Women with pets are enduring domestic abuse longer and returning home sooner for fear their animals could be hurt, according to new research from the University of Windsor.

Amy Fitzgerald, an associate professor in the department of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminology, has been studying the issue for years and said the Canadian sample used in her work revealed some form animal maltreatment was present in roughly 89 per cent of domestic violence cases.

"It's a form of control. At times they call us and they do want to leave, but they're concerned about their pets." - Genevieve Isshak 

More than half the women in those cases delayed leaving their abusive partner because of concern for their pet's safety, said Fitzgerald.

"It's something that can keep people in these relationships because if they leave the relationship their pets could be harmed as a result," she said. "It's something we need to take very seriously. It's putting a lot of people and animals at risk."

The professor said she was inspired to study the problem years ago while working in an animal shelter. Often, while filling out paperwork to surrender pets, women said mistreatment by their male partner was the reason.

Animals are family for many people

Researchers also found that three quarters of the people working in shelters know of women who do not leave at all, because they could not bring their animals with them.

"It's a form of control," said Genevieve Isshak from Hiatus House. "At times they call us and they do want to leave, but they're concerned about their pets."

The Windsor women's shelter currently does not have the capacity to house animals, but they do have a partnership with the local humane society that will board pets for up to seven days with the possibility of an extension.

"We'd love to keep them here," said executive director Thom Rolfe, adding that struggles with funding and finding space make caring for animals impossible at the moment.

"We've got a big backyard, but it's full of playground equipment for kids," he said.

Thom Rolfe, Hiatus House

Thom Rolfe, executive director of Hiatus House, said pets are like family for many people, making it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Caring for animals becomes an even bigger problem when they're coming from a farm.

"It's a little harder to look after a horse than it is for a dog or a cat," said Rolfe.

Hiatus House considering animal capacity

Isshak recalled a case where a woman left the shelter to tend to her dog only to discover her abusive partner had already hurt it. 

"Pets do get harmed as a result, just like the women or kids," said Isshak.

Fear for pets creates such a barrier for women leaving abuse that including animal capacity is something Hiatus House is considering if they open a new site in the county.

"I think it's important to have that kind of planning," said Rolfe. "If she doesn't feel that the pets going to be safe she's not going to leave."