Research tracing the correlation between family violence and animal cruelty has been undertaken for the first time in New Zealand in a joint project by the SPCA and Women's Refuge.

The Pets as Pawns study – which surveyed 203 refuge clients as well as SPCA managers and community stakeholders – says violence or threats of violence against animals is often a way for abusive partners to maintain control over their families. Dogs, cats and birds were the most commonly abused animals.

The research finds 54 per cent of those surveyed said a family member or partner had threatened to kill their pets or animals.

A third of respondents had a pet or animal injured or killed during their relationship, and much of the abuse had been witnessed by children.

The research shows one in three women delay leaving violent relationships because they're scared their animals will be killed or tortured. One woman stayed in her relationship for 22 years because of the animals.

Examples of the violence was illustrated by reference to a 70-year-old women spoke of how her husband chopped her budgie's head off, telling her, "This is what I can do to you." A 20-year-old said her partner abused their cat, essentially saying, "This is what I will do to you if you don't toe the line."

The report made recommendations aimed at raising public awareness of the links between domestic violence and animal abuse, and suggests that a funding programme should be developed to support animals in temporary accommodation and vet expenses.