Understanding the urgent need for pet-friendly domestic violence shelters

The pandemic has brought a wave of attention to domestic violence in America. Focus must be placed on the role that pets often play in a survivor’s ability to escape.

How do stay-at-home orders affect your life when home isn’t a safe place to be? That’s the question that millions of domestic violence victims have been grappling with since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Early reports have suggested that domestic violence has already gone up by five percent in many major cities, but the actual numbers may be much higher. And it’s harder than ever for victims to escape, since the need for social distancing means that some victims don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes to stay with family or at a shelter.

Additionally, there has long been a lack of resources for people looking to escape domestic violence situations with their pets in tow, and nearly half of victims won’t leave an abusive situation if it means leaving a beloved animal behind. The need to focus on creating solutions that allow survivors to remain with their pets has never been more important, as the world turns its attention toward the plight of domestic violence victims during the pandemic.

Purina is committed to working together with others to create those solutions. Several years ago, our Purina team learned that just three percent of domestic violence shelters were pet-friendly—and as the leader in the pet care industry, we were uniquely positioned to help. Together with the RedRover, a national animal welfare nonprofit, we launched the Purple Leash Project, which offers grants to help shelters allow pets in their facilities.

Our immediate goal? A pet-friendly domestic violence shelter in every state. To help make it happen, we’ve committed $500,000 to support the project through 2022 and on are track to nearly double that investment thanks to the support and passion of the Purina family to make a meaningful and lasting impact for survivors with pets. Already, through collective efforts with others who share our vision, we’ve made substantial progress—only four states are without pet-friendly shelters. And because the stakes are so high, we’ve set bigger and bolder goals for the years to come. Purina is working toward a quarter of U.S. shelters being pet-friendly by 2025, and while 10 percent of all domestic violence shelters are now pet-friendly, we imagine a future in which only 10 percent of shelters don’t accept pets.

Ultimately, we want to change the landscape of how domestic violence survivors with pets are treated across the board in this country. For that to happen, we need greater awareness around the delicate dynamic that exists between survivors, their pets and their abusers.

We know, for example, that abusers will often use pets as leverage to manipulate their victims, and that pets can be threatened, harmed or even killed as the result of domestic violence. The trauma can leave pets with lasting emotional scars and a fear of people. We’ve also learned that pets may be the primary source of unconditional love for domestic abuse survivors, leading them to stay with an abuser if pet-friendly services aren’t available.

Knowing this, we’ve worked with our partners to develop a straightforward process for transforming conventional shelters into pet-friendly ones. On select projects, we work with another nonprofit, GreaterGood.org, to renovate shelter spaces in three basic ways through its Rescue Rebuild program. The first way is to make the survivor rooms more pet-friendly by adding durable flooring and “safe” places like perches and cubbies to help animals adjust, and providing bedding and toys to enrich pets’ experience.

If the shelter decides against pets living in their parents’ rooms, we try the second renovation approach, which is to find space in the shelter to add dog kennels and/or a cat room. If space for pets can’t be created in the shelter itself, we rely on the third option, which is to add a separate shed-like structure to their property that can house the dog kennels and/or cat room. These heated and cooled spaces typically have an indoor/outdoor style of kennel to keep pets happy.

Regardless of renovation style, it’s critical that shelters have clear policies and procedures in place to ensure that the safety, health and needs of both pets and people are met. Purina behaviorists can help shelters to ‘think through the pet’s eyes’ and create spaces that are safe and inviting for animals, while accounting for residents’ needs.

These solutions all sound good in theory, but sometimes, they’re easier said than done—especially for older shelters that could have a hard time retrofitting their space to accommodate pets. For these long-running shelters, the prospect of serving both people and pets can seem overwhelming. That was the case for Lydia’s House, a St. Louis-based transitional housing facility. When we reached out to them three years ago, they reacted with some trepidation; staff wondered what the renovation process would look like, and they worried about how residents without pets would react—all common concerns among shelters.

When Lydia’s House decided to move forward, we started slowly. Two apartment units received updated floors and color palettes, making them more walkable and comforting for pets, as well as easier for residents to clean. Next, an outdoor fenced yard was converted into a secure area for pets to play, complete with wire fencing, waste bag dispensers, and benches where residents could relax while their pets played.

These renovations have paid off for Lydia’s House. Staff have seen residents take great joy in the presence of animals, and talking with survivors about the role of pets has led to more empathy and support within the community. With additional support, they currently have six pet-friendly apartments with ambitions for more.

The true healing power of pets can become lost in the larger context of domestic violence—but we mustn’t let it, since the human-animal bond is perhaps even stronger between survivors and their pets. Studies show that survivors feel a unique emotional connection to their pets that goes beyond affection, and an abundance of research shows that pets can be beneficial to our health. All of this can make a world of difference for survivors as they recover and attempt to regain control over their lives.

The pandemic has unfortunately impacted our ability to forge ahead with new projects in the short term, but it has also underscored how essential this work is. We feel more committed than ever to making pet-friendly shelters widely accessible, and we’re prepared to continue with this mission for as long as it takes.