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Police investigations: The connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty

When responding to a call regarding domestic violence, police officers should ask if there are any pets in the home and make note of any animals with signs of injury


ASPCA staff conduct a medical examination of a dog.


By Randall Lockwood, P1 Contributor

In 2016, New York Police Department (NYPD) police officers brought a small, deceased dog to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Animal Hospital for evaluation by forensic veterinarians. The dog had allegedly been killed by her owner’s boyfriend in a dispute over who should walk the dog.

ASPCA veterinarians documented extensive injuries to the dog’s head, chest, abdomen and back resulting from a single strong impact. The medical evidence led to charges of felony animal cruelty, robbery, grand larceny, criminal mischief and endangering the welfare of a child. The suspect pled guilty to all charges and received 60 days in jail and four years of probation.

As part of the partnership between the ASPCA and the NYPD, veterinarians regularly examine and document injuries to animals that have been hurt or killed in connection with acts of domestic violence.

The above case was just one of more than 65 cases of animal cruelty related to domestic violence reports the ASPCA has helped document in the last three years. These have involved 78 animals, 25 of which were deceased. The abusers were most often significant others (60 percent) or spouses (22 percent), with the remainder being non-intimate familial relations or roommates.

Research reveals connection between domestic violence and animal abuse

Dozens of studies over the last decade have shown a strong connection between domestic violence and companion animal abuse.

Many victims have animals they or their children are strongly attached to and frequently describe them as members of the family.

Interviews with victims seeking shelter from domestic violence consistently show that more than half have experienced threats or actual harm to their animals committed by a partner. In addition, at least one-fourth have delayed leaving an abusive environment out of fear of what would happen to animals they might have to leave behind.

Cases involve abuser seeking power and control

Why is this connection so widespread? Domestic violence and animal cruelty both frequently involve an abuser seeking power and control.

Most victims report that pets were abused to control them or their children, maintain an atmosphere of fear, and isolate them or punish them for attempts to be independent or leave the relationship. Other victims attribute harming animals to the abuser’s jealousy at not being the sole focus of attention in the home.

Law enforcement officers should be alert to the seriousness of threats or harm to companion animals in the context of domestic violence. Killing or injuring an animal in front of a child to threaten or intimidate someone can be considered a serious offense, in addition to any animal cruelty charges. When responding to a call regarding domestic violence, police officers should ask if there are any pets in the home and make note of any animals with signs of injury.

ASPCA offers resources, training

The ASPCA provides resources on this connection; offers trainings on the subject for law enforcement, social service professionals, veterinarians and others; and has helped establish safety net programs in communities across the country that provide alternatives to those who may otherwise surrender their pets to animal shelters.

The ASPCA has also provided grant funding and ongoing support and services for Urban Resource Institute’s PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program, New York City’s first-ever initiative to shelter domestic violence victims with their pets.

Through its Animal Hospital, the ASPCA provides services including medical exams, vaccinations, behavioral support, spay and neuter surgery, and temporary fostering for pets residing in domestic violence shelters.

Police departments can access tools to help form local community task forces to address the links between animal cruelty and many forms of interpersonal violence.

In addition, the ASPCA supports the National Link Coalition, which provides up-to-date information on research, legislation and trainings on these connections.

Animals are part of the family in the majority of American households and often animal cruelty is a form of family violence. Being aware of and responding to such abuse can help save people and animals from harm.

About the author
Randall Lockwood is ASPCA Senior Vice President of Forensic Sciences.