Animal lovers in Wales have been asked to play a key role in helping people escape domestic violence

The RSPCA is seeking “foster homes” for the pets of people fleeing abusive relationships.

According to the welfare organisation, women – and sometimes men – who are being attacked can fear that if they escape the abuse their spouse will take out their anger on the pet.

Welsh Women’s Aid, which helped find safe refuge for more than 1,200 women and 1,000 children of abused mothers in 2006-07, welcomed the RSPCA initiative. Very few refuges for abused spouses can provide shelter for pets due to health and safety regulations and allergy concerns.

Spokeswoman Amy Kitcher said, “We’re all in favour of it. It’s removing a barrier to stopping women leaving abusive relationships.”

Since the pet-fostering scheme was launched in Wales, 15 families have been helped and the search is on for more volunteers.

It follows successful programmes in England. Bernice Dawes, from Bristol, urged Welsh families to look after pets; she has taken in 10 cats since 2004.

She said, “When the animals first come to you they are very traumatised. They will have seen a lot of violence or had very violent things done to them.”

But she added, “It’s very rewarding. You see them visibly relaxing.

“Just be patient and take your time and wait for the animal to come to you. Eventually the cat will come out and want to know you and be nuzzled and so on.”

Ms Dawes said she was sad to see the pets go, but delighted she could help people escape domestic abuse.

“I think a lot of women hold on for longer because they don’t want their pets to be harmed,” she said.

“Seeing an animal and owner happy when they are reunited makes it easier to part with the animal when it is time for them to go home.”

Carolyn Southwell, who manages the project, said, “It is thanks to people like Bernice that we are able to operate the PetRetreat scheme. The scheme is fully committed to the animals that are caught up in domestic abuse and fits hand in glove with the work that we already do within the RSPCA.”

All the costs of fostering are met by the RSPCA. Each animal is assessed before they go to a home.

Ms Southwell said, “By helping these animals, as we do in our everyday work, we are in a position to be able to help the families involved.

“A human victim of domestic abuse once said to us, ‘If I did not own pets then I would have left years ago.’ Our scheme offers such victims a safe home for their animals for as long as they need it. “If we can step in and break that cycle, we will be doing a tremendous amount to help both people and animals.”

Ms Dawes said abusive spouses often used pets as hostages, saying, “A lot of the time the perpetrator of the violence will use the cat as a lever: ‘If you go the cat gets it.’”

Research indicates that domestic abuse continues to be a major threat.

Women’s Aid said one in four women in Wales and England will experience domestic abuse by their partner or ex-partner at some time in their life. Across the UK, two women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner.

Domestic abuse accounts for nearly a quarter of violent crime and a women will be assaulted on average 35 times before reporting it to the police.

Labour AM Carl Sargeant, a supporter of the scheme, said, “We mustn’t forget that pets are also in danger from violence in the home. They are frequently threatened, injured or killed by the perpetrator who uses violence toward the pet to frighten and intimidate their partner and children, so it is important that there are safe retreats for pets to go to too.”

A pet-fosterer will mainly care for dogs and cats but could have the opportunity to look after animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs or birds.

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