Interpersonal Violence and the Vital Role of Social Work in Animal Welfare

| October 13, 2023

A Spotlight on Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care Program

Written by: Dillon Dodson, RSW, MSW – Senior Manager, Social Work at Toronto Humane Society 

Interpersonal violence, encompassing physical, emotional, and psychological harm inflicted upon both humans and animals, is a distressing and complex issue that demands a multi-faceted approach for effective intervention. In this discussion, we will delve into the critical connection between interpersonal violence and animal welfare, highlighting the role of social work in addressing these intertwined challenges. With a specific focus on Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care program, we will explore how such initiatives are responding to the calls for help and contributing to the wellbeing of both humans and animals.

Interpersonal Violence and Animal Welfare Nexus

Interpersonal violence often transcends species boundaries, affecting not only humans but also animals. Studies have shown a disturbing correlation between animal cruelty and violent behaviour towards humans, commonly referred to as the “Violence link.” Research has confirmed that intentional harm caused to animals is both a predictor of, and indicator of, interpersonal violence. Further, when violence occurs in one of these domains, it is not typically an isolated incident; rather the acts are “linked.” This connection underscores the importance of considering both human and animal victims when addressing cases of abuse and neglect. Ascione, Weber & Wood (1997) found 71% of abused women reported their perpetrator had harmed, killed or threatened animals with over 75% incidents occurring in the presence of the woman and/or her children as a method to coerce, control and humiliate.

Research has documented that survivors are reluctant to flee and seek help if it means leaving their pet behind with the abuser; studies indicate that at least 50% of survivors would have left sooner if they could have brought their pet with them (OAITH, 2018). Further, when animal abuse occurs in a home with children, there are negative correlations. Ascione et al (1997) found that 50% of the children interviewed indicated they had directly intervened in violent situations in their home in order to protect their pet, potentially placing themselves in harm’s way (Edelson, Mbilinyi, Beeman & Hagemeister, 2003).

Moreover, the cycle of violence theory posits that individuals who engage in animal abuse are more likely to escalate to harming humans. Consequently, it becomes crucial to recognize the significance of animal welfare in the broader context of social issues, including violence within families.

Disturbing Statistics and Ongoing Struggle

In 2021, police reported 344 victims per 100,000 population as noted by Statistics Canada, 79% of victims were women. The alarming statistics surrounding gender-based violence and femicide in Ontario paint a distressing picture of the challenges our society faces; further, incidents of violence more commonly go unreported to authorities suggesting the rate is likely much higher. In the first 30 weeks of 2023, 30 confirmed cases of femicide occurred from January 1, 2023, to July 31, 2023, according to the Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses with each individual losing their life. Shockingly, these statistics are not unique to Ontario alone.

Across Canada, approximately one woman is killed every 6 days by an intimate partner according to a study conducted by Canadian Women’s Foundation. This grave reality highlights the urgency of addressing gender-based violence and the necessity for collective action as the toll violence takes on families, communities, and society as a whole cannot be overstated.

The Milestone of Acknowledgment

Toronto’s recent declaration of gender-based violence and intimate partner violence as an epidemic marks a significant milestone in the fight against violence in our city. This acknowledgment from the city’s leadership signifies a growing recognition of the severity of the issue and the urgency for concrete action. Such a declaration not only raises awareness about the prevalence of gender-based violence but also paves the way for more focused and comprehensive efforts to combat it.

The Role of Social Work in Addressing Interpersonal Violence

Social work serves as a linchpin in addressing interpersonal violence and promoting animal welfare. Social workers possess a unique skill set that enables them to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics, provide support to survivors, and advocate for systemic change. Their ability to engage with diverse populations and create safe spaces for disclosure and healing is invaluable in cases of abuse that involve both humans and animals.

Within the context of animal welfare, social workers play a pivotal role in identifying signs of animal abuse, assessing the safety of both animals and humans, and connecting survivors to appropriate resources. By fostering collaboration between various agencies, including law enforcement, child protection services, and animal welfare organizations, social workers contribute to a comprehensive and coordinated response to instances of violence.

Unity and Action: A Call to the Community

In the face of the disturbing statistics and the declaration of an epidemic, it is imperative that we, as a community, come together to raise awareness and take action. Addressing the pandemic of violence in Toronto to both animals and humans requires a collective and multi-faceted approach that spans across individuals, communities, organizations, and institutions. By joining forces, we
can create a safer Toronto that upholds the rights and dignity of all its residents, human and nonhuman.

Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care Program: An Answer to the Calls for Help

As a key strategy, Toronto Humane Society prioritizes our mission “to improve and save lives.” With this value at its core, Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care program exemplifies the intersection of social work and animal welfare in combatting interpersonal violence. This innovative initiative recognizes that violence often extends to pets, as abusers use animals as tools of control, manipulation, and intimidation. The program provides a safe haven for animals affected by violence, offering temporary shelter and medical care. By addressing the safety of these animals, Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care program indirectly safeguards human survivor/victims, who might otherwise hesitate to leave unsafe situations due to fear for their pets’ wellbeing.

Moreover, the program includes a critical social work component. Trained professionals offer support and resources to individuals fleeing violence, acknowledging and honouring the emotional bond between humans and their pets. Social workers play an instrumental role in fostering empowerment, resilience, and healing among survivors, while also advocating for policy changes that recognize the importance of including animals in safety planning.


Interpersonal violence casts a long shadow over both humans and animals, necessitating a comprehensive approach that combines the efforts of various fields. Social work emerges as a key player in this endeavor, bridging the gap between human and animal welfare concerns. Toronto Humane Society’s Urgent Care program stands as a shining example of how social work interventions within animal welfare can address the complex challenges posed by interpersonal violence. By offering refuge for animals and support for their human companions, this program showcases the power of collaboration and compassion in breaking the cycle of violence. As we move forward, recognizing the interconnectedness of these issues and promoting collaborative efforts will be essential for creating a safer and more compassionate society for all beings.

This article was originally published in the Fall Edition of Toronto Humane Society’s quarterly magazine, Animal Talk. You can read the full magazine for free via issuu. Our city is in crisis and it needs your help. Click here to learn how you can keep families whole during uncertain times.