How abusers use pets as tools of violence and coercion

Warning - this article describes animal abuse

New research from Women's Refuge has revealed domestic abusers use animals as part of a pattern of power and control.

A survey of almost 1000 women shows abusers use the connection between victims and their pets as a tool to manipulate and control their partners.

"Essentially because of the victim's attachment to their pet, these animals become effective tools for abusers used to control and coerce the victim," said chief executive of Women's Refuge Dr Ang Jury.

"Many women described their relationship with their pet as the most meaningful one in their lives... sadly this made the pet a significant target for the abuser with threats against pets creating yet another barrier for women already facing a complicated and difficult journey to safety for themselves and their children."

Hundreds of women surveyed said they did not leave their abusive relationship when they wanted to, due to feelings of love and responsibility for their pets. 

"I would have left earlier knowing [the animals] were somewhere safe and being cared for," said one woman.

"That would have given me more time to sort myself out."

Dr Jury says the abuse of animals creates barriers that prevent women leaving their abusive partners.

"While she could potentially leave, or choose not to comply with the abusers' demands, this placed her pet in further danger, therefore creating one more barrier in the way of creating safety for her and her children."

One quarter of those surveyed had experienced their partner killing a pet or other animal during the relationship. Kicking, smacking, and throwing objects at animals were the most common forms of abuse. Shooting, choking, burning and drowning were also reported.

In many examples, the abuse of animals and pets was related to a desire for control and compliance from the victim. 

"He would buy or be given kittens which he would gift to me and the kids," said one woman.

"These were then used as pawns against me, and I witnessed seven kittens suffering and being killed for disobeying him or standing up to him."

"After being manipulated to keep having sex with him, he threatened to chop up my dearly loved cat," said another.

Threatening to harm or kill animals is a powerful way of controlling women. Almost half of the women surveyed said they had experienced a partner threatening to harm, kill or get rid of a pet in order to make the victim do something.

Where to find help and support: