Animal abuse: the tip of the iceberg

There is an understanding that domestic violence, animal 
abuse, child abuse and elder abuse are interrelated

It is a troubling story that Leanne Sillars, animal safekeeping co-ordinator with the Saskatchewan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, vividly recalls.

A woman subject to domestic abuse sought a way to leave the farm along with her children, their pets, their horses and the cow herd.

She had seen how cruelly the abuser treated livestock and feared their treatment would be worse when she was gone.

“There was just no option for her,” Sillars recalled. “It was a case of, ‘I’ve got to get out. I’ve got to keep myself safe.’ ”

The woman managed to remove the children, companion animals and the horses, but was unable to take the cows.

That’s only one story among many that indicate animal abuse is a form of family violence, and when it occurs, other forms of violence are often present as well.

In fact, studies show those who knowingly harm animals will probably harm other people.

Given that children are now more likely to grow up with a pet than with both parents, threats to the furry member of the family can be terrifying and thus a method of control by an abuser.

There is growing understanding that domestic violence, animal abuse, child abuse and elder abuse are interrelated.

“When animals are abused, people are at risk. When people are abused, animals are at risk,” said Sillars.

“It’s an important concept because it hopefully allows us to intervene earlier and possibly prevent more abuse from occurring. So a history of pet abuse is one of the foremost significant factors as to who is at greater risk for becoming a batterer,” she said during the 2019 Human-Animal Bond Conference, hosted by the Saskatchewan SPCA in Saskatoon last month.

Batterers who also abuse pets tend to be more dangerous, more controlling and use more forms of violence than batterers who do not.

Sillars said young people who witness animal cruelty are eight times more likely to become perpetrators.

“So 68 percent of the respondents that we did in a study said that their animal had been harmed and 75 percent of that had occurred in front of the children. So now you’ve got the children being exposed to domestic violence and exposed to animal abuse in front of them.

“If we’re not intervening at that point or any point, we now have a possibility of another generation of violent perpetrators,” she said.

“When they’re being exposed to animal abuse, they’re possibly not developing that empathy. And that’s huge for people to understand.”

Animals may suffer directly from neglect or forms of cruelty, but they may also be used as a tool for the abuser to control and punish the victim.

Threats of violence toward a loved pet could prevent victims from leaving or coerce them into returning to the home.

Sillars said the animals with which women have strong bonds are more likely to be abused because the perpetrator knows threats against pets are a better way to manipulate and control.

Over two-thirds of battered women reported violence to their animals and 75 percent occurred in the presence of children, according to a studies by the Saskatchewan SPCA and the Provincial Association of Transition Houses and Services of Saskatchewan (PATHS).

In Canada, the pet industry generates about $8.3 billion in revenue annually. Dogs make up 41 percent of pets in Canadian homes, while 38 percent have cats.

More than 80 percent of people view their pets as members of the family.

According to a Statistics Canada study in 2015, the incidence of domestic violence in Canada is about 309 per 100,000 people.

However, Saskatchewan is double that average at 666 per 100,000.

“You could ask is it being underreported in the rest of Canada or are we over-represented. I think a lot of it is we have a large province, but not heavily populated. So there’s a lot of isolation…. We’ve got all sorts of things that people are learning this behaviour and carrying it on into the next generation,” said Sillars.

More study is needed to better understand the amount of domestic violence that occurs on farms and in rural communities.

“I would love to somehow partner with some of these communities to say, how do we help these people that do have these cattle, horses or whatever that are being harmed as a way to control them. What can we do with them? How can we work together to create a resource for these communities, for these people that want to leave and be safe, but not leave their animals behind?”

It’s one thing to pick up and leave with the dog and cat, but much more complicated to manage a herd of cattle.

“We’re (usually) talking about companion animals — cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, that kind of thing. But we also know that livestock — horses, cows, goats, whatever it might look like — is an issue in this province,” said Sillars.

“How do you move 100 head of cattle that you know (are) being abused or you know that the perpetrator of violence is going to harm those animals as a way to manipulate the victim of violence and control that victim of violence?”

Under the law, livestock are considered property, which implies income.

“If that’s your livelihood, how do you take 100 cattle? Now you’re getting into settlement stuff if you’re splitting from a relationship. It’s not just my dog. I can prove my dog is my dog, but I’m not making money off my dog. I’ve got cattle that I’m going to sell. That’s monetary value. So then it goes into ownership and it’s a challenge,” she said.

Collaboration with communities, individuals and professionals can help foster change.

With recent legislation in mandatory reporting of animal abuse, veterinarians have an important intervening role for curbing animal cruelty and possibly domestic violence in the home.

“If they suspect abuse of animals, they are mandated to report to animal protection. So then an investigation would start by animal protection,” Sillars said.

“Ask about it and open those lines of communication. People will talk about their pets, but vets are now mandated to report abuse. So the onus is they don’t have to worry about losing clients. It’s like child abuse. It’s everybody’s responsibility to report child abuse.”

Besides calling 911 for emergency assistance, help lines are available for interpersonal violence and abuse. They are listed in the front of the SaskTel Direct West phone book or at

Animal Protection Services of Saskatchewan is at 844-382-0002 or 306-382-0002

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