The Abuse of
Animals and Domestic Violence: A National Survey of
Shelters for Women who are Battered
Frank R. Ascione
1, Claudia V. Weber, and David S. Wood
Utah State University
The maltreatment of animals, usually
companion animals, may occur in homes where there is domestic
violence, yet we have limited information about the prevalence
of such maltreatment. We surveyed the largest shelters for women
who are battered in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
Shelters were selected if they provided overnight facilities and
programs or services for children. Ninety- six percent of the
shelters responded. Analysis revealed that it is common for
shelters to serve women and children who talk about companion
animal abuse. However, only a minority of respondents indicated
that they systematically ask about companion animal maltreatment
in their intake interview. We discuss the implications of these
results for domestic violence programs, animal welfare
organizations, and programs serving children of women who are
battered by their partners.
"A moment later, Francine heard Nicky scream...'Nicky was crying
so hard she couldn't talk. I'd never heard a child cry like
that. I...held her in my arms until she calmed down enough to
tell me what had happened. Mickey (Francine's husband) had
warned her that if he found the cat on the porch he'd wring its
neck. When he caught her with it the second time he took it out
of her arms and just broke its neck in his two hands" (McNulty,
1989, p. 165).
"Francine Hughes was charged with the death by fire of her
husband, Mickey Hughes, in 1977" (McNulty, 1989, author's note).
"[Her lawyer] asked Francine to tell the story of their pet dog,
Lady. As Francine described Lady's death (Mickey had refused to
allow his family to assist Lady while she was giving birth) a
shockwave of emotion swept the courtroom. The simplicity of the
event - - a helpless animal, a female, left outside to freeze
while struggling to give birth - - held no ambiguity, no
shadings of motive; it left no room for doubt. The impact of the
story was as strong as anything Francine had told so far"
(McNulty, 1989, p. 258).
Although an age- old issue, the relationship between the abuse
and maltreatment of nonhuman animals and human interpersonal
violence is receiving renewed attention from the scientific
community. Two recent reviews of literature (Arkow, 1996;
Ascione, 1993) highlight the potential confluence of child
maltreatment, domestic violence, and animal maltreatment. Each
form of abuse can occur independently or in combination with
other forms of violence.
The present study is the outgrowth of a series of projects
specifically examining the dynamics of human- perpetrated
violence toward animals (herein used to refer to nonhuman
animals). Following a brief overview of related literature, we
report the results of a national survey of shelters for women
who are battered. This survey was conducted to evaluate
shelters' experience with reported animal maltreatment and to
find out whether shelters systematically assess this form of
abuse. We conclude with discussion of policy and therapeutic
issues that need to be addressed as animal welfare organizations
and domestic violence programs embark on more collaborative
efforts to deal with violence toward animals and people.
An earlier paper (Ascione, 1993) outlined a series of issues
that pertain to the development of cruelty toward animals in
childhood and adolescence, using the following definition of
cruelty: "...socially unacceptable behavior that intentionally
causes unnecessary pain, suffering, or distress to and/or death
of an animal..." (p. 228). Case examples from the early
psychoanalytic literature were reviewed as well as primarily
retrospective research from forensic psychiatry and sociology
linking childhood histories of animal abuse with contemporary
patterns of criminal violence. One of the watershed events for
research in this area was the inclusion of "cruelty to animals"
among the symptoms of Conduct Disorder in children and
adolescents in major psychiatric diagnostic manuals (American
Psychiatric Association, 1987, 1994). Conduct Disorder
represents a pattern of antisocial behavior that can persist
Research examples included the association of animal
maltreatment with cases of child physical abuse, the sexual
abuse of children, and partner battering or domestic violence.
Follow- up work by colleagues and the present authors has
included the design and field testing of a questionnaire for
assessing children and adolescents' histories of animal abuse (Ascione,
Thompson, & Black, in press) and a survey on animal maltreatment
for use with women who have been battered (Ascione, in press;
Ascione & Weber, 1995).
Since this review, there have been a number of publications
attempting to raise the consciousness of the child welfare
community (Boat, 1995) and the veterinary profession (Arkow,
1994; Munro, 1996) about the need to attend to the maltreatment
of animals. However, similar advances are only beginning within
the community of professionals who deal with domestic violence.
Animal Abuse and Domestic Violence
Much of the information we have about the relationship between
the maltreatment of animals and partner battering is derived
from anecdotal reports (like the passages quoted at the opening
of this paper) in the literature on domestic violence. Hogarth
(1750/1751; Shesgreen, 1973, plates 77- 79) provided an artistic
representation of the relation in his series of engravings
entitled, "The Stages of Cruelty" in which childhood cruelty to
animals progressed to a fatal domestic assault. In 1809, the
psychiatrist Pinel provided a similar example from his case
histories (cited in Berrios, 1996).
Anecdotally, we also know that animals have been abused by
perpetrators to frighten their partners, as a threat of
potential interpersonal attacks, and as a form of retaliation or
punishment, and that abuse has been implicated in forced
bestiality. That children are often witness to such displays of
cruelty has received scant research scrutiny.
Child Witnesses to Domestic Violence and Animal Abuse
"...[T]he Custom of [children] Tormenting and Killing ...Beasts,
will, by Degrees, harden their Minds even towards Men; and they
who delight in the Suffering and Destruction of inferiour
Creatures, will not be apt to be very compassionate, or benign
to those of their own kind." (Locke cited in Axtell, 1968,
Recently, Jouriles, Norwood, McDonald, Vincent, and Mahoney
(1996) reported on the results of a study of two samples in
which domestic violence was present, one including couples
seeking marital therapy and the other women seeking shelter from
battering. They found that physical violence and other forms of
marital aggression were associated with externalizing (acting
out) problems in the 5 to 12-year-old children in these
families. It is important to note that cruelty to animals is
often included as a component of externalizing problems.
This is one example of the increased research attention being
paid to the effects of witnessing family violence on the
psychological adjustment of children, a group sometimes referred
to as the "forgotten victims" of partner abuse (Jaffe &
Sudermann, 1995; Osofsky, 1995). However, there has been
virtually no research on circumstances in which children may
witness not only the battering of their parent (most often the
mother) but also the abuse of their beloved companion animals, a
combination that may compound these children's trauma and
contribute to their psychological maltreatment. It should be
noted that children in such homes are at heightened risk for
being abused themselves. Witnessing parent and companion animal
abuse may compromise children's psychological adjustment,
increase their propensity for interpersonal violence (via
observational learning and/or identification with the
aggressor), and make children's cruelty to animals more likely
to emerge as a symptom of their distress.
Women who Seek Shelter from Battering
To our knowledge, there are only three reports, two of which are
unpublished, on the experience of women in battered women's
shelters with threatened and actual abuse of animals. Arkow
(1996) cited two studies, one of which was conducted at the
Center for Prevention of Domestic Violence in Colorado Springs,
Colorado and found that 24% of women (N = 122) seeking safehouse
refuge reported that their abusers had abused animals in their
presence. The other study was conducted by the La Crosse,
Wisconsin Community Coalition against Violence among 72 women
using domestic violence prevention services. Eighty- six percent
of these women reported having companion animals and, of these
women, 80% had experienced their partners' maltreatment of
Ascione (in press), in collaboration with a shelter in northern
Utah for women who are battered, surveyed 38 women entering the
shelter for in- house services. Using a form of the Battered
Partner Shelter Survey (BPSS) -- Pet Maltreatment Assessment (Ascione
& Weber, 1995), he found that 74% of the women reported having a
companion animal currently or in the past twelve months. Of
these women, 71% indicated that their boyfriend or husband had
either threatened harm to their animals or had engaged in actual
maltreatment and/or killing of an animal. The prevalence of
companion animal abuse by children in these families was also
disturbingly common. Thirty- two percent of the 22 women with
children gave examples of children hurting or killing animals.
This level of cruelty is comparable to what has been found in
samples of mental health clinic child clients (Achenbach &
Edelbrock, 1981; Achenbach, Howell, Quay, & Conners, 1991) and
in a sample of sexually abused children (William Friedrich,
April, 1992, personal communication). In this sample of women
with companion animals, nearly one in five (18%) reported that
they had delayed entering the shelter because of concerns about
their companion animal's safety.
Given the small and regionally narrow sample of women recruited
for these studies, we thought it would be valuable to derive
some sense of the national scope of this problem. As I note in a
forthcoming article (Ascione, in press):
Although this study [of the 38 shelter women] did not include
comparison samples of non- battered women or women who are not
currently in shelters, the substantial rate of partner cruelty
to animals is clearly a cause for concern. Caution must be
exercised in generalizing from this study's sample to state and
national samples; however, extrapolation of this study's
findings may help estimate the scope of the potential problem.
For example, two million is a conservative estimate of the
number of U.S. women assaulted by their male partners each year
(see Browne, 1993). If half of these women have companion
animals (again, a conservative estimate [Ascione, 1992]), 71%
partner cruelty to animals represents hundreds of thousands of
families where companion animal victimization, actual or
threatened, is part of the landscape of terror to which some
women are exposed.
Since systematic data collection about the prevalence of cruelty
to animals reported by women who enter safehouses or shelters is
uncommon at the state level, we decided to conduct a national
survey, selecting one shelter per state and the District of
Columbia. We excluded Utah shelters from our sampling because of
an ongoing study that specifically addresses cruelty to animals
(Ascione, Weber, Thompson, & Wood, in preparation). Our purposes
were to survey shelter personnel about their perceptions
regarding the overlap between domestic violence and animal
maltreatment, ascertain whether women and children coming to
shelters mention companion animal abuse, and find out whether
shelters routinely collect information about the abuse of
companion animals in their intake protocol. If shelters
collected such information, we asked about the type of
We obtained the most recent edition (1994) of the National
Directory of Domestic Violence Programs compiled by the National
Coalition against Domestic Violence (NCADV). The directory
contains state- by- state information as well as information
from Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands,
derived from a survey conducted by the Coalition. The number of
programs listed for each state ranged from 4 (Delaware) to 120
(New York). We elected not to include Puerto Rico and the Virgin
Islands in our sampling.
The directory lists 16 potential service categories for each
program, three of which were relevant for the current study.
These were: "SHELTER - Residential facility for battered women
and their children...CHILDREN'S COUNSELING/PROGRAMS - One or
more of the various services provided for children of battered
women ranging from counseling, to advocacy, recreational
activities, and a structured children's program...SHELTER
CAPACITY - The number of women and children who can be sheltered
at any one time" (NCADV, 1994, unpaginated).
We selected one shelter from each state (excluding Utah) and the
District of Columbia using the following criteria: the facility
had to provide overnight (residential) accommodations, indicate
that children's counseling or programs were available, and be
the largest shelter in the state based on "shelter capacity" as
defined above. In most cases, we selected the shelter located in
a major, well- known city.
We developed a simple, one- page questionnaire with seven items
and space for open- ended comments, since we were aware of the
premium on time for most shelter personnel. The exact wording of
each item will be provided in the Results section but, in brief,
the questionnaire asked about the number of clients served in a
six- month period, whether women or children coming to the
shelter mentioned companion animal abuse, and whether the
respondents had noted the coexistence of domestic violence and
companion animal abuse and, if so, their estimate of the extent
of overlap between these forms of violence. We also asked
whether a question about companion animal abuse was included in
the shelter's intake interview.
A cover letter describing the project as a study of the
"relation between domestic violence toward women and children
and abuse of companion animals" was attached to the
questionnaire together with a stamped, addressed return
envelope. The study protocol, letter, and questionnaire were
approved by Utah State University's Institutional Review Board (IRB)
for Human Subjects Research, and a copy of the IRB approval was
included in the mailing.
After an initial mailing, a second mailing was made to sites
that had not responded. Following two mailings, shelters were
contacted by phone and the questionnaire was administered as an
interview (for those sites that agreed to participate).
Respondents primarily were shelter directors and front line
staff having direct contact with clients.
Our survey of 50 shelter programs yielded responses from 48,
representing a 96% response rate. One program did not respond
despite repeated phone calls and one declined participation due
to time constraints.
We asked shelters to indicate the number of women who stayed in
their facility at least one night during the period November 1,
1995 to May 1, 1996. Estimates were provided by 87.5% of the
shelters, with 12.5% either unable to provide an estimate or
leaving this item blank. For the 42 shelters completing this
item, the number of women staying overnight during the six-
month period ranged from 34 to 600, with a mean of 186.
One of the questions we asked (see Table 1 for a summary of
results) was, "Do women who come in to your shelter talk about
incidents of pet abuse?" An affirmative response was given by
85.4% of the shelters. In response to the question, "Do children
who come in to your shelter talk about incidents of pet abuse ?"
63% of the 46 shelters that completed this item said "Yes."
Percent Respondents Answering "Yes" to Each Question
Questions "Yes" (%)
Do women who come into your shelter talk about incidents
of companion animal abuse? 85.4
Do children who come into your shelter talk about incidents
of companion animal abuse? 63.0
In your experience with shelters, have you observed the
coexistence of domestic violence and companion animal abuse?
Do you have any questions in your intake interview concerning
companion animals? 27.1
We also asked respondents, "In your experience with shelters,
have you observed the coexistence of domestic violence and pet
abuse?" Eighty- three point three percent of the shelters
responded affirmatively. When asked, "What is your best estimate
of the percentage of homes where domestic violence and pet abuse
coexist?" Fifty percent of the shelters provided estimates (the
remaining shelters either entered a question mark or left this
item blank). Estimates ranged from less than 1% to 85% with a
mean estimate of 44% coexistence of domestic violence and
companion animal abuse.
In response to the question, "Do you have any questions in your
intake interview concerning pets?", 27.1% responded "Yes."
(Estimates of percent coexistence were unrelated to whether
shelters had a question about companion animals in their intake
interview.) Of the 13 shelters responding affirmatively, 12
responded to a follow- up question about the type of questions
asked during intakes. A sampling of responses included:
"Has he threatened to hurt you, your family, your pets or
favorite belongings of yours?"
"Has abuser threatened to harm or ever harmed pet in the
"In a section called `History of Abuse,' we ask if they've
experienced pet abuse."
"Do you have animals at home? Are they safe?"
"Has there been physical destruction of property/pets? Where are
the companion animals? Do you have a safe place to keep them?"
Finally, we asked respondents if they wished to receive a brief
summary of the study when it was completed. This item was left
blank by 46%, 42% requested a copy, and 12% said "No."
Before discussing the results of this study, a few caveats are
in order. There are hundreds of domestic violence programs
throughout the United States - - we sampled only 50 of these
which met our selection criteria. Therefore, caution should be
exercised in generalizing our results to all shelters. Since we
selected the shelter with the largest capacity in each state, we
probably excluded shelters serving primarily rural communities
where farm and wild animal abuse may occur, another factor
limiting generalization. Finally, a survey of nonresidential
domestic violence programs and shelters that do not provide
children's services would be valuable as a comparison for the
data we obtained.
The overwhelming majority of shelters we surveyed indicated that
women seeking shelter mention experiences of companion animal
abuse. A smaller but still substantial majority also reported
that children have shared instances when companion animals have
been abused in their homes. In fact, shelters reporting that
children talked about companion animal abuse always reported
that women discussed companion animal abuse as well. Despite the
fact that 40 of the 48 shelters believed that domestic violence
and companion animal abuse coexist, only 13 shelters
specifically assess this issue in their intake interview. Some
factors that may account for the discrepancy between awareness
of the link between animal maltreatment and domestic violence
and the apparent failure to explore the link with shelter
clients include the limited time that shelter staff can devote
to intake processes and uncertainty about how to deal with
animal welfare issues that might arise. In the remainder of this
discussion, we explore issues that may be valuable to consider
as collaborative programs between domestic violence services and
animal welfare organizations continue to evolve.
Implications for Domestic Violence Programs
We have not given sufficient attention to cruelty to animals as
an indicator of partner dangerousness or lethality. A brief
question or two about animal maltreatment in intake interviews
and crisis call interview protocols could provide information
about a partner's capacity for physical violence. We also must
be alert to animal cruelty as an indication that violence may be
escalating. Although it has not been explored systematically,
this information could also enhance prosecution efforts by
helping establish patterns of physical violence.
We know that there may be repeated visits to shelters and
numerous crisis calls before a woman leaves a batterer. If
companion animals are present in these cases, incorporating
information about animal welfare in safety planning for women
who continue to live with their batterer is essential. Concern
for companion animal welfare may actually delay a woman's
seeking of shelter, and this is an obstacle that could be
removed. Domestic violence victim advocates who arrive at a
scene after police have "secured" the location should also be
trained to ask about companion animal welfare to assist women in
their decisions about remaining at home or seeking shelter.
Information about a batterer's history of animal abuse could
also be considered in requesting protective orders.
As of February 1997, the Utah legislature is considering a bill
that would increase penalties in domestic violence cases where
children witness family violence. It might be advisable to
include witnessing the abuse and killing of companion animals as
a further traumatizing experience for children in whose homes
partner battering occurs.
One final consideration is our need for a better understanding
of the dynamics of animal abuse in families where there is
domestic violence. We know that cruelty to animals may be a
battering partner's attempt at control, coercion, intimidation,
retaliation, and an element of forced bestiality. However, we
know little about battering victims' reactions to and
interpretations of such events. If a women has experienced
animal maltreatment by her partner, under what circumstances
does this further immobilize her, heightening her fear of
leaving (especially when weapons have been used) and when does
it prompt her to escape an abusive situation?
Implications for Animal Welfare Organizations
In many instances, animal welfare organizations have taken the
lead in promoting collaborative programs to reduce violence to
all vulnerable victims, human and nonhuman. Yet coordinated
efforts are in the infancy or, at best, toddler stage of
development. In reviewing the comments offered by respondents in
this study, we found that only 6 shelters of the 48 responding
(8%) mentioned collaborative arrangements with animal welfare
organizations or veterinary clinics to provide temporary shelter
for companion animals while a woman resided at a shelter or
safehouse. Some respondents said that they allowed companion
animals in their shelter (no doubt a challenge, given space and
safety issues), others noted arrangements for housing companion
animals with a companion animal advocacy program, humane
society, animal shelter, and/or veterinary clinic. What are
factors that animal welfare organizations need to contemplate to
increase such cooperative efforts? Are there obstacles to
implementing programs to keep companion animals safe while women
and children take up temporary residence at shelters?
Let us assume that an animal welfare organization that has
facilities for sheltering animals enters into a cooperative
agreement with a shelter for women who are battered to board
companion animals during a woman's shelter stay. A number of
If animal shelter records are open to public access, could a
perpetrator locate his partner by asking to see these records?
If a companion animal is jointly owned by a perpetrator and his
partner, how would the shelter respond to the perpetrator's
request (demand?) to claim "his" companion animal?
Women's stays at shelters are sometimes lengthy -- who bears the
cost of animal-caretaking during this period?
If a woman chooses to return home to her partner after a shelter
stay and wants to reclaim her companion animal, what steps could
be taken to enhance the companion animal's welfare in such a
potentially violent environment?
Perpetrators may at times give their partners companion animals
as gifts (e.g., during the forgiveness phase of the cycle of
domestic violence). If a companion animal is sought from an
animal shelter, could the adopter's background regarding
domestic violence be checked?
Would an animal shelter allow visitations with a boarded
companion animal by a woman and her children while they lived
away from home? Would this aid or interfere with the companion
animal's adjustment to separation?
If a woman elects to place a companion animal up for adoption
because she can no longer care for it or fears for the companion
animal's safety if brought home, must she obtain her partner's
If a companion animal's injuries stemming from abuse necessitate
euthanasia, what steps can be taken to minimize the trauma of
losing the companion animal for women and children?
Are shelters equipped to deal with a woman's concern for the
welfare of farm animals, who can be targets of abuse in domestic
violence situations in rural communities, while she is away from
Effective collaboration between domestic violence services and
animal welfare programs will require grappling with issues like
these and no doubt other legal and ethical dilemmas arising from
attempts to keep women and their companion animals safe.
Implications for Children's Services
Although the issue of children being traumatized by witnessing
domestic violence compounded by witnessing animal abuse warrants
more research, we end our discussion by again raising questions
about the therapeutic use of animals with child victims of
domestic violence and other child- animal relations.
Animals can help children learn empathy, nonabusive touch,
facilitate disclosure about frightening family events, and even
be a source of support during court testimony. However, if a
symptom of a child's trauma is the child's own abuse of animals,
how does one effectively intervene? How would one tailor
interventions to children's and adolescent's developmental
If a child has encountered abusive caretaking and discipline of
companion animals by parents, do we know how to counteract such
a learning history?
What are the most effective ways of dealing with the separation,
grief, and loss issues for children who have lost contact with
their companion animals or seen them destroyed? Both women and
children may identify the abuse and killing of companion animals
with their own vulnerability.
Do clinicians see increased phobic behavior toward animals in
children, especially in cases where the perpetrator has used an
animal as a weapon or sexual "partner" in domestic violence
Would understanding a child's history of witnessing and/or
engaging in cruelty toward animals facilitate interpretation of
the child's responses to projective tests using animal
characters (e.g., the Children's Apperception Test, the Blacky
Are clinicians alert to the possibility that child witnesses of
violence and child victims of physical and sexual abuse may
display behavioral disorders that include sexual acting out with
animals or the use of animals as "instruments" for engaging in
self- injurious behavior (e.g., agitating a cat to the point
where it scratches the child's limbs)?
Collaborative approaches between domestic violence and animal
welfare programs to intervene in cases of family violence
clearly open new horizons in the area of understanding and
reducing aggression toward humans and animals. Reaching these
common goals remains a challenging and daunting task.
1. Correspondence should be sent to Frank R. Ascione, Department
of Psychology, Utah State University, Logan, UT 84322- 2810, or
email to FRANKA@fs1.ed.usu.edu. We thank each of the respondents
for cooperating in completing our survey and Karen Ranson for
her professional services in preparing this manuscript.
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