Shelters Spotlight: How Animal Shelters Are Helping Victims of Domestic Violence

This 10-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are...

This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership withPurina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

When women in abusive relationships seek emancipation, the path to independence is not always easy. Along with having to worry about their own safety, many women have to consider the safety of everyone in their household, from their children to family pets. According to the nonprofit National Link Coalition on Domestic Violence, 71 percent of women who entered domestic abuse shelters reported that their partner had threatened, injured or killed their pet. What’s even more unfortunate is that up to 40 percent of the women delayed leaving abusive relationships for several months or years out of fear that their pets could be hurt if left behind. You may think of animal shelters as safe havens for homeless dogs and cats, but shelters like Animal Protective Association of Missouri are also creating safety nets for women in abusive relationships by offering shelter and veterinary care to their pets so that they have one less thing to worry about when they leave an abusive partner.

Founded in 1998 in response to a policy that prohibited the presence of animals in St. Louis safe houses, APA of MO’s Domestic Violence Pet Assistance Program fills a need in the community to protect pets and their owners. By keeping pets in women’s lives, APA of MO plays a small but significant part in helping women adjust through difficult periods that can make career advancement or progression complicated.

Most of the women who utilize APA of MO as a resource are in their thirties and forties, with pets ranging from cats and dogs to rabbits and guinea pigs. As a member of the St. Louis County Domestic and Family Violence Council’s directory, APA of MO is able to advertise its services confidentially, without jeopardizing the safety of the women. In addition, the nonprofit can accommodate women who may need more time to adjust through difficult periods. “Most of the time, we shelter animals up to one month, but we’ve also sheltered pets up to nine or twelve months, if the women, for example, are pregnant or studying for graduate record exams,” says Development Associate Natalie Partenheimer.

Although APA of MO gets a lot of calls from women in the community, they can’t offer women pet services unless they have first sought help from a caseworker or domestic shelter. However, in these cases, APA of MO doesn’t just act as an animal shelter. They also refer women to safe houses that can offer them proper care and guidance.

Allie Phillips, attorney and Director of the National Center for Prosecution of Animal Abuse, sees the value in offsite institutions like APA of MO’s Domestic Violence Pet Assistance Program, but also finds that many families in crisis don’t want to be separated from their pets. In the late 1990s, Phillips created a start-up and safety planning guide for domestic violence shelters to implement legal onsite housing programs for pets. With her program, Sheltering Animals & Families Together (SAF-T), domestic violence shelters are partnered with animal rescue organizations and veterinarians who provide guidance on animal sheltering and medical care, as well as expert court testimony regarding animal abuse.

“I know a lot of [domestic women’s] shelters just summarily dismiss the idea (of sheltering pets) because they say, ‘Well we don’t have the money or the space, or we’re worried about allergies,’” says Phillips. “I just wish they’d read the safety start-up guide, because in it, I address every single question they’d have, and they’d see how simple it could be to have a program like this.”

Right now, there are more than 70 domestic violence shelters in the world that have implemented on-site housing for pets. For women who seek refuge, being able to see their pets daily due to programs like SAF-T is a true benefit. On Phillips’ site, Jeanette Aston of Mt. Graham Safe House in Safford, Arizona says, “It seems to be so healing. [Female residents] also see a difference in their pets being here, in comparison to the way they were at home with the abuser.”

More animal shelters like APA of MO are implementing domestic violence pet assistance programs across America and throughout the United Kingdom, but with more than 2,000 animal shelters in the United States alone, there is still more potential to help those affected by domestic violence. Nonprofits National Link Coalition on Domestic Violence and Ahimsa House are working to update the list of animal shelters that provide services to victims of domestic violence so that more women in abusive relationships can have stronger safety nets across the country.

With more animal and human shelters realizing that they can work together to shelter pets from abusive households, they can directly help the mental health and well-being of entire families affected by domestic violence. Most importantly, by sheltering pets while women get their lives back on track, animal shelters like APA of MO are ultimately strengthening bonds between pets and their owners, ensuring that they can stay together while also finding refuge from destructive households. By taking steps to keep families together, these shelters are expanding both their roles in their communities and the types of people they serve.

Top photo via (cc) Flickr User Gonzalo García Jaubert

Second photo courtesy of Animal Protection Association of Missouri