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Abusive behaviour impacting pets

With Dog's Trust

Dog's Trust has welcomed newly released Domestic Abuse Act guidance which formally recognises that control of a person’s financial situation, impacting their ability to care for a pet (limiting access to food, vet care), constitutes economic abuse, a form of domestic abuse.

Through our Freedom Project - a specialist pet fostering service for survivors of domestic abuse - we see first-hand the various ways that perpetrators use dogs to coerce and control within abusive relationships.

When polled by Dogs Trust, almost 60%** of professionals who work in the domestic abuse sector were aware of cases where pets, or an owner's ability to care for a pet, had been impacted by financial abuse.

Freedom Project clients describe the emotional turmoil and distress of having no choice but to watch a pet suffer untreated medical conditions or starving from lack of food.

The charity also sees the negative welfare implications of economic abuse, on a daily basis, on the dogs they foster on the project, so it welcomes the recognition of these as examples of domestic abuse.

Amy Hyde, Dogs Trust Outreach Projects Manager, said:

“Every day we see the devastating impact that economic abuse has on the dogs that we foster, as well as the emotional distress that it causes their owners, so we are delighted that this type of behaviour involving pets has been included in the Domestic Abuse Act guidance. Often perpetrators will withhold funds for vital veterinary care or dog food, controlling every expenditure. “We know that alongside economic abuse, dogs are also used to coerce and control emotionally - 97% of professionals working in the sector say this is the case. This can range from the physical abuse of the animal, through to repeatedly threatening to harm, kill or ‘get rid’ of the dog.
“We will continue to raise awareness of how dogs can also be used as tools in coercive control, physical and emotional abuse by perpetrators, to give voice to survivors and their pets.”

A domestic abuse survivor who accessed the Freedom Project said:

“My ex-partner would say there was no money left at the end of the month, which I believed at the time. I would go without food in order for the children to attend dance classes, as I didn’t want them to go without. I didn’t realise until afterwards that he actually had a number of bank accounts and was storing money elsewhere.
“I was always made to feel it was my fault that we had no money. My mum would pay for the dog food so that they didn’t go without. I fed them on an expensive brand and I was frightened to let him know how much the food was in case he got rid of the dogs or made me feed them poor quality food.”

Pets can be a major factor in people not being able to escape domestic abuse, for fear of what may happen to their beloved companions if they’re left behind. Many refuges are unable to accept animals, so the Freedom Project offers dog owners a vital lifeline to escape abuse. The service provides foster homes for dogs, covering all the necessary expenditures and enabling survivors to access safe accommodation, in the knowledge that their dogs will also be safe. The project needs foster carers to support this vital service.

Since its inception, the Freedom Project has supported around 1,750 people fleeing domestic abuse and the service’s fosterers have cared for over 1,900 dogs.

Dr Nicola Sharp-Jeffs OBE, founder and CEO of Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA), said:

“Surviving Economic Abuse (SEA) campaigned for the Domestic Abuse Act (2021) to recognise and define economic abuse. We are delighted by the impact this will have in helping raise awareness of this form of coercive and controlling behaviour and transforming responses to it.
“Through recognising how economic abuse can negatively impact on the wellbeing of pets, the guidance reinforces the importance of a wide range of professionals, including vets and those working within the pet industry, being able to recognise the signs of economic abuse and to ensure that pets and their owners are safeguarded.”

If you think you can help or would like more information on the service, please visit: Dogs Trust Freedom Project Alternatively contact freedomproject@dogstrust.org.uk or call 0800 298 9199.

*The guidance provides further information, explains and expands on how the legislation within the Bill should be interpreted and implemented in practice. This guidance is key as it is used when organisations and agencies are working with victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse, whether that’s Local Authorities, the police, The Crown Prosecution Service, specialist domestic abuse services and many more. Subsection (3)(d) refers to “economic abuse”, the definition of which in subsection (4) provides that behaviours which constitute such abuse must have a substantial and adverse effect on a victim’s ability to acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or to obtain goods or services. The purpose of including the qualification “substantial and adverse effect” is to ensure that isolated incidents, such as damaging someone’s car, or not disclosing financial information, are not inadvertently captured. “Property” would cover items such a mobile phone or a car and also include pets or other animals (for example agricultural livestock). “Goods and services” would cover, for example, utilities such as heating, or items such as food and clothing.

**A survey conducted July 2019 of 369 professionals supporting victims/survivors of domestic abuse (including refuges, domestic abuse services, social workers/social care providers, police officers, housing association and local authority housing/homelessness teams).

***Names have been changed to protect their anonymity.