People and Places

“When there is one form of abuse in the home everyone — including pets — is at risk”

Anyone who has ever seen the love in the eyes of a pet – or felt the guilt when leaving them at home for any amount of time – knows the emotional connection between people and their pets. What if you had to leave them alone in an abusive situation, forever?

A group of people in Ottawa have been working for over two years to address the problem. At Interval House Ottawa (IHO), Ottawa’s first emergency shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence, executive director Kia Rainbow has partnered with Dr. Michelle Lem of Community Veterinarian Outreach to create a space for people and their pets — cats, dogs, rabbits, and hamsters. Through a comprehensive program called Escaping Violence Together, their goal is to keep families together and, in doing so, reduce the impact of their trauma. Part of how they achieve this is through a purpose-built space that best addresses the challenges of bringing animals into shelters, but also allows for an intimate bonding experience, which is necessary for healing.

“We know that when there is one form of abuse in the home everyone — including pets — is at risk. Abusers use the killing, torturing, and beating of pets — or the threat of such actions — as a weapon to ensure submission and silence from their victims,” the project website reads.

It’s not the first time a shelter has allowed clients to bring pets, but this facility has made a point of ensuring that people and their pets have warm, home-like space to bond.

The concept isn’t without its challenges. Some people are afraid of dogs, and others have allergies, so they knew from the start that the kennels had to be in a separate area, away from the main activities of the shelter. It needed to be soundproof. The animals needed to be healthy when they came in, and not procreating with each other, which meant working with Alta Vista Animal Hospital for free and/or discounted services. A pet taxi will shuttle them from their previous home to vet and then to Interval House.

The floorplan of the new animal housing facility at Interval House

Once at IHO, the furry friends will find their new home in the basement. The new animal housing facility is made up of five spaces: cat housing; dog housing; small animal housing; a room for food prep and bathing; and a pet friendly living room.

Rainbow describes the dog kennels as small rooms, built with low ceilings to create a den-like feeling. The dogs can’t see each other, and the surfaces are scratch proof. Careful consideration was given to the lighting — once the sun sets, the ‘day lighting’ gives way to ‘moon lighting’, mimicking the soft natural light of the moon. The cat ‘condos’ were built with perches to sit on (or under), and are located in a room separate from the dogs.

Six unit cat housing

Perhaps the most important feature is the pet-friendly living room. Complete with comfy chairs, a Netflix-equipped television, and a Keurig machine, the space gives pets and owners an opportunity to relax with one another.

The living room offers a place for people and pets to hang out — and heal together.

Only pet owners can access the are; the space is under the watch of surveillance cameras to ensure the animals are not stressed.

Supported by $130,000 in donations from PetSmart Charities Canada, Donner Canadian Foundation, Ottawa Community Foundation, and over 300 individual donors, Interval House Ottawa continues to support the emotional and psychological health of women and children.