Abuse me, abuse my pet

Researchers find an alarming new trend: Pets as the collateral victims of domestic abuse, used to intimidate women and persuade them not to leave.


Catherine Price
May 22, 2008 6:14PM (UTC)

I'll admit it. I love O magazine. I think it's the best mainstream women's magazine on the stands, featuring great writing that is intelligent, funny and not entirely devoted to tips on how to apply lipstick, lose weight or "blow his mind in bed," to quote the latest -- or, more accurately, every issue of Cosmo. (This is just a hunch, but I bet his mind isn't the only thing you'll be ... never mind.) Anyway, the June issue of O has an article with a picture of a woman nose-to-nose with a dog -- usually a strong warning sign of impending cheese -- that turned out to be not only not cheesy but very relevant to Broadsheet.

Titled "The Case of the Battered Pet," it's about how abusive men often don't limit their abuse to their girlfriends or wives -- they involve the pets, too. For example: A California vet treated a cat named Malibu with a swollen face, bruised lungs, broken ribs and fractured tailbone. They were all signs of trauma -- and yet the cat hadn't been hit by a car or fallen out a window. The vet approached the woman who had brought in the cat to find out what might have happened and learned that the woman had arrived home that morning to find her abusive boyfriend -- who had managed to track her down three times despite her moving homes in order to avoid him -- in her apartment. He had scratches and bite marks on his arms, and the cat was under a table, barely breathing.

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"I really don't know how to tell you this, because it breaks my heart," the vet is quoted as saying, "but someone tried to strangle your cat."

The woman's response? "Yeah. My boyfriend likes to do that to me, too."

It's a phenomenon that at first seems surprising, but on second thought makes perfect sense: According to the article, researchers are beginning to understand that "with devastating frequency, animals are the collateral victims of domestic violence." Abusers "torture or kill [dogs and cats, lizards and rabbits, horses and other farm animals], or threaten to do so, in order to maintain control of their spouses." Even more upsetting? It works.

As Phil Arkow, head of the human-animal bond programs at the American Humane Association, is quoted as saying, "Pets have become pawns in the battle of power and control that marks domestic violence ... [The abused] not only lose the sense of safety and comfort their animals provide but all too frequently feel unable to leave."

Randall Lockwood, ASPCA senior vice president for anti-cruelty initiatives, reports that he has heard accounts "from victim advocates in all fifty states of a husband or boyfriend who assembles the family and makes them watch as he bludgeons or beats the family dog, cat, horse, cow, bunny, hamster, gerbil -- with the message of, 'You could be next.'" The first published study on the subject, which involved 38 women at a domestic violence shelter, found that 71 percent of the women who owned pets said that their partners had "threatened, tortured -- even killed -- one or more of their animals during the relationship." Subsequent studies have confirmed that, unfortunately, it's a trend.

I find this disturbing on several fronts: That someone would physically abuse their partner to begin with, that someone would be sick enough to strangle a cat (or, to use a different example, routinely seal a Yorkshire terrier's eyes, ears and sexual organs with powerful adhesive), and that the victims, worried about their pets' fate if they flee (many battered women's shelters don't accept pets), decide to stay rather than see their pets harmed. Almost sadder, though, is the idea that there are women out there who don't leave their partners, regardless of the abuse they themselves endure, but do then bring their pets to the vet. It's better, of course, than leaving the animals to suffer -- but it says something about a person's self-esteem if she speaks up about her pet's abuse but says nothing about her own.

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The good news for the pets? Ten states so far have passed laws authorizing pets to be included in protective orders -- which, in addition to protecting the animals, may help women feel like they have a bit more power to escape. If you want to encourage your state to pass similar legislation, go to the Humane Society of the United States, the American Humane Association or the ASPCA.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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