Here’s a number that is shocking. As many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims stay in abusive situations for fear of what would happen if they left their pets behind.

And 71 percent reported that their abusers have threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet. Why would they stay? One reason is because most shelters turn away pets.

A domestic violence survivor named Pamela (who did not want to give her last name) remained in an abusive relationship to protect her three cats. Her ex became violent after he started using drugs.

“I tolerated a lot of abuse so that my cats, Rikki, Lucy, and Gizmo, and I would have a home,” she told LifeZette. “If I left, I worried what he would do to my cats.”

Her situation got so bad that she finally had to leave. She gave her three cats to her son and moved into a shelter that didn’t accept animals.

“He took care of them for a month until his landlady said the cats had to go,” she said. “I was terrified of losing my cats. They’re family.”

Fortunately, Pamela found the Urban Resource Institute’s People and Animals Living Safely program (URIPALS). This program provides shelter to victims and their pets living in New York City. There are 15 apartments in the program at URI’s Safe Haven shelter in Brooklyn, which was the first in the program to welcome pets, and 12 apartments at URI’s Retreat shelter in Harlem, where the URIPALS program expanded in August.

Abusers Often Use Pets as Leverage

“Pets are members of the family and no one, especially victims of domestic violence, should have to make the impossible decision to leave their pets behind during times of crisis,” Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of URI, told LifeZette.

“In working with victims of domestic violence, URI identified a great need for domestic violence shelters that accept animals. As a result, URI developed the only program in New York City, and one of the few nationally, that allows victims of domestic violence and their families to co-shelter with their pets. It is our hope that the PALS program will serve as a model for sheltering families with their pets nationwide.”

To date, the program has helped 43 families with 63 pets, including 38 cats, 18 dogs, and a range of smaller animals such as rabbits, reptiles, and fish, escape domestic violence.

“We believe it is important for those families who require additional time in shelter to be able to have their pets by their side during the entire healing process,” Fields said. “URI’s hope is that the PALS program will serve as an example and model for other organizations across the country seeking to create their own co-sheltering programs, so that fewer families will be forced to choose between their pets’ safety and their own.”

Studies conclude that domestic violence survivors are at the greatest risk of being killed or seriously injured when they attempt to leave their abuser. When a survivor of domestic violence has a pet, further risks arise. Another study shows how abusers use violence against pets to control their victims.

Victims who have called the program’s helpline reported:

  • “He kicked and choked the dog. He also threatened to kill the dog.”
  • “He grabbed the cats by the throat, threatening to throw them out the window.”
  • “He told my children he was going to kill the cat.”
  • “My dogs were very nervous, anxious, and their eating patterns were affected. My female dog became ill for several months and healed once we arrived (at the) shelter.”

Pets living in homes with domestic violence are deeply affected both physically and emotionally. A number of program participants said they noticed changes in their pet’s behavior while they were in abusive situations.

 “Being accepted into the program with my two cats was very instrumental in my decision to leave,” said one survivor. “My boys are very attached to me. I wouldn’t want my cats to be depressed, sad, and feeling abandoned.”

“They calm my anxiety, panic attacks, and depression,” said another resident of the program.

Partners that Help

The program has worked with a number of partners including Purina, ASPCA, and The Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals. These organizations have provided supplies such as food, litter, and toys, and vital services including wellness exams, vaccinations, microchips, nail clippings, heart worm tests, and spay-neuter at no cost to the families. Purina sponsored the design and construction of a dog park in one of the shelters.

“For most pet owners, the bond with their pet is incredibly strong, and for people in abusive relationships, their pet can be an important source of comfort,” Dr. Kurt Venator, a Purina veterinarian, said.

Two additional shelters are slated for 2016.

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