''Vets are often the first to see evidence of abuse in a family, when they treat injured pets'': Lydia Tong. Photo: Peter Rae
Animals can’t talk, but evidence that pets are being abused by their owners can be a sign that women and children are also victims of domestic violence.
In her time as a vet, Lydia Tong has seen several cases of abused animals that left her wondering whether the women and children in the family were also experiencing violence.
In collaboration with Domestic Violence NSW, Dr Tong, from the University of Sydney, is now embarking on a study to examine the link between pets being harmed by their owners and domestic violence. She hopes the study's findings will be used to improve services for both human and animals victims.
Dr Tong said anecdotal evidence from women escaping violent homes suggested that pets were often also mistreated.
''So vets are often the first to see evidence of abuse in a family, when they treat injured pets,'' she said.
As part of the study, people who contact domestic violence help lines will be asked whether their abuser also harms family pets, whether they have access to vet services and if they would feel comfortable speaking with a vet about their situation.
In overseas research, about a quarter of domestic violence victims asked non-threatening questions or offered support were willing to talk about their abuse.
''It’s my hope we can produce some data that will inform people who make decisions about where abuse resources should go in future,’’ Dr Tong said.
Moo Baulch, interim chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW, said domestic violence help lines had found victims of abuse were sometimes scared or reluctant to leave an abusive relationship if they had to leave a pet behind.
Abusers also used threats of violence towards animals as a way of manipulating partners to stay in an abusive relationship, Ms Baulch said.
''We know anecdotally that people will stay in a relationship for a long time because they are afraid of leaving the dog or cat behind,’’ she said.
‘‘I think it’s a really important area that needs more research.’’
Data collected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found one in three women above the age of 15 will experience some form of domestic violence, either physical, sexual or emotional, in their lifetime.
Previous work by Dr Tong has identified characteristics that vets can use to assess when an animal has been abused rather than injured in an accident.