The Case of the Battered Pet!

Who would suspect that a family’s animals could be pawns in domestic violence? Or that their sad condition might tip off investigators to women in trouble? The terrifying truth about cats and dogs.

By Barry Yeoman - Originally published in O, The Oprah Magazine, June 2008

Marcella Harb-Hauser, DVM, was doing her morning rounds at a San Rafael, California, veterinary hospital when she first met Malibu. The gray tabby was hunched in his cage, his face swollen and right eye bulging. His lungs were bruised. His ribs were broken. He had a fractured tailbone. When Harb-Hauser examined the cat's mouth, she says, "it looked like an eggplant inside."

An experienced emergency vet, Harb-Hauser tried to make sense of the medical evidence. The cat had obviously suffered a trauma, but there was no sign of a car accident or fall from a window. "This didn't just happen," she told her colleagues. "Something is fishy." The cat's owner, she learned, had brought him in at 5 a.m. and for the past three hours had been sitting quietly in an exam room. Maybe, she thought, the young woman could provide some answers.

Malibu's owner had milky skin and dark eyeliner, with tattoos on both arms. She was barely 30, her face youthful, but her gaunt frame and blank expression suggested a hard life. Speaking in a high, thin monotone, she told Harb-Hauser that she had separated from her boyfriend a year earlier, moving three times to escape him, only to have him track her down and break into each successive apartment. This morning she'd come home from a trip and found him waiting. Fresh scratches and bite marks covered his arms. The apartment was wrecked, and Malibu was hiding under a glass table, barely breathing.

"I really don't know how to tell you this, because it breaks my heart," Harb-Hauser said. "But someone tried to strangle your cat." For the first time, emotion registered on the woman's face. She looked up and locked eyes with the vet. "Yeah," she said. "My boyfriend likes to do that to me, too."