Anyone who has ever had a pet knows how important they can be in a person’s life. Pets of all kinds offer comfort and stability, they depend on their owners for love and care, and they are often considered a real part of the family. Because pets play such a vital role in their owners’ lives, an organization in New York City is building a new pet-friendly domestic violence shelter where fluffy, feathered, and scaly family friends are welcome.

There’s plenty of troubling data that backs up the need to create pet-friendly domestic violence shelters. According to the Animal Welfare Institute, surveys have found that between 18 and 48 percent of women who are physically abused will delay leaving an abusive situation because they fear for the safety of their pet.

The Urban Resource Institute, a non-profit organization that works with victims of domestic violence and homeless families, is building its first brand-new shelter where victims can stay with their pets. The new facility, which opens this October, will significantly increase the number of people and pets the organization can accommodate. The shelter is part of the organization’s pet-friendly program called People and Animals Living Safely (PALS).

Right now, URI has 52 pet-friendly apartment units across four facilities. An existing facility is in the process of being retrofitted for pets, and the new pet-friendly facility opening in the fall will bring the organization up to six total pet-friendly shelters. While having pets around in a domestic violence shelter may sound unnecessary, pets are often a major factor in abused partners getting away from abuse and into a safe living environment.

Nathaniel Fields, president and CEO of the Urban Resource Institute and the Center Against Domestic Violence tells Brit + Co, “As we continue to engage victims of domestic violence, we learn more [about their needs].”

Because so many households include pets, and abused partners are less likely to leave an abusive home without their pet, Fields says URI is working to “reduce the obstacles when someone is considering leaving an abusive relationship, and make sure that they have a safe environment that they can go to.”

The fear comes from a very real place: the Animal Welfare Institute states that up to 71 percent and no less than 49 percent of pets in abusive homes have been hurt, threatened, or even killed by abusive partners. Further, the Institute cites a survey of domestic violence shelters that found a staggering 85 percent of women reported that their pet was also abused.

Because pets are treated as members of the family by so many owners, Fields explains that abusers will use the pet as another means of manipulating and controlling victims.

“The pet is used to maintain power over the person in an abusive intimate partner relationship,” Fields says. So creating spaces for victims of abuse to live with their pets is a major help. The abused person no longer has to risk their own safety in order to protect their pet.

Keeping a pet in a family’s life is also a source of comfort. An anonymous testimonial shared with Brit + Co by a current resident in one of URI’s existing pet-friendly apartments sheds light on what continuing to live with a pet means to families who are escaping abusive situations.

“We had to do lots of new things, [including] moving to a different borough to be safe,” said the URI apartment resident. “It was nice to be able to come home and [our pet] was there.”

One major challenge in providing ongoing support for families with pets, Fields says, is transitioning them out of shelters once they no longer need the facilities. “It may change, but it’s very difficult with housing already in New York City. There are many restrictions from housing providers around pets,” Fields says. So there’s still a need for affordable permanent housing that is also welcoming to pets.

But even with these obstacles, URI has been able to help a lot of families since they started providing pet-friendly facilities in 2013. So far, PALS has provided housing to 84 families, including 140 children, according to URI’s website. As for pets, there’s been an array of cuddly creatures: 60 cats, 42 dogs, nine turtles, four birds, one bearded dragon, one fish, and one guinea pig.

Leaving an abusive situation is always an incredibly hard and scary endeavor. If a victim of abuse knows they will be separated from a pet who is also likely to be in danger, they’re more likely to stick around and endure more abuse. Programs like PALS make it possible for families to live the safe life they deserve with all members of the family, including their pets. As another URI apartment resident stated in an anonymous testimonial, “All shelters should have a PALS program.”

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(Photos by klim14 and Paulann_EgelhoffFlickr via Compfight cc)