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Adopting a Pet with a History of Abuse: What to Know and How to Help

Dog hiding under bench

When you're an animal lover, it's hard to comprehend how anybody could hurt an innocent creature. But unfortunately, there are many dogs and cats in shelters and foster care with histories of abuse. Choosing to adopt one of them is an honorable and compassionate thing to do, but it takes special care and requires lots of time and patience.

Should You Adopt a Pet with a History of Abuse?

Animal abuse is horrific, and wanting to provide a loving home to a pet that's been a victim of abuse is understandable. However, it's not for everyone. If you plan to adopt a dog or cat, it's always critical to find out their history and learn about their former living situation. 

The primary thing to consider when adopting an abused animal is it takes a lot of patience and time. If you don’t have adequate time to devote to helping your new pet adjust and acclimate to their new home, it’s not fair to the animal. Be honest with yourself about your schedule, patience level, and temperament before deciding to adopt a pet with a history of abuse.

You should also consider if you already have other pets living in the home, as this could make your new pet nervous. Likewise, if you have young children, tread carefully since pets with histories of abuse can often show signs of aggression.

How Long Does It Take for an Abused Pet to Adjust to a New Home?

Taking home a new pet always comes with responsibility and an adjustment period. Typically, for animals with no prior abuse, the popular rule of thumb is the Rule of Three. 

During the first three days of the initial acclimation, your new pet tends to decompress and investigate their new digs. Then, by three weeks, your new furry friend gets more comfortable but remains somewhat cautious. Once you reach the three-month mark, your new pet should feel at home.

Of course, every animal is different, so this timeline can vary slightly depending on the animal’s personality and age. For example, if you adopt a puppy, they might adjust more quickly since your home is their first. However, an older dog that’s had multiple homes may take longer to transition. But when it comes to dogs or cats that have histories of abuse, the transition time can be much longer.

In some cases, it could be a year or more before your fur baby starts to truly settle in and let their personality show. If you’re unsure of a dog or cat’s history, ask the shelter what they know and for any information that they can provide. If the pet’s history is unknown, be familiar with the common signs of abuse in pets.

Signs of Abuse in Pets

If a dog or cat has a history of abuse, they will most likely give you clues. Showing one or two of these doesn’t necessarily point to abuse, but they would definitely be reasons to consider the possibility and dig a little deeper into the animal’s history. If an animal shows several of these signs, it’s a good possibility that they were abused.

  • Increased fear or hesitation around people and other animals
  • More aggression toward other animals or humans
  • Separation anxiety or excessive need for attachment
  • Hiding or only coming out to eat or potty when nobody else is around
  • Appears to always be on guard
  • Heightened excitability, hyperactivity, or nervousness
  • Repetitive behaviors, like turning in circles when they feel anxious or hoarding items
  • Trouble standing, moving, or sitting due to physical abuse
  • Not wanting to be touched in certain spots
  • Physical signs include too thin, matted fur, skin wounds, overgrown nails, and unaddressed flea infestations (although physical signs of abuse may no longer be present if they’ve already been at the shelter or in foster care for some time)
Dog laying in bed

Six Tips to Help a Pet with a History of Abuse Feel at Home

If you decide to adopt a pet that has been abused, here are some tips to help your new furry family member transition to their new home.

1. Give Your New Pet Space and Time

Let your pet have plenty of personal space during their initial time at home. Provide a private place for them to retreat to when they feel anxious, like a comfortable crate or separate room. 

Use a safety gate or similar barrier to cordon off a corner of a room if you don’t have a spare one. If you have other pets in the home, make sure to feed your new pet separately.

2. Provide Your Pet with Choices

Pets with abusive pasts likely didn’t get many choices or opportunities to play, rest, etc. Start offering your pet a few options when it comes to things like interactive toys or pet beds. These choices give your pet a sense of autonomy and help them develop a sense of control over their environment.

3. Get to Know Your Pet’s Signals

Be super observant of your pet over their initial time with you. Learn how to read their body language so you can pick up on when they don’t want to be touched. 

If you notice your dog or cat giving off signals that they feel crowded or uncomfortable, give them space. If they don’t want to be petted, don’t force it.

Also, take note of what seems to trigger your pet. For example, does your new pup flinch when you reach out to pet them? Offer your hand, closed fist, instead, and let them sniff, not attempting to pet them. It’s all about giving your pet time and letting them set the pace.

4. Set Up a Consistent Routine

Consistency helps pets feel less anxious because a routine makes them feel more in control. Create a schedule for meals, potty time, cleaning the litter box, walks, play sessions, etc. Stick to the routine as much as possible.

5. Use Calming Aids

To help your dog or cat feel calmer, try various aids like Feliway or Adaptil. These calming sprays, diffusers, and collars mimic your dog or cat’s natural pheromones to help them feel more at ease in their environment. Another option is spreading a tasty treat on a licking mat to encourage your furry friend to lick, which reduces endorphins that can have a calming effect.

6. Work with a Professional

If you’re struggling and don’t feel like you’re making progress, you may need professional help. Talk with your vet about possible behavioral medications or choose a trainer with experience working with abused animals. Discuss beginning a behavior modification program with your pet to aid in their transition.

Stop Animal Abuse and Help Them Find a Safe Home

Whenever your pet adoption journey takes you, it’s undeniably a big responsibility that opens the door to a whole new life. If you’re ready to start looking for your new future fur baby, check with local shelters, rescues, or Petfinder. For more tips on taking care of a new pet, check out the rest of the Neater Pets blog.

Do you suspect an animal is a victim of abuse? Contact your local animal welfare agency or authorities to report your suspicions.


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