Patricia says she and her mother were trapped.

They were stuck living with the abusive man Patricia's mother married. Each time they'd plot ways to escape, they would end up staying because of their cat.

"We couldn't find a place to go where we could also bring my cat," Patricia says." Shelters typically don't take in pets, and we loved him too much to leave him behind."

Patricia was only 10 years old at the time, and her mother could not afford a place of her own, so for years, they lived in turmoil.

"He was financially abusive, so that made it difficult to put together enough of a financial safety net to leave," Patricia says. "He made threats to hurt her if she left him."

They worried if their cat stayed behind, he would also be at risk. "Our cat was very sweet and loving," Patricia says. " We were afraid that our cat would become a victim of abuse and possibly be killed out of his anger if we left."

Nowhere to Go

Heart-wrenching stories like Patricia's are all too familiar to former prosecutor Allie Phillips.

She founded Sheltering Animals and Families Together. The nonprofit's goal is to help domestic violence victims leave horrible situations with their pets.

"There's no law that requires shelters to take pets," Allie says. "Every domestic violence shelter is independent and can decide how to house people and if they want to welcome pets on site."

Allie started her mission after attempting to prosecute a case nearly two decades ago that still haunts her today. It began when a domestic violence victim refused to testify against her abuser.

"She told me she needed me to dismiss her case," Allie says. "I said to her, 'Unfortunately, I can't dismiss the case, but tell me what's going on?' She told me, 'I went back home last night to protect my dogs and goat because he already killed one of my dogs in front of me.'"

Allie was livid but determined to help. She brought the woman back to the judge's chambers and called a local domestic violence shelter. Allie thought finding a safe place for the victim to go would be no problem.

Wrong.

"I asked the shelter if they had space for this woman," Allie says. "They said, 'Yes.' Then I said, 'Great, she is going to bring her dogs and her goat.' The shelter worker laughed and hung up. I had no thought in my mind this was going to be a barrier to get her to safety. I could not even comprehend it. I was going ballistic."

Allie then pleaded for the victim to take the stand. She told her she would also prosecute him for animal abuse. But with no safe place for the victim to go with her pets, she would not testify.

"She said, 'It's not worth it,' Allie says. "She turned and walked toward the abuser. As they walked out of the courtroom, the abuser gave me the most evil smile. I never saw her again. To this day, I don't know what happened to her."

At that moment, Allie decided she needed to push for shelters to take in people and their pets.

"I went back out into the courtroom, and I said, 'Judge, I'm going to do something about this. I don't know what I'm going to do, but I'm going to do something.'"

Allie started interviewing detectives and other experts who kept telling her the same thing: domestic violence victims often stay in abusive situations because they have nowhere to go with their pets.

"I said, 'Why is no one talking about how animals are victimized in family violence situations? We'd never ask anyone to leave an abusive home, go to a shelter, and not take their children. Pets are family too.'"

Wanted: Pet-Friendly Shelters

Since Allie started on her quest to help domestic violence victims and their pets, research has shown that often when someone abuses people, they also abuse animals. This gave Allie even more fuel.

In 2008 she created a free manual for shelters to use as a roadmap to figure out the logistics of housing people with their pets. Then she started getting the word out.

"This is doable, it doesn't matter what the shelter's set up is," she says. "I can always find a way to get pets on site. But the shelter has to be willing to be open to look at this."

Allie says right now, there are approximately 1700 domestic violence shelters in the United States, but only about 200 allow pets in some capacity. Some offer off-site housing for animals as well, like foster homes or boarding.

Though progress has been made in the number of shelters being animal friendly, Allie says more are desperately needed.

"Some domestic violence victims are homeless living in their car with their pets," she says. "If a shelter won't let pets in, they are creating a barrier to that person getting to safety. We've got to get everyone out of that home that's being victimized."

There are grants and loans available to shelters who want to help people and their pets. Allie says every shelter she's worked with to welcome animals has had positive experiences.

"This is a money opportunity for them and to expand their thinking by welcoming pets," she says. "The shelters that do this, I cannot think of an issue that's happened that's been negative. All the shelters come back to me and say this has been the biggest blessing, and it's completely changed how they shelter people."

Staying with an Abuser Because of Your Pet

Patricia's mother stayed in the abusive relationship until their cat passed away. The two of them have moved out, and her mother was able to get the divorce she wanted.

"She now lives independently, happily free of her abuser, and adopted a new cat after a mourning period," Patricia says.

After living in fear for so long, Patricia hopes more shelters opt to take in people and their pets. "Otherwise, shelters are subjecting pet owners to a difficult choice of saving themselves and abandoning a loved one to possibly becoming a new victim of abuse or staying in an abusive situation not to leave a loved one in a risky situation."

Resources

Click here for a list of pet-friendly domestic violence shelters.

If there’s not one in your area, you may consider driving to one who can take you and your pets.