COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Survivors of domestic violence seeking to escape an abusive environment are often faced with a difficult decision: what to do with their pets.

Of the estimated 10 million Americans affected by family and partner violence each year, nearly half delay their decision to seek refuge at a shelter out of concern for their animals’ safety, according to Brittany Thomas, the marketing director at Columbus Humane.

That’s why, in 2019, the animal welfare nonprofit teamed up with Lutheran Social Services’ central Ohio-area domestic violence shelter to house and care for victims’ pets – making it one of only 3% of shelters nationwide that accommodate animals.

“(Pets) become part of your family,” said Dr. Maria Houston, executive director of LSS Choices. “They have personalities, they’ve been with us through years, they’re our companion, and so it can really make or break a decision for a survivor to say, ‘I’m just going to stay in this abusive relationship because I don’t want to leave my animal.’”

Since 2006, Thomas said Columbus Humane has offered refuge to victims’ animals through its Safe Haven for Pets program. It wasn’t until 2019, however, that LSS Choices gained its own in-house kennel to house pets in the same space as their owners.

Whether it’s a bird, bunny rabbit or any breed of dog, the animals living at LSS Choices run the gamut, Houston said. The kennel can house a limited number of animals, but Columbus Humane – which cares for about 50 animals annually in its Safe Haven program – has the space to accommodate any overflow.

“It doesn’t matter if the pet has experienced abuse or not,” Thomas said. “Anyone in the home, we want to make sure that they can seek safety and that they’ll have a safe space to be able to reconnect later on.”

Though both nonprofits house animals regardless of whether they’ve been abused, Thomas said the great majority of domestic violence incidents, about 70%, include physical abuse against pets.

“If an animal is in the home of a person who’s experiencing domestic violence, it is more times than not also experiencing that as well, so they definitely need positive reinforcement, you want to have a very good consistent schedule and be able to show that they are loved,” she said.

The LSS Choices kennel, staffed and run by employees at Columbus Humane, provides a number of services for the animals in its care – all at no cost – including vaccinations, surgeries, microchipping, and spay or neuter care, Thomas said.

Both nonprofits strive to keep pets and their owners together as much as possible, as maintaining the “magical” bond between them can help ease the often traumatizing, harrowing situation that accompanies fleeing an abuser, Houston said. Residents at LSS Choices can visit their animals housed in the shelter’s kennel at any time.

Houston said the goal is not only to spread the word about the kennel to victims and survivors of domestic violence, but also to community organizations serving victims and survivors. Last week, law enforcement officers brought a pet to LSS Choices while its owner was being examined for domestic violence-related injuries at a hospital.

Educating central Ohioans about the service, she said, will prevent future victims and survivors of domestic violence from thinking twice about leaving an abusive environment.

“When they learn that we have this resource,” Houston said, “it just kind of helps them then prepare to make that exit to safety a lot easier.”