New research shows scale of abuse against animals in domestic abuse cases

Almost nine in 101 households who experienced domestic abuse have said that animals were also abused by the perpetrators, according to shocking new research carried out by Refuge4Pets who work in partnership with Dogs Trust.

These figures have been released as Dogs Trust reaches a milestone 2,000 dogs fostered on its Freedom Project, supporting people fleeing domestic abuse by providing temporary accommodation for their dogs.

The research surveyed 107 victim-survivors of domestic abuse and interviewed victim-survivors across the country, to better understand the link between domestic abuse and animal abuse.

Worryingly, the research - carried out by Dr Mary Wakeham - showed that in one in ten (12%)2 of households where domestic abuse was present, the animal - and often multiple animals - had been killed.

Furthermore, in 94%3 of households where an animal was given as a "gift", the animals were then abused and, in some cases, killed by the perpetrator - demonstrating that pets are used as tools by perpetrators of domestic abuse to control and coerce. In addition to the physical abuse that pets may suffer, Dogs Trust found that 97%4 of professionals working in the domestic abuse sector also said that animals are often used as a means of controlling someone experiencing domestic abuse.

In 2004 Dogs Trust launched its Freedom Project, offering vital support for dog owners escaping from domestic abuse. The project works alongside Cats Protection Paws Protect, Endeavour and Refuge4Pets providing foster homes for pets and enabling survivors to access safe accommodation without the fear of what may happen to their pet if left behind. As many refuges are unable to accept pets, these important services give survivors the opportunity to escape abuse, safe in the knowledge that their pets will also be safe and well cared for. The pet fostering organisations are also members of the Links Group, which raises awareness of the links between abuse of animals and humans.

The Freedom Project currently operates across the whole of Scotland and in 30 counties across England. This year the Freedom Project will have fostered 2,000 dogs and helped 1825 people since launching. During the pandemic, incidents of domestic abuse soared and we fostered 64%5 more dogs across the country in 2020 and 2021, compared to the previous two years.

Amy Hyde, Freedom Project Manager at Dogs Trust said:

“Unfortunately, this new research revealing further links between animal abuse and domestic abuse is not shocking to us. We see first-hand the myriad ways that perpetrators use dogs to coerce, control, physically harm and threaten within abusive relationships. This is incredibly frightening for survivors and is often aimed to leave people isolated. We have heard of perpetrators not letting survivors walk their dogs alone, stopping them from accessing vet care for their dogs or being able to spend money on dog food and even repeatedly threatening to harm, kill or "get rid" of their dogs.

“To instil fear and entrap, perpetrators prey on the strong bonds people have with their beloved pets - making these animals vulnerable to abuse because of the psychological and emotional damage that this causes. As many refuges are unable to accept pets, survivors are understandably concerned about their dog's safety when they need to escape, the Freedom Project offers them a vital lifeline.

“This year we mark the 2,000th dog fostered through the Freedom Project since we began. This sobering milestone demonstrates there is still very much a need for our service, and we urgently need more foster carers across the UK so that we can continue this life-saving work.” 

Kimberly,7 is a victim/survivor supported by Dogs Trust's Freedom Project when she was escaping domestic abuse. We fostered her dogs, Penny and Rusty, so she could seek safety, she said:

“My ex-partner's mentally and physically controlling behaviour became gradually worse as time went on - I became totally dependent on him and it also impacted my dogs.

“If I reacted, he would know how to get to me even more - through my dogs.

“I just knew I had to get out. I moved out, took my dogs to two separate family members and went into the women's refuge- that's where I heard about the Freedom Project who fostered my two babies.

“I found the day they came home overwhelming. They settled back in after just one day, felt complete again and it felt good and "normal".

“I cannot explain just how much it has meant to me and our lives, to have had the service help us the way it did. It's hard to say where we might have been without the Freedom Project - or if I might have been alive. My journey was made so much easier knowing my babies were loved and cared for. I can never repay what the Freedom Project has done for me.”

Ruth Davison, Refuge Chief Executive Officer, said:

"Refuge is delighted to continue working in partnership with the Dogs Trust Freedom Project; women, children and their pets have the right to live free from abuse and fear. At Refuge we know that many perpetrators of domestic abuse also harm pets – who are important and much-loved members of so many families in this country.

“Women tell us their partners control and frighten them by threatening to harm or kill their pets, or women experiencing economic abuse tell us of their fear when their perpetrators refuse to pay vet bills or prevent them and their pets from accessing other essentials. Many women still don’t know that there are options to keep pets safe should they need to escape to a refuge - which is why the Dogs Trust Freedom Project is so important to raise awareness of. Refuge is pleased to continue working with Dogs Trust to ensure women, children and their pets are protected from domestic abuse, and that pet ownership is never a barrier to escaping abuse.”

Dogs Trust Freedom Project needs more specialist foster carers to support this vital service. If you think you can help, would like to donate or would like more information on the service, please visit: www.dogstrust.org.uk/freedom or email [email protected] or call 0800 298 9199.

1. Research titled "Animal Abuse as a Strategy of Coercive Control" carried out by Dr Mary Wakeham former PhD student at the University of Bristol in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research & Service Manager at Refuge4Pets. The research is soon to be published.  This was a national survey of 107 respondents – all victim-survivors of domestic abuse from across the UK, all of whom had animals in the house at the time. In-depth interviews were also conducted with 24 victim-survivors and 10 professionals from across the UK. Animals were abused by the perpetrator (previous or current male partner) in 94 of the 107 households (88 per cent) and all 24 interview participants talked about how the perpetrator abused animals.
2. As above, animals were murdered by the perpetrator in 13 of the 107 survey participants’ households (often multiple animals murdered in these households). This is 12%.
3. As above, in households where an animal was given as a ‘gift’, abuse against the animal occurred 94% of the time.
4. A survey conducted July 2019 of 369 professionals supporting victims/survivors of domestic abuse (including refuges, domestic abuse services, social workers / Social Care Providers, police Officers, housing Association and Local Authority Housing/Homelessness Teams).
5. From Jan – Sept in 2020 and 2021 Dogs Trust Freedom Project fostered 423 dogs across all areas where the service runs, compared to 258 dogs in the same period of 2018 and 2019. This is an 64% increase. The project also expanded into East Anglia in 2020, and the North West in 2019. 
6. All names of Freedom Project clients and their dogs have been changed to protect their anonymity and safety.
7. The 16 days of activism against gender-based violence is an annual campaign which spans both the International Day for the elimination of violence against women, and runs until Human Rights Day.