Jennifer Hardesty, a University of Illinois, associate professor of human development and family studies, said sometimes an abuser uses a pet as part of a campaign to control his partner.
One study participant told Hardesty: "He made me stand there and ... watch -- him kill my cat. And he was like: That could happen to you."
"These incidences are very symbolic of what the abuser is capable of doing," Hardesty said in a statement. "He's sending the message: I can do something just as severe to hurt you."
Hardesty interviewed 19 abused women about their decisions on what to do with their pets when they were seeking help from a shelter.
"For abused women, a pet can be a treasured source of unconditional love and comfort -- maybe even protection -- in a time of transition. Many are strongly bonded to their animals," she said.
Hardesty stressed that not all abused women are strongly bonded to their pets, and not all abusers target pets as part of their campaign to control their partners, but previous research found 34 percent of women had delayed leaving an abuser out of concern for their pets because their abuser had threatened and harmed the animals in the past.
Hardesty recommended shelter personnel should ask women if they have pets in their home, if they need help placing the pets somewhere, and if something should be done to protect the animals.
At present, only a few shelters welcome pets, but the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is pioneering a program that provides a safe haven for pets until women in shelters can find housing and reclaim their animals.