The Abuse of Animals as a Method of Domestic Violence: The Need for Criminalization

69 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2013

See all articles by Vivek Upadhya

Vivek Upadhya

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: February 17, 2013


A substantial amount of research in recent decades has focused on the relationship between domestic violence and animal abuse. This research has shown that an abusive household often contains more than one victim, and that an abuser is likely to harm both his intimate partner and domestic animals in the home. The bulk of this research has focused on the degree to which these forms of abuse co-occur, the predictive utility of these statistics, and the effect that animal abuse has on a victim’s decision to leave the abusive household. Research findings in these areas have spawned a number of efforts to build upon this link to protect both humans and animals, such as including animals in protective orders, encouraging women’s shelters to accommodate companion animals, requiring cross-reporting between animal welfare and domestic agencies, and educating the public as to the potential risk implicated by an animal abuser in the home.

By contrast, relatively little attention has been paid to a different aspect of the problem: the intentional abuse of animals as a method of domestic violence. Often, abusers exploit the close, emotional bond shared by a victim and her companion animal to inflict harm upon the human victim. The abuser may harm or kill the animal in order to harm the human; use threats against the animal to gain compliance or control over the human; or may use these methods in order to abuse the human or coerce her return after she leaves the household.

These forms of abuse constitute one aspect of the broader pattern of control that characterizes an abusive relationship. The abuse of an animal is a potent source of harm and control: victims have described their anguish and despair at witnessing their partner torture their beloved animal in front of their eyes, and also frequently speak of how their concern for the animal obstructs their inability to leave the home. Because domestic violence shelters typically do not accept animals, a departing victim must leave her animal in the household. By doing so, she is left vulnerable to harm through the ongoing abuse of the animal — abuse that may force her to return to her abuser just to protect it.

This Comment argues that domestic violence statutes must treat animal cruelty as a domestic violence offense, when committed with the purpose of harming or coercing the human victim. The law’s failure to do so leaves unregulated a powerful method of harm, and thus leaves unpunished the significant abuse of both humans and animals.

Designating animal abuse as a domestic violence offense would plug a prominent gap in the current criminal approach to domestic violence, and would also make available a large number of specialized protective and rehabilitative measures available to domestic violence victims, such as protective orders, and mandatory therapy for the abuser.

Moreover, implementing a domestic violence animal cruelty provision poses a relatively straightforward task, as the current statutory schemes of most states already recognize a variety of offenses as involving domestic violence. Ultimately, the frequency with which domestic violence and animal abuse co-occur, the severe harm that this abuse inflicts, and the substantial protective and remedial benefits that would follow together present the criminalization of this form of abuse as a highly necessary and effective approach against both domestic and animal abuse.

Suggested Citation

Upadhya, Vivek, The Abuse of Animals as a Method of Domestic Violence: The Need for Criminalization (February 17, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Vivek Upadhya (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

1301 Clifton Road
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

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