Abusive behaviour towards pets linked with domestic abuse in Act guidance

Dogs Trust has welcomed guidance produced alongside the Domestic Abuse Act formally recognising certain types of behaviour towards pets as an example of domestic abuse, highlighting ways in which pets can be used as a tool by perpetrators. The landmark Domestic Abuse Act received Royal Assent in 2021, providing much needed protection for survivors and their children.   

Through our Freedom Project – a specialist pet fostering service for survivors of domestic abuse – we sees first-hand how dogs can be used as tools within domestic abuse, both as a means for perpetrators to coerce and control their partners, as well as through other means, such as restricting finances for essential veterinary care and food. 

The statutory guidance released on Friday (8 July) highlights different examples of behaviour under the ‘Recognising domestic abuse’ section: 

  • ‘Using animals to control or coerce a victim, e.g. harming or threatening to harm, or give away, pets or assistance dogs’, has been included as an example of behaviours which might be considered controlling or coercive.
  • ‘Using violence or threats towards assistance dogs and pets to intimidate the victim and cause distress, including threatening to harm the animal as well as controlling how the owner is able to care for the animal’ has been included as an example of emotional or psychological abuse.

Further to these, the use of GPS trackers on pets has also been included within the examples of technology-facilitated abuse. We have long campaigned for the inclusion of these type of behaviours to be formally recognised as examples of abusive behaviour within the Domestic Abuse Act, in order to provide better protection to survivors of domestic abuse and their pets. We polled professionals working in the domestic abuse sector and found that almost half (49%) were aware of cases where the pet has been killed. In addition to the physical abuse that pets may suffer, 97% of professionals said that they are also often used as a means of controlling someone experiencing domestic abuse. Therefore, the recognition of how pets can be used as a tool within domestic abuse has never been more important for survivors and their dogs. 

Pets can be a major factor in people not being able to escape domestic abuse, for fear of what may happen to their beloved companions if they’re left behind. Many refuges are also unable to accept animals, so the Freedom Project offers dog owners a vital lifeline to escape abuse. The Freedom Project is part of the Links Pet Fostering Group, a coalition of specialist domestic abuse pet fostering services which also includes Cats Protection Paws Protect, Endeavour and Refuge4Pets. The services provide foster homes for pets, enabling survivors to access safe accommodation, safe in the knowledge that their pets will also be safe and well cared for. 

Amy Hyde, Deputy Head of Outreach Projects at Dogs Trust, said: 

“Domestic abuse can be experienced in many different ways and for lots of survivors their pets understandably mean everything to them. Our Freedom Project enables survivors to seek refuge rather than having to make the heart-breaking decision about whether to leave their dog behind, or to stay at home out of fear of what will happen to their dog if they leave. 

“We are delighted that behaviours such as threatening or harming pets, as well as threatening to give them away, have been recognised in the Domestic Abuse Act guidance as potential examples of abusive behaviour. Through our Freedom Project we regularly see the different ways in which the bond that a survivor has with their pet is exploited by perpetrators of domestic abuse.  This sort of behaviour can range from perpetrators stopping the survivor from accessing vet care for their dogs or spending money on dog food, through to repeatedly threatening to harm, kill or ‘get rid’ of their dog.  

“We see the harm that abuse towards pets causes both the animals and the survivors every day through our work. Having to watch your pet suffer and live in fear is incredibly traumatic for many pet owners, and sadly it is a powerful tool that perpetrators will often use. This guidance is a great step forward and will increase the recognition of the connection between pets and domestic abuse” 

Since its inception, the Freedom Project has helped 1,880 people fleeing domestic abuse and the service’s fosterers have cared for over 2,200 dogs.   

The project needs foster carers to support this vital service. If you think you can help or would like more information on the service, please visit: www.dogstrustfreedomproject.org.uk Alternatively contact [email protected] or call 0800 298 9199.