Research – Animals used as a form of control during lockdown

Pets were used as a tool for coercive control and abuse during the pandemic, a new study has revealed.

It is amongst the latest findings from a major research project by University of West Scotland (UWS) into the impact of the Covid-19 lockdown on those living with domestic abuse.

Interviews with call handlers of domestic abuse helplines revealed that victims’ animals had either been directly hurt during lockdown, or threats by the abuser to hurt victims’ pets prevented them from fleeing abusive situations over concerns for their animal’s safety.

Dr Roxanne Hawkins, Lecturer in Psychology at UWS, said: “Our research has revealed the impact of the pandemic on domestic abuse victims and with this comes the use of pets as tools of abuse, to exert control and coercion over the family. This has been documented by domestic abuse helpline staff, who have received calls from victims who have experienced threats by abusers to kill, harm, remove or cease access to the animal, usually cats or dogs.”

The research is part of a growing body of work by the University – involving Dr Hawkins, Dr Zara Brodie, Dr Chloe Maclean and Jack Mckinlay – exploring the impact of lockdown on both human and animal abuse.

Further key findings from this phase of the study, include:  

  • Animals being used to intimidate family members to stop them from disclosing their abuse or seeking support
  • Abusers manipulating the emotional bond between the victim and their pet to inflict further emotional harm
  • Animals being used as ‘post-separation weapons’ to continue contact after the victim had fled
  • Children witnessing the abuser harming the household pet, raising concerns for emotional trauma
  • Organisations using animal abuse as an ‘indicator of risk’ for violence and abuse towards other family members
  • Animals as coping mechanisms with pets providing important emotional support
  • Some organisations have links to pet fostering services but these services may not have been available depending on the victim’s location.

Dr Hawkins added: “One of the most concerning findings was abusers’ use of victims’ animals to gain control.

Helpline staff reported that victims refused or were reluctant to leave their abusive situations because they believed their pet would be harmed as a consequence. Through this study, we have therefore identified animals as a significant barrier for fleeing domestic abuse.

Dr Roxanne Hawkins, Lecturer in Psychology at UWS

One helpline staff member reflected on a call from a victim discussing her experience. They said: “She felt she was trapped because of her cats – she felt like she couldn’t leave them because the perpetrator had threatened to burn them alive.”

Call handlers also highlighted the implications of what leaving home would mean for a victim of abuse in terms of their pet: “For most women [who want to flee the situation], when they hear there might be a chance that they may not be able to bring the dog, the conversation stops there. Even when pet-fostering services are signposted, callers are still reluctant to leave [their abusive situation] because they are deeply bonded to the animal and feel that they can’t live without it.”

Dr Hawkins said: “While the issues in this study were brought further into focus due to Covid-19, they are of course not unique to the pandemic. Our research shows that carefully considering animals during safety planning and providing access to safe housing that allows multi-species families in the UK to stay together is vital. Although some animal foster care services are available, and continued provision of such services is important, victims who are highly attached to their pets might still refuse refuge because they do not want to be separated from their animal.

“Pets are viewed as important family members and many victims, including children, are deeply bonded to their animals, and rely on them for emotional support. Keeping families and pets together is therefore important for psychological wellbeing and recovery following adversity.”

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