Opinion

More women's shelters across Canada need to start accepting pets

Many of us can only imagine how difficult it might be to finally leave an abusive household, with nowhere to go but a shelter. Now imagine how much more difficult that would become with the added prospect of leaving a beloved pet behind.

Victims of domestic violence often delay or avoid leaving their abuser due to fears of pets being harmed

The fact that so few shelters currently accept companion animals is bad news both for pets and vulnerable women. (Shutterstock)

Many of us can only imagine how difficult it might be to finally leave an abusive household, with nowhere to go but a shelter. Now imagine how much more difficult that would become with the added prospect of leaving a beloved pet behind.

One women's shelter, Interval House of Ottawa, has made it a little bit easier for vulnerable women to leave their abusive partners by announcing that it would soon be accepting pets. Research shows that there is a strong connection between spousal abuse and abuse of animals, and that a high rate of women will endure abuse longer and return home sooner due to fears of pets being hurt. Yet Interval House of Ottawa will be the first women's shelter in Ottawa, and one of only eight nationwide (out of more than 450) to accept pets, despite the research.

Concerns about pets in shelters typically stem from issues of allergies, space, phobias and cleanliness. Interval House of Ottawa eliminates all of those worries by planning to keep pets onsite but separate from living areas. The animal area at the shelter will be in a renovated space in the basement, which, according to their website, will include five fully enclosed areas: one for cats, one for dogs and one for small animals, as well as a sanitation room for feeding, grooming, and laundry, and a pet friendly living room. "An enclosed outdoor area will also be created for exercise and play."

Furthermore, all of the animals brought into the shelter are to be spayed or neutered, and will need to pass medical checks, which will be provided for free by veterinary partners.

Delay in leaving partners

The fact that so few shelters currently accept companion animals is bad news both for pets and vulnerable women. Amy Fitzgerald, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Windsor, has studied the connection between domestic violence and the treatment of companion animals. In surveying women in shelters, Fitzgerald found 89 per cent reported their pet suffered similar abuse, and over half reported delaying leaving their partner due to concern for their pets' safety.

Shelter workers have also noted that pets, like children, are often used by abusers to control and manipulate their victims into staying. And yet, the vast majority of women's shelters in Canada still will not accept companion animals.  

In an attempt to alleviate this very serious problem, some Canadian animal shelters and vet clinics have opened their doors to provide temporary housing for pets of those fleeing domestic violence. However, such a set up is often not ideal, with stays in the typically crowded and hectic environments either permitted for only a few days, or potentially lasting months, causing stress to animals and owners alike, and to staff who may be at risk of confrontations with abusers.

The Ontario Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) recognized this issue and came up with another solution, called the PetSafe program, which allows animals to be kept in home settings with flexible foster families. But for victims of domestic abuse, including children, the prospect of giving up a pet to a stranger — even someone there to help — may still act as a deterrent from leaving. Keeping companion animals and their families together, particularly during times of crisis, is the best option for both animals and humans alike.

The ban on companion pets in the majority of homeless shelters across the country presents a similarly impossible dilemma for pet owners seeking refuge from the cold — do they leave their pets somewhere else before going to a shelter, or try to brave crushing –30 C temperatures alongside them? Many opt for the latter.

Too few homeless shelters across Canada accept companion animals. (Shutterstock)

Of course, building or re-allocating space for companion animals is obviously a challenge, both financially and logistically for already overburdened facilities. But even with a hefty $100,000 price tag for their new animal friendly space, Interval House of Ottawa has already raised $70,000, with help from The Ottawa Community Foundation, PetSmart Charities of Canada and private donors.

More and more businesses, philanthropic organizations and everyday contributors are taking interest in animal causes, making now an ideal time for shelters to appeal for pet-related funding. In fact, according to reports by both the National Philanthropic Trust and Giving USA, charities focused on animals (in addition to the environment) saw the greatest increase in giving of all charitable sectors in 2016.

Companion animals, like children, are vulnerable, dependent and deserving of protection from abuse. And ultimately, if human victims of domestic violence are delaying or avoiding leaving their abuser due to fears of pets being harmed, then prioritizing this move forward is a must for women's shelters in Canada to truly remain effective.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story said that Interval House would be one of only eight women's shelters nationwide, out of a total of 7,000, to accept pets. There are, in fact, only 452 women's shelters nationwide, containing a total of 7,000 beds.
    Jan 04, 2018 9:51 AM ET

About the Author

Jessica Scott-Reid

Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance animal welfare writer and animal advocate.

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