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Companion Animals and Domestic Abuse

This week’s guest writer Christina Warner explores the link between companion animals and domestic abuse.

What domestic abuse laws protect families and do they apply to companion animals?

The Family Law Act, 1996 governs the application procedure and process in terms of family court injunctions involving domestic abuse.

Under the FLA those who are seeking assistance from the family courts by way of non-molestation or occupation orders are entitled to make applications subject to certain requirements. But the same does not apply nor does it extend to companion animals.

The Domestic Abuse Bill 2020 proposes to create, for the first time, a statutory definition of domestic abuse to ensure a proper understanding of what it constitutes. This definition hopes to highlight the impact of domestic abuse as being more than just physical violence but rather that it can also be emotional, coercive or controlling and economic abuse. The widening of the understanding of domestic abuse, as being more than just physical violence, has allowed for companion animals to form part of the greater picture of victims’ suffering, and the role they play in the duration of time the victim may remain, but also the support system they may offer whilst living with or being targeted by the abuser.

How are companion animals legally protected from domestic abuse?

Abuse towards companion animals is more commonly acknowledged (although not formally encompassed in legislation) as constituting domestic abuse through the wider interpretation of the term as psychological and emotional abuse and coercive and controlling behaviour. Similarly, in cases where an abuser has restricted finances to such an extent where a companion animal’s health has been jeopardised through a lack of food or veterinary assistance, it is acknowledged as forming financial or economic abuse. But companion animals remain outside the scope of protective orders. The fact is that for many who have found themselves isolated as a result of prolonged and systematic abuse, companion animals often serve a vital role in terms of emotional and social support, as well as being reliant on managing stress. Many victims of domestic abuse report delaying leaving their abusive partner for the sake of not leaving their companion animal behind, or complying with requests by the abuser to ensure they remained unharmed. For some it’s the choice of staying with their companion animal or living alone.

What resources are available for those fleeing domestic abuse with their companion animal?

Animal charities have known of the issues surrounding companion animals and domestic abuse for some time and have championed for change by assisting those who have to make heart-breaking decisions. Although more frontline services such as refuges and domestic abuse charities are recognising the impact of domestic abuse on companion animals directly, as well as on the duration of time their owner may remain in a relationship as a result, resources accommodating them are still woefully scarce and where available, oversubscribed. Some support services offer referrals to fostering organisations who may be able to assist with the transitional period in which an individual is fleeing domestic abuse to accommodation which will not cater for their companion animal. But these too are few and far between, this especially being the case in rural areas.

In the absence of specific legislation in the family courts in England and Wales to protect companion animals in situations of domestic abuse, it’s hoped that the widening of the definition will encourage courts to take a broader view as to doing so when dealing with applications for injunctive relief.

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