pets program through the Patricia Giles Centre came out of a 2008 research paper, which showed that around half the women and children leaving a domestic violence situation also left their pets behind.

Former Patricia Giles Centre CEO Kedy Krystal was an integral part of the centre, starting there in 1989 and developing numerous reports and programs recognising the rights of animals.

One of the things we’ve always asked women when they come into the refuge is the range of abuses they’ve experienced and we’ve always asked them — did you have a pet, how was your pet treated, have you left your pet behind, Kedy says.

It's then that you get disclosures, like when he got really angry he’d kick the dog or I had to put my cat down because he hurt it. There's a whole range of safety factors for the pet when it becomes the focus of the man's abuse and violence. It's all about power and control. It's been fairly constant for the past 10 to 15 years when you talk to women about domestic violence.

What can happen to animals in a crisis?

  • Temporarily homed with the family in refuges
  • Pets housed with other animals in shelters
  • Pets fostered
  • Adopted or rehomed
  • Left at veterinary surgeries
  • Family and friends
  • Animal sanctuary
  • Family stay in their house and perpetrator leaves
  • Abandoned
  • Short-term shelters that can end in euthanasia
  • Council pounds that can end in euthanasia
  • Staying or returned to abuser

Safe Families, Safe Pets houses pets in foster care for up to three months, while the family get themselves back on their feet. The Patricia Giles Centre was one of the first refuges in Australia to offer this.

There's been a number of other ways we've assisted women with their animals, because sometimes they haven't had the finances to pay for essentials like boarding care and vaccination. But there are really two threads to it – there is a need for foster carers and there's also a need for residential care places like refuges and homeless shelters to have animals onsite so that bonding, love and affection can be there for people in crisis.

Although there are challenges, such as finding foster carers and funding, as well as veterinarian bills and transportation logistics, the outcomes are immense.

When you reunite them after three months you have these besotted dogs and owners, it’s really lovely, Kedy says.

Most harmed animals

  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Horses
  • Birds
  • Rabbits
  • Farm animals
  • Wildlife
(The Humane Society)

Pets in Peril is another service caring for pets and victims of domestic violence. They believe the perpetrator, not the victim, should be removed from the home with EDVOS's Judy Johnson lobbying for this clause to be added to the Family Violence Protection Act 2008.

The group, initially an ad hoc arrangement between Judy Johnson and an animal shelter, had a rough start in the 1990s when it took a dog from a domestically violent house into foster care. The dog later died due to injuries received before they were removed from the home. Judy said the financial and emotional costs were disastrous but after almost pulling the plug on the idea, they kept going.

Judy's experiences in assisting women to find shelter for their animals lead to a research partnership with Monash University. This resulted in the first paper in Australia on this issue being published.

Knowing that they wouldn’t have to put their dog up for adoption is what kept her young son going through that time...

Pets in Peril Counselor

Pets in Peril has now expanded to a staff of five. As well as managing the complex demands of providing emergency services, often at short notice, they also face the challenges of dealing with dangerous or restricted breeds, often without paperwork or vaccination records. Despite all these issues, funding remains the biggest hurdle.

Whilst continuing to offer this service, Pets in Peril also advocate for the perpetrator, not the victim, to be removed from the home. Judy Johnson has been lobbying for this clause to be added to the Family Violence Protection Act 2008.

Considering the high incidents of domestic violence and the correlation of animal abuse, there are surprisingly few services to assist women with their animals. In most parts of Australia, it's impossible to leave a violent relationship and expect to easily find pet friendly accommodation.

There is no consensus regarding best practice for animals and women transitioning from domestic violence. When services are available, they are usually small scale operations run by minimally funded passionate animal and human advocates and their networks.

...we rang down to Canberra to say your dog is with us, they were over the moon...

Barbara Steffenson

Barbara Steffenson of the Animal Rights and Rescue Group in Lismore, NSW, said funding was a problem for her group too.

There's no funding put into this, it's case by case, Barbara says. It's heartbreaking for the family — they want to get out of danger but there's a tie to their family pets.

We’re providing this vital service as a voluntary, self-funded group. If we can’t meet the need, what happens then?

Chapter 4 Jen’s Story:
Loss and Redemption

At 20, Jen was in a long-term abusive relationship. Instead of spending her 20s focusing on discovering and forming her identity like most young people, she was caught in a cycle of domestic violence. It was her two dogs that helped her cope with the dark times. When leaving the relationship, Jen did all she could to keep them in her life. Ultimately they were separated and to this day, Jen has no knowledge of where her dogs went, or even if they are still alive.

Sadly, these types of situations are not uncommon in abusive relationships and the impacts are lasting. Jen used her experience to save others from a similar fate by starting pet fostering service Safe Pets, Safe Families South Australia.

A photo of a young girl hugging a dog
© Missy with Jen's daughter Aaleah aged three at the time.

Missy and Ballsy had been with Jen since they were puppies.

After leaving her abusive partner, Jen tried to keep them for as long as she could but couldn't find pet friendly accommodation. The dogs stayed with my ex at first, then they went to his mum's house and they escaped, Jen says. By the time I heard about it I couldn’t find them. That’s probably the hardest thing — that I don’t know what happened to them. I’ve never been able to move on from them.

Jen believes that the tragedy of losing her furry companions could have been averted if she had been able to find appropriate housing when she needed it.

“I tried community housing and all that sort of stuff but nothing was pet friendly”


Jen talks about pet friendly accommodation

Duration 00:25

“If there was an option of community housing that was pet friendly and you’re supported in an environment to leave, it would have been a total game changer.”

Before leaving the relationship Jen, had a range of interactions with outside agencies but was never offered help in regard to her pets or asked any questions about their welfare. It still upsets her to think that people who are meant to be helping you emotionally don't acknowledge animals as part of the family unit.

My dogs were with me through everything. You could see physically that they were going through it too because they would both come and crawl up on my lap, shaking. They [animals] definitely feel the emotional and mental trauma. It is crushing to hear domestic violence workers speak about them as if they are not part of the family.


Jen talks about including pets in escape plans

Duration 00:22

“People need to understand that pets are very much a part of the family and they need to include that in someone's plan to escape.”

I don’t want anyone to feel the heartbreak and loss that I felt. I should have had my dogs by my side until they died of old age."

A photo of a woman working at a table
© Jen running Safe Pets, Safe Families South Australia using her mobile phone to make all the connections.

Jen’s personal experience inspired her to become an agent for change. Safe Pets, Safe Families South Australia is a fostering and support service for people and their pets with a mission to assist people maintain their connection to their animals through challenging periods. Jen runs it from her mobile phone and laptop, with a team of volunteer foster carers, to provide a tailored support service for people and animals in crisis.

We are not an animal rescue organisation as our aim is reunification, if possible,” Jen says. “It may take six weeks or six months, however if the animal can go home, we will try and make that happen.

Two people looking after a horse and dogs
© Robyn and her son Will with rescued horses and dogs they now foster.

Jen loves the energy and hopefulness that comes from successful reunifications. One in particular stands out for her.

A photo of a dog
© Zonathon who was looked after by a foster family after escaping a domestic violence situation. He and his owner were successfully reunited.

Zonathon's owner was so badly beaten by her partner, all the bones in her hands were broken and she needed months of recuperation. Although she desperately wanted her dog by her side, she was unable to care for him. Zonathon was lovingly fostered during this time, allowing him time to also recover from the trauma of what he had experienced.

He was beautiful and he was out of his home for about six weeks, Jen says. When we went back the perpetrator wasn’t there anymore, and he [Zonathon] knew. When we were two streets away his little ears popped up and he got so excited — his whole body started wagging. When we pulled up two little girls ran out to greet him and he just jumped out of the car and fully loved them. It was one of the best experiences ever to know that you have kept them together and they didn’t have to surrender him.

Being able to see the journey of domestic violence through the eyes of an animal requires the ability to sit with feelings of discomfort and questions which have no simple solutions. Jen says that sometimes volunteers find that they are not a good fit with the program because they want to remove pets from people in situations they don't see as positive for the animals.

A Facebook post
© An example of a call out for help from Jen’s organisation.

I understand why animal lovers feel that way, however it’s not always about what we judge as appropriate, it is also about what the animal needs and wants, Jen says.

Jen believes that working to keep the relationship between people and their pets intact is pivotal to healing from trauma. Her own experience, and the ongoing work with her organisation confirms this, and encourages her to continue.

“I believe animals want to be with their people and I do my best to make that happen”

Chapter 5 Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence:
The Research

Research shows a clear link between domestic violence and animal abuse. From the perspective of academic researchers, the challenge is to now integrate the rights of animals into education, policy and practice. Much of the impetus for this integration comes from people who are a part of grassroots organisations such as community legal centres, women’s refuges and other domestic violence services.

A pioneering study on the topic of the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse was published in 2008 by Judy Johnson from Victoria’s EDVOS and Anne Volant, Associate Professor Eleonora Gullone and Professor Grahame Coleman at Monash University.

The Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse study looks at pets owned by 102 women in relationships both with and without domestic violence. It found:

Kicking, punching
and throwing
the pet were
the most
common forms
of abuse

Icon of a puppy

29% of women
said children
had been
to the
acts of animal

Icon of a child

33% of women
delayed leaving
a violent

due to safety
their pet

Icon of a woman and a paw print

53% of women
in violent

had pets
hurt or killed

compared with
0% in the

Piechart to illustrate statistic

46% of abused
said that
their pets had
been threatened

compared with
6% in the

Piechart to illustrate statistic

“What was a really disturbing factor was that many women had delayed leaving so they remained within violent relationships with their children in order to protect the pets,” Judy said.

Pets in Peril, a formal partnership between EDVOS and a local animal shelter, was born from the research and the group now cares for at-risk pets through referrals from police. Judy compares the work done by Pets in Peril with that of US-based organisations and says although the conversation has been sparked, there is much more to be done.

Did you know?

There is no animal abuse register in Australia and reporting of animal abuse is not mandatory.

In some states in the US if the police are called and there's been domestic violence and the animals have been hurt, then by law they have to report to Child Protection. There should be mandatory reporting of animal abuse, we're a civilised society we shouldn't put up with that sort of behaviour that causes such pain.

I think it should become just an automatic thing nationwide really so that there is an accepted understanding of the significance of the animals in a violent situation. I’d certainly like to see more women remaining at home safely if they can with their animals.

…he deliberately went, grabbed that chicken, and killed it and placed it in an area where she would see it when she returned home as a message to her.

Angela Pollard

Victoria has introduced risk assessment management panels, called RAMP, which are made up of Child Protection, police, domestic violence agency, drug and alcohol representatives. In addition, there are flexible-support packages available and women can use this money for housing pets as well as other costs involved in escaping violence. New South Wales has developed It Stops Here, a state government framework for reform.

In Links Between Family Violence and Pet Abuse, a 2008 report compiled for the Patricia Giles Centre in Western Australia, nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of the respondents owning pets stated their partner had threatened to hurt their pets and 66 per cent reported that the perpetrator had hurt or killed one of their pets. As a result, the Safe Families, Safe Pets program was developed, where dogs can be fostered for up to three months while women find a new home.

Angela Pollard was longtime coordinator of the Animal Law and Education Project with Lismore’s Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre, which offers a domestic violence court advocacy service and other domestic violence support programs.

…in that instance the magistrate found that the penalty should be at the higher end because of the evidence from the pathologist.

Angela Pollard

We haven’t got exact figures of what the levels of animal abuse within domestic violence may be but there’s a lot of research coming through now that says it’s part of a continuum of abuse within families, Angela says.

We often see situations where if we see a child showing perhaps some cruelty towards an animal, it’s very likely that when you go into the home environment the child is at risk of abuse and the mother is usually at risk as well.

Research from the Australian Veterinary Association also shows high levels of risk for animals in households where there’s domestic violence – around the 80 per cent range where there is physical violence and a lot of coercive behaviours.

Although the link between animal abuse and domestic violence can be seen not only by domestic violence agencies but by police, veterinarians, courts and children’s protection services, there is currently no requirement for action to be taken outside of their service.

Ultimately we’d like to see cross-reporting between the police, child protection services and the Veterinary Association. That’s kind of like our holy grail, Angela says.

What is considered animal abuse?

Socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death of an animal

Ascione (1993)

Angela also believes it’s time that pets were seen as victims in their own right.

One of my big frustrations is that our law currently sees all animals as property. There’d be very few people now that would see their dog or cat as a piece of furniture or a car that can be bought and sold — in most instances the family pet is literally a part of the family and our laws don’t recognise that.

As a society we need to move on and say animals are just like us, in fact we are animals. So anything that terrifies, upsets or distresses a dog, or a cat, or a horse is likely to be the same experience that we have.

Chapter 6 Experiences from
the frontline

Bearing witness to the human and animal suffering caused by perpetrators of domestic violence is a part of daily life for frontline workers. Whilst many police officers and veterinarians are becoming more aware of the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, they receive little formal training in this area. The following accounts highlight how a number of key workers are raising awareness of this issue and how newly formed practices for reporting and acting are emerging.

Dr Catherine Tiplady has been a veterinarian since 2008 and works closely with the Animal Welfare League. She tells the story of a little kitten called Buzz's rescue and path to recovery after he had been burnt and buried alive.

A woman and her young child had been threatened and had a restraining order on her partner at the time. He had found where she lived, returned to their home and had been harming and killing her kittens.

This kitten was brought in in a very sorry state; he had dirt and soil all over him and also in his mouth. It was consistent with possibly being buried alive.

A photo of a veterinarian holding a severely injured kitten
© Catherine treated Buzz after he arrived at the vets from an abusive household.

Buzz's ear tips, whiskers and tail had been burnt, and he had burns that looked like cigarette burns on his legs as well. After Catherine treated his injuries she took him into her care, working with RSPCA inspectors to find him a permanent home once he had healed. Buzz was lucky — not all animals like him are found a new home.

A photo of a kitten after being treated for injuries
© After recovering, Buzz was rehomed into a loving family.

Catherine says veterinarians across the world need to know about the link between domestic violence, child abuse, family violence and animal abuse.

Veterinarians can serve as sentinels to identify, support and refer the human and animal victims of violence within their professional training and experience.

Training in this area is essential, otherwise they can feel quite overwhelmed, unsure of what to do and maybe may not even feel confident enough to refer on anyone to support services.

A photo of a veterinarian with a dog and it's owner
© Catherine Tiplady believes veterinarians should take a more active role when dealing with domestic violence situations.

Animals can only speak through their injuries and behaviour so they rely on others to advocate for their welfare. However sometimes the owners have trouble speaking up.

Unfortunately a lot of survivors of domestic violence don't feel confident talking to veterinarians. They think veterinarians might be judgmental or disinterested or just not aware of this issue at all, which is a shame because I think veterinarians are the ideal people to help out.

Did you know?

Veterinarians in ten US states and four Canadian provinces legally require reporting of animal abuse.

The subject of mandatory reporting remains a vexed issue in the veterinarian world. Although doctors and police are required by law to report cases of domestic violence, veterinarians have not been bound by the same rules and they are not required to report suspected or actual cases of animal abuse.

I think it's a really interesting topic for debate among the veterinarian profession at the moment. said Catherine. I'm not aware of many veterinarians at all who are choosing to get proactively involved in the link between human interpersonal violence and animal abuse.

Whilst that debate continues, Catherine has suggested less confronting ways veterinarians can start engaging in the issue by having domestic violence information with emergency contact details available in their clinics.

A photo of Dr Catherine Tiplady holding up a poster
© Catherine holding an example of a poster that could be hung in clinics.

I think having brochures and posters is a really good starting step for all veterinarian clinics. We can't bury our heads in the sand about this issue. Domestic violence happens and animals do get involved.

Dr Lydia Tong is a veterinarian and veterinary pathologist who specialises in forensic pathology of animals. She also believes veterinarians have a role to play in reporting animal abuse. Veterinarians, like other professionals, are required to report child abuse which is good. They aren't required to report animal abuse.

“The one advocate for animals isn’t required to be one.”

Through her work with the State Veterinary Diagnostic Lab and Sydney University, Lydia was involved in a study on determining the difference between accidental injuries in dogs and injuries caused by abuse. The study is the first of its kind in the veterinary world.

What we did was look specifically at fractures in dogs who had been abused, and compared those in detail to fractures that dogs got just through accident.


Dr Lydia Tongs talks about identifying animal abuse

Duration 01:33

What we were able to determine was that there are warning signs, there are features of fractures that are much more common in abuse that veterinarians can use to help them diagnose abuse and that we can use in the courts to help convict abuse.

Doctors have been very successful at identifying child abuse injuries through fractures, so we can go and sort of follow in their footsteps in a way.

Dr Tong's findings resulted in a checklist for veterinarians identifying the features of fractures that they should be concerned about.

It's a difficult area because in Australia and the US less than 10 per cent of veterinarians say they feel confident making a diagnosis of abuse.

Types of Pet Abuse Committed by Partners in the Domestic Violence Group

Act of Abuse Where Act Occured at Least Once
Kicked 33
Punched or hit 15
Threw pet 10
Hit with object 5
Swung/ thrown by tail 3
Beheaded/ broke neck 3
Choked/ strangled/ suffocated 3
Hung/ held in air with lead 3
Shot 2
Jebbed/ stabbed 2
The Relationship Between Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse
Volant, A.M., Johnson, J.A., Gullone, E., and Coleman, G.J.

Another big problem is that many animal abuse cases don't follow through to conviction, often because of a lack of evidence. Dr Tong said the aim of her work was to give veterinarians confidence when diagnosing abuse which can then provide evidence for court cases.

We wouldn’t dream of trying to convict someone of murder or serious bodily harm without evidence from a forensic pathologist in people, so it’s no different for animals.

Ingrid Reilly is the Domestic Violence Liaison Officer at Marrickville Police Station in NSW. Her job is multifaceted – ranging from being involved in the court process to community engagement. Her role also involves liaising with a wide range of both human and animal welfare services, assisting victims of domestic violence.

A close-up photo of a flyer being held by a policewoman
© Ingrid holding a Domestic Violence Safety Assessment Tool (DVSAT) card.

Ingrid says she has seen many positive changes in how police approach domestic violence situations and is encouraged that animals are now more considered during daily police work.

99% of animal cruelty offenders had also:

  • Committed an assault - 61%
  • Committed sexual abuse - 17%
  • Arson conviction - 8%

We've seen a lot of initiatives come into combating domestic violence over the last twelve months, Ingrid said. One recent change has been the Domestic Violence Safety Assessment Tool (DVSAT) were victims are asked a series of 25 questions at the location of an incident to determine the level of risk to that person. One of those questions is: Has your partner ever harmed, or killed or threatened to harm or kill a family pet? So that's pretty important.

It is hoped that through further awareness training, police carrying out their general duties will be able to identify potential problems. Ingrid said, “Police attend people’s houses for such a myriad of reasons so they are able to see if an animal has been harmed or is being seriously neglected.”

Harm to pets
is a red flag and it's
not just towards
domestic violence,
it's also to other
violent types
of crimes.

As DVLO, Ingrid invests a lot of time building up relationships with other human and animal welfare groups such as refuges that accept pets, the RSPCA and the Animal Welfare League for when she receives a call for assistance.

Whilst change is happening, Ingrid says, We've come such a long way from 20 years ago when it was such a private affair. But based on my experience, I think we could explore better how we could better identify animal abuse as a factor in domestic and family violence. I think it's important for all agencies to recognise the importance of an animal to a victim as a means of emotional support and to also recognise the trauma that children suffer by witnessing abuse to the animals in their home.

Domestic violence doesn't discriminate at all, it occurs over all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. We’re all in it together and we all want to combat it together.

Chapter 7 Sharon’s Story:
Isis and Zelda

Pets do more than just provide companionship during the tough times for those dealing with domestic violence; they also help with the recovery process once a violent relationship comes to an end. However it’s not always easy to make big decisions, especially regarding places to live, when an animal is involved. Sharon shares the story of her special relationship with Zelda and her new friend, Isis.

A photo of cat sitting on a couch
© Zelda at home aged 19.

My father bought my cat, Zelda, for me when I was really depressed. He was trying to try cheer me up and give me a reason to get up in the morning and function.

I had Zelda for 20 years before she passed away. And I could talk to her when I couldn’t talk to anybody else. I had no family and no friends; my ex had locked me away. When he was at work I could tell Zelda how I was feeling and cry with her without having anything expected of me, without being judged, without being told I was an idiot.

Sharon’s relationship was sexually abusive and controlling, lasting for nine and a half years.

I met him through a friend so I thought I could trust him. And it seemed all lovely. He’d open the car door for me, took me to restaurants, made me feel like I actually counted for something until the day I moved into his house.

On her 42nd birthday, following an ultimatum from her partner two days previously, Sharon realised she had to take action and make changes to her life.

I’d been sneakily looking before my birthday and (figured it was) the one day of the year where I felt I had the right to choose what I was going to do. So I started like actively looking online and going to real estate agents. After two days searching I found a place that I could afford and that would take the cat.

“Zelda gave me something else to think about and she gave me somebody else to care about, and she cared about me in a way that I’ve never had from a human. She saved me.”

A closeup photo of a woman and a cat
© Zelda and Sharon at home after leaving her partner.

Sharon’s ex showed no responsibility for Zelda or other pets in the home and their care fell into Sharon’s hands.

That’s one of the reasons I stayed for longer than I should have done - for his dog, April, because I didn’t want to leave her behind knowing that he would treat her like a piece of dirt. I couldn’t deal with that so I stayed for maybe two years more than I wanted to. I couldn’t leave her behind to be treated like nothing.

“When April died it felt like I was free to leave because although I could take my cat, I couldn’t take his dog, and he’d made that clear from the beginning.”

After Sharon left the relationship it was Zelda that helped her get by, giving her a reason for being.

I had to look after her so it took the focus off me thinking how my life had just imploded. So instead of being incredibly obsessed with the fact that it was over I just focused more on her than anything else.

Ending the relationship was a difficult time, made harder by the lack of support for potential renters with pets.

I wasn’t going anywhere without my cat. I’d had her from six weeks of age and she was my baby. I started looking for a house to rent that accepted pets. A lot of landlords don’t allow pets, and if they do there’s the added expense of a pet bond.

Sharon and Zelda enjoyed four years of a freer lifestyle before Zelda died.

A photo of a woman on her graduation day
© Sharon on graduation day in 2013 from Griffith University in Queensland.

“She saw me through all the stress of going to university at 42. When I was stressing over exams or assignments, cuddling and playing with her took it down a level. So she got me through university, when I graduated she died two months later.”

Jennifer, Sharon’s friend since high school, could see how devastated she was over the loss of Zelda, and convinced her to adopt another furry friend.

I kept refusing so she started sending pictures of cats from shelters. One day this little face peered out at me and three weeks later Isis came to my house. She’s nuts but it’s good! And that’s a big reason why Jennifer made sure I adopted Isis because she was worried that I had nothing I felt I wanted to live for. There’s study, and that’s all well and good, but to not have another heartbeat in your house, is horrible.

“I love books, but a breathing, purring thing is really important.”


Sharon talks about how she met Isis

Duration 01:14

Sharon hopes that telling her story will inspire others to speak up and make a stand against domestic violence.

Sharon believes that stepping forward to tell her story through My Saving Grace was a turning point for her, and says Until I started on this project, I told as few people as possible I was a domestic violence survivor. I didn’t want to tell people I had lived for 9 and a half years with a narcissistic, controlling and abusive man, because I was deeply ashamed.

Sharon embodies the transformative potential of storytelling for change and encourages society to see women who have lived with domestic violence in their wholeness.

I have a PTSD, anxiety disorder, and depression, but I am so much more than that; I am a writer, I am an artist, I am alive.

Chapter 8 Empathy,
Shame and Silence

As James* is encouraged to hold a resident guinea pig and observe how she responds to his gentleness, he is learning, in a safe way, to experience an emotional connection with a companion animal. Research shows that children exposed to domestic violence often struggle to express emotions such as empathy, and prevailing feelings of shame may leave children unable to voice their experiences.

A portrait photo of a middle-aged woman
© Meredith Green - Children's Counsellor at the Pat Giles Centre.

Meredith Green facilitates BARK (Building Animal Relationships with Kids), a program designed to assist children who have been exposed to domestic violence and witnessed or been involved in the abuse of a pet. BARK is run by the Patricia Giles Centre in WA with the purpose of enabling children to develop empathy, encourage healing and develop skills to help build their self-esteem.

The children attending BARK are aged between seven and 12 and have all experienced domestic violence. BARK looks at the development of empathy from several angles and helps the children develop positive relationships with both animals and humans, as well as teach them how to process their emotions.

We look at things like reading an animal's body language and also reading other human beings' body language, and also being aware of your own body language and how you might present to different people, and also to animals, Meredith says.

“We talk about perspective. We also talk about the rights of animals, and then we talk about the rights of children.”

BARK picture essay:
Pictures taken during BARK sessions at the The Pat Giles Centre.

The vulnerability of both the children and the animals means children often find they have an easy connection to animals. That connection that they can make about their own experiences being the same as what these animals may have experienced is really quite powerful, Meredith says.

Did you know?

51% of children put themselves inbetween perp and pet, exposing themselves to danger.

Allie Phillips, Understanding the Link

BARK gives children an opportunity to process their experiences of abuse and harm while reflecting on their anger and loss of control, which are common feelings for children in domestic violence situations. It's giving them an opportunity to see other people have these experiences, and it's giving them some skills they can use so that they don't need to continue on with these patterns.

The important part is for them to develop empathy so that they can have positive relationships in their life.

While children can struggle with empathy, silence and shame are characteristic of domestic violence victims and one that women like Sharon, who spent years in a violent relationship, say needs to change.

I think we condone domestic violence and abuse with silence. By not speaking out I’m saying that everything that was done to me is ok. And if I keep that inside and I’m telling myself it’s ok I’m setting myself up for more bad relationships, or abuse.


“If I don't speak up, I can't expect anyone else to speak up”

Duration 00:18

Sharon says abuse happens because of control issues. In her situation, like that of many other women, she was too scared to say anything about it.

Friends and family play a big part in breaking the silence, with Sharon encouraging women to not ignore the actions of their sons and brothers, and check with friends you think may be in a domestic violence situation.

Friends don't want conflicts with friends, often they just stay silent. Say to your son or your brother you can't treat women like that.

Sharon, like Tracey and Jen, encourages women in similar situations to tell their stories as a way to release themselves from the shame and create opportunity for social change.


“I have to give his shame back to him”

Duration 00:15

I've got to stop blaming me. Enough people blame me for not leaving, the last person that should be blaming me is me. It’s not me staying that made it happen, it's not me being an idiot that made it happen, it's him being a narcissistic bully that made it happen. I've got to speak up. I think there is an overwhelming need to help people see the prevalence of domestic violence in our society.

Judy Johnson of EDVOS says friends and family sometimes perpetrate this silence by making excuses for the violence, breeding a culture of shame. If your parents don't understand the violence at home you might be told 'well, we never liked him in the first place' or 'why did you marry him, it's your bed you've got to lie in it' she said.

Other friends appear to be having such happy lives that you feel ashamed and you just don't want to tell anybody.

This silence is something that Angela Pollard has also seen in family law, questioning child protection workers on their experiences with at-risk children and animal abuse.

I was at a family law conference where I asked child protection workers about their experiences of doing home visits where there are children at risk.

Several agreed there was a connection but when Angela asked them what steps they took to report the abuse, she was shocked.

They said 'that's not within our brief, we don't want to make life more difficult for those families than it already is'.

Angela says this silence surrounds both the human and animal victims.

One magistrate referred to the silent victims, and that their only evidence is that on their bodies. I think that's really powerful because of course there are many instances where animals are abused and there is no evidence.

The way forward — for all of us

The culture of domestic violence and animal abuse intersects with a range of deeply embedded social constructs, family, community and state systems. Children and animals are at the very bottom of the hierarchy of power that can offer rights enablement and protection, families, schools, welfare agencies, health providers, law enforcement and the judiciary.

Looking for, and listening to, the experiences of animals and children to promote change requires a strategic act of will. As Margaret Heffernan writes in her book, Willful Blindness:

We make ourselves powerless when we choose not to know. But we give ourselves hope when we insist on looking.

Margaret Heffernan