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SPCA investigates approximately 46,000 animal welfare complaints annually and although the rate for animal cruelty co-occurring with family violence has not been established in New Zealand, it is highly probable that New Zealand statistics mirror the international findings.
A perpetrator’s threat to harm, kill, or torture a family pet is a coercive strategy used to attain and maintain control of family members. Animal cruelty co-occurs with more severe forms of physical and sexual abuse of family members5. In Aotearoa, animal cruelty is an established form of family violence and is recognised as psychological abuse in the New Zealand Family Violence Act 20186. The Oranga Tamariki, Ministry for Children Tuituia Assessment Framework identifies parental animal cruelty as an indicator of abuse and child animal cruelty as a marker for significant behavioural difficulties or developmental delays7.
The enduring negative impact on the physical, psychological, behavioural, and social development of young people who experience endemic violence in the home is well documented. An increasing body of international research suggests that children who witness animal cruelty and experience violence in the home experience enduring and severe trauma symptoms. These children are three times more likely to perpetrate animal cruelty and five times more likely to continue the cycle of interpersonal violence8. The identification of animal cruelty or maltreatment provides a clear indicator that the children and other family members may also be experiencing abuse and neglect.
New Zealanders share their homes with 4.6 million companion animals and four out of five families with children aged nine to seventeen years live with at least one companion animal.
A neglected and abused animal tethered in the backyard is often easier to spot than the abuse occurring behind closed doors. Children and other family members more readily disclose the concerns they have for the welfare of their animals, before they share the fears they have for their own safety. Therefore, the assessment of the animal’s welfare provides a window into family dynamics, the quality of the care and treatment of family members, and provides an opportunity to inquire about the welfare of the humans in the home9.
Recent studies suggest that the inclusion of questions about the welfare and treatment of animals in the home provides an insight into the family dynamics and facilitates the following:
Client and practitioner engagement,
the disclosure of co-occurring animal cruelty, family violence, criminal activity and child victimisation,
a more detailed account about the characteristics and degree of interpersonal violence and the abuse experienced by family members,
the identification of the systemic protective and risk factors to support collaborative intervention planning with the family.
SPCA is working in partnership with communities, government ministries and the private sector to raise awareness of the common roots of violence directed at humans and animals and to improve animal welfare policy and laws in order to prevent abuse and neglect before it begins10. SPCA is the only non-government agency with the mandate to prosecute offences under the Animal Welfare Act (1999).