Information for social workers, counselors, crisis intervention workers, outreach workers, nurses, and anyone else who works with vulnerable populations in Alberta.
Why should I be concerned about animal cruelty?
Cruelty to pets within a home is an example of domestic violence, and is often accompanied by other forms of violence and abuse – such as child abuse, spousal abuse and elder abuse.
Sometimes animal protection laws may be more helpful, or easier to prove than laws protecting children. They could be more likely to be reported – e.g., an abused spouse or child may find it easier to disclose animal cruelty than mistreatment of themselves or another family member. The evidence of animal cruelty may be more readily observed and lead to an investigation that uncovers other forms of abuse.
There is a growing awareness that young people who deliberately abuse animals are at risk of developing other violent tendencies. The DSM-IV lists animal cruelty as a symptom indicative of Conduct Disorder. Children who witness animals being abused, threatened or killed in a family violence situation are often traumatized and may display their emotional distress in any number of ways. This is especially true for pets with which they have a strong attachment. Some children may show no outward signs of their emotional turmoil, while others may copy the behaviours they witnessed or act out in other ways.
How does animal cruelty impact victims of domestic violence?
For many victims of domestic violence, their relationship to their pet is their strongest positive connection with another living being. In abusive relationships, pets are often targeted by the abusive partner and threatened or killed in order to exert power and maintain control over the victim. Furthermore, since emergency shelters are often unable to accommodate pets, many victims (up to 48% in some studies) delay leaving an abusive situation out of fear for what might happen to their pet. There are indications that animals play a similar role in elder abuse.
What can I do to help?
If you are counselling someone considering leaving an abusive situation, ask if they own pets or livestock. If so, help them include provisions for the animals in their safety plan. This includes finding someone to care for the animals and making sure vaccinations are up to date. This is particularly important if the animals will be sent to a commercial kennel. Advise them to keep receipts of veterinary visits and food bills as proof of ownership. Add questions about pets and livestock to your intake form, and include animals in Emergency Protective Orders. Look into forming links with your local SPCA/humane society to develop protocols for cross-reporting or cross-training. Become more informed – see the resources page, or contact the Alberta SPCA Education Department to assist with staff training.
Make sure to create a customized safety plan with your client or contact our Pet Safekeeping coordinator.
What else is being done?
The Alberta SPCA conducted a study published in 2012 that highlights additional difficulties faced by victims of domestic violence when animals are involved. The report, Inside the Cruelty Connection: The Role of Animals in Decision-Making by Domestic Violence Victims in Rural Alberta, documents a study conducted throughout the province. (Go to the Resources page to download individual sections).