Unleashing Adaptability: Making a case for pet-friendly women’s shelters
By Madeline Sanagan
Imagine your pet. See their face, and think about how much you love that creature. If you’re an animal lover, you know that you’d do just about anything to keep your pet happy – take them along on your adventures, buy them toys they’ll eventually destroy and beds they’ll never use because they prefer to share yours, put them in ridiculous coats to keep warm or even little boots to keep their toes from freezing outside (and also because it makes them walk funny). Our pets are a part of our families.
Now imagine you and your pet share a home with someone who you thought you could trust, who is now mistreating you and your pet. They’ve threatened to hurt, or even kill your companion if you ever leave. The women’s shelter nearby doesn’t allow animals… what do you do? Do you leave your pet behind and flee for your own safety, knowing your abuser will likely hurt them? Or do you stay, doing everything you can to diffuse the situation and protect your pet?
It’s been shown in many studies that there is a correlation between animal abuse and intimate partner violence. Where there is a mistreated animal, there is likely a woman and even children who are also being abused. In a recent report by OAITH (Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses) and study by Dr. Amy Fitzgerald from the University of Windsor, it was reported that pets were mistreated in 89% of domestic violence cases. Abusers have been known to use pets to control their victim, using threats or actual violence on pets to get the victim to do what they want. Mistreatment of pets is also used as punishment for victims for “misbehaving” or for attempting to leave the relationship.
The mistreatment of pets is a good reminder of the complexity of abuse. We sometimes hear sentiments like “why doesn’t she just leave?” in response to a woman who stays with or returns to her abuser. There are many, many reasons that make leaving more difficult than it may seem on the surface.
Up until recently, few to no women’s shelters allowed pets. However, as research pours in, it has become increasingly obvious that allowing pets could save lives and get women out of abusive situations faster. The reason is fairly simple: many women with pets recognize the risk posed to their pet if they leave them in the care of the abuser. In fact, 56% of women reported delaying leaving an abusive situation because they were worried about their pet. A woman is killed every six days in Canada by a current or former intimate partner. If a pet is a barrier to a woman leaving before the violence escalates, why not address that issue directly?
Not only does allowing pets into shelters get women away from the abuse, it also helps her healing journey as she moves forward. For many, the abuser tends to isolate the victim over time so that they no longer have ties to family of friends outside of their partner. For a single woman without children, a pet may be her only source of companionship, affection, or comfort at that point in her life. It is incredibly powerful to maintain that contact in the new and unfamiliar environment of a crisis shelter. For those of us who have pets, we all know what a pet can do for us in times of stress. It is widely known that pets do wonders for our dopamine and oxytocin levels, or “happy hormones”. Think of how you feel coming home to your dog or cat at the end of a stressful day at work, for example, and being greeted with cuddles from your companion. These interactions have been proven to lower blood-pressure and decrease the stress hormone cortisol in humans, which would be especially useful for a woman after escaping abuse.
Of course, there are challenges to going pet-friendly. New policies have to be drafted, rules set in place, vet care and animal food taken care of. But the benefits of allowing pets in women’s shelters far outweighs the costs. It means that more women have access to our crisis shelter, counseling services, group therapy, court support, and all of our other vital services. For this reason, The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce went pet-friendly in 2019. With the help of some sponsors, we were able to renovate a bedroom in the shelter to be designated as pet-friendly, which has, over the past several months, housed many women with their furry companions.
If you would like to help us care for women and their pets fleeing abuse, please consider making a donation so that we may continue to offer these services in Grey and Bruce counties. As we continue to adapt and expand our services, our need for your support grows as well.
Fund Development Coordinator
The Women’s Centre Grey Bruce