The PAWS Act Would Protect Animal Victims of Domestic Violence

Ample research and horrific statistics document a crystal-clear link between animal abuse and domestic violence — one reason the FBI now tracks animal abuse.

Despite the fact that we understand this link in painfully intimate detail, pets are still at grave risk because they have fewer protections under the law. Abusers view animals as soft and easy targets — and another tool to use in abusing their partners. While some states have enacted additional protections for pets, there’s nothing on the federal level, yet.

That could change with the Pet and Women Safety (PAWS) Act, a piece of legislation that would prohibit “threats or acts of violence” directed at pets. The bill would also provide more means for addressing at-risk pets and families. To pass, though, it needs your support.

Here’s why the PAWS Act matters: 71 percent of women who identified themselves as pet guardians when they entered shelters reported that their partners had injured, maimed or killed their pets. And 32 percent noted that their children were involved in animal abuse.

Most of these incidents happened in front of family members with the express purpose of coercion. And many abusers who targeted animals also had existing records.

Family members reported that violence against animals took place within a larger framework of physical and emotional violence in the home. Tragically, nearly half of women reported staying in an abusive setting because they couldn’t take their pets with them.

Social workers, doctors, humane investigators and advocates often identify animal abuse before domestic violence, finding that victims are more ready to admit that their pets are being abused than they are to report the violence they are experiencing.

Violence directed at animals can serve both as a gateway to escalating violence and a clue that something seriously wrong is happening in a household. Veterinarians, for example, may see pets with unexplained injuries — or that their guardians are reluctant to explain. Those who question guardians about the situation may find that they need referral for domestic violence services.

Not all pets are as fortunate as Ginger, a cat who made it out of a domestic violence situation with help from advocates.

The PAWS Act would also address common obstacles, like shelters that don’t accept animals. Temporary foster programs, emergency animal shelters and transitional facilities that focus on victims of violence are often unable to accommodate the sheer number of pets who need help. This will make it easier not only for people to prosecute abusers and get their pets included on restraining orders, but also for them to escape abusive situations with their pets.

Since pet violence is such a huge problem, bipartisan sponsors in both the House and the Senate have stepped up in defense of animals and their families. The legislators argue that we need clear federal protections for animal victims of domestic violence, not just state laws.

HR 1258 — cosponsored by Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) — and S 1559 — cosponsored by Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Gary Peters (D-MI) — are concurrent bills, but both have stalled in committee. They can’t proceed to the floor for a vote unless members of the public lean on committee members to fight for pets.

In the Senate, the bill is languishing in the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. The large committee includes a mixture of members, who can be written individually or as a group. Comments carry extra weight when they come from constituents, so you should see if your Senator serves on the committee. If you have time, call the committee’s office with your comments, as phone calls are sometimes taken more seriously than emails and letters.

The House bill lies with the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations, which also contains a diverse mix of members who could benefit from some nudging on the part of the public.

Bills like these, though important, can die out in committee. Sometimes legislation must be introduced over and over again in an attempt to push bills through new sessions of Congress. America’s pets need the PAWS Act, and they’re counting on you to help them access the vital protections it would provide.