Pets used as pawns in domestic violence

As many as 33% women surveyed in New Zealand stayed in violent relationships because they feared their pets would be killed or tortured. Of these, one quarter said their children had witnessed violence against animals.

‘Pets as Pawns’ study underlines the strong link between animal cruelty and domestic and family violence in New Zealand. The research also showed that 50% of women interviewed had witnessed animal cruelty as part of their experience of domestic violence. The study was jointly commissioned by the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Women’s Refuge.

This research shows the urgent need for New Zealand’s SPCA and Women’s Refuge to work together to find solutions to make families safer by enabling them to leave violent situations with their animals, says RNZSPCA National Chief Executive Robyn Kippenberger.

The research included direct interviews with 30 refuge clients who had witnessed or were forced to take part in animal cruelty as part of family violence. The  research also involved surveying 203 Women’s Refuge clients. Of these 203 women, 111 (55%) stated that animal cruelty was part of their experience of family violence as, at some point, either a family member or their partner had threatened to kill one of their pets, animals and/or farm animals.

A third of the respondents also reported actual injury of death of the animal.

As a result, deciding when and how to leave a relationship that included cruelty to animals became more complex. Twenty-eight percent of women reported they would have left their abusive relationship earlier if they had not had a pet or animal. The length of time they stayed ranged from one week to 22 years with an average of two years.

The research also uncovered information about how children witnessed animal cruelty. Of the 159 research participants with children, a quarter reported that their children had witnessed someone in their family injure or kill a pet or animal. The research is available from the websites of the RNZSPCA and Women’s Refuge.

Disturbingly, many of the women reported that partners who had warnings or convictions around physical violence, would deliberately threaten or hurt pets as a way of controlling their family and make it easier to avoid reconviction, says Heather Henare, chief executive of Women’s Refuge.

“In this way, pets and other animals become part of an arsenal of tricks abusers use to instil fear and control over their family.

Some men will threaten to kill family pets if the woman leaves, and in some cases women and children have witnessed extreme torture of pets or animals as part of the horror of domestic violence.”

Are you and your pet at threat?

1. Violence towards animals is not acceptable. Even if you have pets, don’t put off getting help!

2. Please call 0800 REFUGE to be connected to an advocate who will help you with a confidential safety plan for yourself, your children and your pets

3. To find a local refuge advocate you can also look under “W” in the White Pages for the number of your nearest women’s refuge

4. Visit

Other key findings from the research:

1. Many women had the impression their pet would be euthanized if left with the SPCA while she escaped domestic violence, this is incorrect. RNZSPCA euthanasia practices should be widely circulated to remove public misconceptions.

2. Women are often locked into their relationships because they cannot find alternative accommodation (i.e. landlords who do not allow pets)

3. Research showed mechanisms need to be developed to assist women without transport or funds to surrender or place their animals in the SPCA’s care

4. The animals most likely to be hurt are dogs (45%); cats (33%); cows (8%) and birds (6%)

5. Issues of ownership need to be investigated, as if the animal is registered in the abusers name, they will have precedence over the animal in current law


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