With the growing role of companion animals in our lives, there is an urgent need to address systemic barriers among marginalized pet owners, including those escaping domestic violence. The connections between human and animal health and the significance of human-animal relationships are well documented and should be preserved wherever possible. Studies have clearly documented that when there is one form of violence in the home, everyone in the home is at risk. Domestic violence, child abuse and animal cruelty often co-exist in a violent home, and all of these forms of violence are at national epidemic levels. Not only are these pets in harm's way, but they may become helpless pawns in the power and control mechanisms abusers use to hurt their victims. Abusers use the killing, torturing and beating of pets (or the treat of such actions) as a weapon to ensure submission and silence. This causes many victims (adults and children alike) to remain in violent households in order to ensure that their pets are not harmed.
In Canada, up to 65% of women and children accessing shelters to escape violence are pet owners. In Ontario, 48% of surveyed women who had left their abusive partner said that their pets delayed their decision to leave. 61% of surveyed Ontario women who had left their abusive partner stated that their partners had brutalized or killed a pet (OSPCA 1998). Research shows that children who grow up in an environment of animal cruelty live in constant fear that a beloved family member will be harmed. Children often intervene to protect their family members and pets from being battered. Some children may even allow themselves to be victimized to save their pets from being harmed or killed.
Allowing families to leave with pets is essential, however, currently no local violence against women shelter allows women and children to enter the shelter with their pets. We are planning to change this. In partnership with Community Veterinary Outreach, IHO is in the process of seeking approximately $100,000 in funding and donations to renovate a section of our basement to accommodate an animal housing area. This innovative and ground-breaking project will support women and children with pets to be able to leave abusive relationships with their entire family — including their beloved pets. The animal housing area will include five fully enclosed spaces or rooms for dog housing; cat housing; small animal housing; a sanitation room for feeding, grooming and laundry; and a pet friendly family room in which women and children can interact with, and be comforted by their pets. The space will have sound-proofed walls and ceilings, overhead lighting for day time (day light) as well as dim blue light for nighttime (moon light). A separate, outdoor enclosed area will also be developed for exercise, play and companionship.
In order to address allergies and fear of animals by all residents of IHO, no pets will be in any other area of the 30-bed house including living room, dining area, kitchen and bedrooms. Pets will only occupy the animal housing area and the designated outdoor exercise yard. Sound-proofing in the basement animal housing area will ensure that any barking or other noise will not reach the main level. A separate HVAC system will contain any allergens and odor and will include a furnace, air conditioner and air exchanger. A designated washer/dryer in the animal housing area for animal bedding and towels will allow allergens and odor to remain contained. The outdoor yard for animal exercise and play will be fenced off from the rest of the backyard.
Another benefit from this project is that it will allow for an increase in the support system for women and their children during the three to eight months that they will reside at the shelter. It has been proven that the human-animal bond is critical during times of stress and trauma. As animals provide emotional support to victims and children leaving their homes, the continued human-animal bond will support the healing process of both women and children. During stressful situations, some people benefit more from a pet's companionship than from a human friend. People see their pets as important sources of non-judgmental social support and significantly help in healing from trauma. As a part of healthy growth and development, bonding with animals teaches children and youth empathy and compassion for all living creatures (including humans) early in life. Keeping families together including the family pet provides a sense of continuity, security and safety. This project will support women to break the cycle of violence in their lives and the lives of their children.