Wednesday, June 1, 2016

How can vets assist in cases of domestic violence where animals are involved?

cat at desk office cat academic feline
Now that the cold has set in, I have to fight with Michael for a seat in the office.

What is the link between the abuse of animals and the abuse of humans? Dr Heather Fraser gave an interesting talk on this very dark but important topic at the Australian Veterinary Association conference. The key message is that we need specific services to address this issue, including support and training for veterinarians.

Back to the “link”. There are two main theses: the graduation thesis, whereby perpetrators start being cruel to animals graduate to people. This has been the focus of the media, particularly in relation to serial killers. The second is desensitisation – that deliberate harm of animals exists within a range of callous, antisocial and often harmful antisocial behaviours.

Abuse of animals may be part of family violence, an indicator of the risk of future violence, and an indicator of child abuse.

Domestic violence victims may delay leaving a potentially dangerous situation because of concerns about their animals. There are increasing numbers of domestic violence services that can accommodate animals, and referral services, but there is a need for expansion of these services and greater awareness around them.

People who abuse animals are more likely to use more extreme violence against victims in the domestic setting. Abusers of animals are five times as likely to harm humans. In other words, if someone harms your pet and lives with you, your chance of being harmed increases five times.

Early animal abuse is a risk factor for both involvement in domestic violence perpetration, but also violent victimisation. Both are terrible. A major problem is that domestic violence occurs behind closed doors. Perpetrators aren’t always male. Unfortunately, just like other members of society, veterinarians may be involved as perpetrators of domestic violence.

Human and animal survivors of domestic violence potentially share many things in common, including injuries, fear, anger/aggression, depression, anxiety, compulsions, potential to internalise subordination, hypervigilance and acting out behaviour, trust issues, compromised health, a higher burden of disease, and increased risk of further victimisation and neglect.

In a talk by lawyer Amelia Beveridge and colleague, I learned that one of the biggest barriers to domestic violence reporting is shame – and many victims are too ashamed to speak to their vet. So while it is important that vets are trained to keep an eye out for signs of animal abuse, the truth is this can be hard to spot and even victims may have a vested interest in hiding this. Reporting of suspected domestic violence is not mandatory in Australia, an issue I've discussed elsewhere.

Perhaps one of the most helpful things we can do is to make resources available and accessible, as below. 

Vets can place brochures, posters and phone numbers for referral services and shelters in their waiting room, or numbers like the Domestic Violence Line 1800 656 463.

For those scared to leave a violent situation without their animals, there are increasing resources including the RSPCA’s Safe Beds for Pets program.  

If you want to read more about this, I recommend Animal Abuse: Helping Animals and People, by Catherine Tiplady. 

The other thing I've found personally incredibly helpful is advice from professional boards and associations, including the Veterinary Practitioners Board and the Australian Veterinary Association. These are difficult situations to negotiate and one can benefit by seeking expert advice.