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Forced separation between humans and pets often ends in tragedy

A recent study has revealed the profound and often overlooked consequences of forced separation between humans and their pets, particularly in crisis situations such as domestic violence, homelessness, and natural disasters. 

The study was conducted by James Cook University PhD candidate Jasmine Montgomery under the guidance of Professor Janice Lloyd and Professor Zhanming Liang. 

After reviewing 27 years of international research, the team uncovered severe risks posed to both humans and pets when faced with separation.

“The literature revealed that people and their companion animals who are confronted with forced separation in crisis situations experience significant impacts on their health, wellbeing, and safety,” wrote the study authors.

Devastating outcomes 

“Our results reveal the strong emotional attachment between people and animals may result in vulnerability for both in circumstances where this bond is threatened,” said Montgomery.

“When people are being forced to separate in the context of a crisis situation, such as natural disaster, homelessness or domestic violence, it can result in psychological distress and the risk to their health, and well-being and safety are really impacted.”

“Sadly, the review also confirmed that a common outcome for pets in cases of domestic violence was maltreatment and/or death.”

Forced separation 

The researchers analyzed 42 studies on the human-animal bond and cases of owner-pet separation due to domestic violence, homelessness, and natural disasters.

The analysis showed that pet owners forced to be separated from their animals in crisis situations are suffering from a lack of support services needed to protect them.

“The review found catastrophic outcomes for pets in situations of forced separation, including death. Pets in crisis situations of forced separation were extremely vulnerable, and the animal’s survival and safety were completely dependent on humans,” wrote the study authors.

“As a consequence, humans who felt a sense of responsibility for their pets and were forced to separate were placed at an increased risk to their safety and psychological wellbeing.”

Domestic violence victims

One of the most alarming findings of the study is the impact on victims of domestic violence. The research highlights a disturbing trend where victims often delay leaving abusive relationships out of concern for their pets’ safety. 

This hesitation stems largely from a lack of shelters or housing options that accommodate pets, coupled with a distrust in formal support systems to prevent pet separation.

“In a lot of cases of domestic violence, there is evidence to suggest that people will delay leaving their relationship to protect their pet,” said Montgomery.

“This is often because there’s a lack of shelters or housing places which can accommodate pets, or a lack of trust placed in formal support systems that they won’t be separated from their pet.”

“In those cases where threats to pets are made, victims can be lured back by the perpetrator which places significant risk to their safety as well.”

Natural disasters 

Natural disasters were found to present equally distressing scenarios, where individuals may risk their lives returning for their pets or refuse to evacuate to stay with them. 

The study highlights the urgent need for pet-inclusive evacuation and disaster management plans.

Crisis situations 

One of the more systemic issues identified in the study is the prevailing attitude of human “superiority” and the unclear responsibility for pet welfare in crisis situations. 

Montgomery said a shift in mindset was needed to factor in the needs of pets, and the complexities they entail, when it came to planning for crisis situations and providing services that support victims at these times.

“Often, it’s expected people will choose human interests over animals at all costs, without consideration of the shared human-animal bond,” said Montgomery.

“What we need to start doing is taking our pets, and the value of our pets, very seriously. And, as a collective in the community, sharing that responsibility and placing the needs of pets in those areas of policy development, legislation, service provision and housing to help prevent unacceptable outcomes such as animal maltreatment or death.”

Key recommendations 

To mitigate the risks associated with forced separation, the team identified several key recommendations including:

  • Incorporating questions about pets in services assisting women experiencing domestic violence to seek refuge; providing housing for women, children and pets together; and increasing collaboration with services that can help with animals.
  • Enhance natural disaster evacuation plans to include resources such as transport and shelters that accommodate both people and their pets.
  • Ensure the availability of pet-friendly accommodation for people in homelessness situations.

The study is published in the journal Anthrozoös


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