Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Pet Fractures Identify Domestic Violence

Animals can’t talk, but Dr Lydia Tong of The University of Sydney has shown vets how to tell the difference between bone fractures caused by accidents and those caused by abuse.

Not only are her fracture identification methods giving vets the know-how to identify cases of violence against pets, but a study with Domestic Violence NSW is examining incidences of pet abuse as a warning of domestic violence.

“Around 70% of women escaping violent homes also report pet abuse,” says Tong, “so vets are often the first to see evidence of abuse in a family when they treat injured pets”.

“Different forces on bones can tell a story. The skeleton of an animal keeps a distinct record that indicates the force applied to bones from past injuries, breaks or fractures. But it can often be difficult for vets to say with confidence whether a fracture has resulted from abuse or accident.”

To give vets this confidence, Tong collected cases of abused dogs that were punched, hit with a blunt weapon or kicked, and examined the fractures from these injuries. She then compared these fractures with those caused by genuine accidents. Her results, published in The Veterinary Journal, identified five key features of fractures that vets could look for to distinguish accidents from abuse.

Now Tong is gathering more information on the connections between domestic violence and animal abuse. “We already know that many women will delay seeking shelter if their pets are threatened or can’t be housed along with them,” Tong explains.

“US studies also tell us that domestic violence perpetrators who also abuse pets are more dangerous – they have increased rates of physical and sexual violence and stalking, and are more likely to kill their partner.

“We need to know more about the relationship between animal and human abuse in Australia so that we can recognise abuse earlier, save lives and provide appropriate services for victims and their pets.”