Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Links Between Animal Abuse & Family Violence: Implications for the Medical Professions


Phil Arkow is the coordinator of the National Link Coalition, a Link Consultant for both the SPCA and the Animals and Society Institute, and he also serves as Chair of the Animal Abuse and Family Violence Prevention Project, The Latham Foundation. He is a passionate writer and focuses his writing on violence prevention, humane education, animal-assisted therapy, animal shelter management, and a multidisciplinary approach to the human-animal bond.

Arkow opened the discussion by showing a Venn diagram, illustrating the interconnectedness of four specific arenas: Animal Abuse, Domestic Violence, Child Maltreatment and Elder Abuse. He suggested that we can look at the status of the human condition through the lens of the animals in our lives. While it is almost universally accepted that pets are healthy additions to our lives, Arkow presented that there is a “dark side” to the human-animal bond in that animal abuse is a potential predictor of interpersonal violence. He presented the staggering statistic that 31% of teenagers in Chicago have attended a dog fight, showing the connection that when animals are abused, people are at risk, and when people are abused, animals are at risk. There is a strong correlation between a child growing up abusing animals and the tendency for that child to become an adult who abuses other people.

Phil Arkow shows childrens' drawings that sparked his initial interest in the connections between human and animal abuse.

While there is a “dark side” to the human-animal bond, Arkow suggested that there is great potential to use this relationship not only as an indicator of interpersonal violence, but also as an avenue for healing. He mentioned that medical doctors and veterinarians regularly encounter individuals who may be victims of interpersonal violence, and focusing on animals may be an excellent way to reach out to individuals who may not otherwise expose their struggles. Arkow stated, “If you don’t include the pets in the lives of your patients, you’re missing a big part of the puzzle and the opportunity to build trust and start a conversation.” People love to talk about their pets, and beginning a conversation with a patient or client who may have been involved in interpersonal violence helps build rapport. People will often not call an agency when they witness child abuse because they assume that it is not their place to pass judgment on how others raise or treat their children, but Arkow pointed out that people are more likely to report animal abuse because animals cannot be their own advocate. As a result of this and the link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence, Arkow presented that animal welfare investigators are often the first responders to human abuse cases and should be trained with a multidisciplinary approach to recognize the signs of cruelty, both to animals and humans.

According to the statistics that Arkow presented, more American homes have pets than have children, more money is spent on pet food than baby food in the United States, pet supplies account for the seventh largest U.S. economic sector, and children are more likely to grow up with a pet than with a father. These statistics highlight the importance, prevalence, and potential of animals to influence the human condition. According to a national survey, 49.7% of Americans view their pets as family members, 48.2% view them as companions, and only 2.1% consider their pets to be their property. With the vast majority of individuals relating to their animals in an intimately personal way, there is tremendous potential for the human-animal bond to serve as a catalyst for human healing. Therapeutic horse riding, Animal Assisted Therapy, and Service Animals are examples of ways that animals can help people, and research supports that having animals in our lives improves cardiovascular functioning, helps curb obesity, and improves overall wellness.

Recognizing the substantial influence that animals have on people, Arkow presented three key premises: 1) Perceive and document animal abuse as a human health and welfare issue, 2) Redefine animal abuse as family violence, and 3) Cross-train community caregivers to respond to all forms of family violence. During the One Health seminar, several of the attendees brought up questions about practical ways to integrate these premises into various professions. One veterinarian mentioned that she had a client who would not remove her sunglasses, and it was clearly because she was concealing an injury that she received as a victim of interpersonal violence. The veterinarian said that she felt trapped and unequipped to help this woman, especially since the client had sought her assistance to receive medical treatment for her dog, not for herself. How can veterinarians considerately advocate for their clients? Arkow suggested a simple, yet effective solution: to wear a small button on the outside of a lab coat that says, “It’s OK to talk to me about domestic and family violence.” He said that something as direct and concise as this could open the door for individuals to reach out to their veterinarians or medical doctors for help. Another idea was to pass out emery boards, either for humans or for pets, that have a phone number printed on them to reach a domestic violence helpline. Such gestures are subtle enough to empower individuals to seek the help they need even if they are hesitant to reach for the help initially. It was interesting to learn that 95% of animal abuse cases are the result of neglect, not necessarily malicious violence, and thus can be an indicator of other societal issues. Both medical doctors and veterinarians should be trained to recognize and respond to any such indicators, both human and animal.

Phil Arkow discusses the One Health implications of animal and human abuse.

Phil Arkow’s presentation highlighted the simple yet provoking idea that the way humans treat animals can serve as a mirror by which we observe the human condition, and animals themselves can be an integral part of the healing process. Arkow ended his presentation by stating three questions that we should ask a person to address a potential abuse case in a respectful way by using animals as an unthreatening lens: 1) Are there animals at home? 2) How are they cared for? 3) Are you worried about their welfare? These three questions invite the person, especially a young child, to talk about his or her animals and offer insights into the others relationships in his or her life that could be destructive. The links between animal abuse and family violence is a One Health issue because every person, be it a professional or a passerby, should be aware of interpersonal violence and its indicators, and most people can relate to the intimate ways pets affect people’s lives. It is when we amalgamate public and professional awareness with a universal “game plan” of response that we can finally end animal abuse and interpersonal violence.

Post authored by Mary Pat Bulfin, NCSU undergraduate in Biological Sciences

Up next (14 Feb):
Meaningful Uses of Man’s Best Friends
Larry Glickman, VMD, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UNC
Jacqueline Bailey, BS candidate, Biology and International Studies minor at Meredith College