Two years ago, a St. Paul man terrorized his teenage friend by sending her the severed head of her dog.

Last year, a domestic abuser threw his ex-girlfriend's English bulldog, Precious, off of a St. Paul balcony in a fit of jealousy, breaking its neck. Another man dropped a 5-month-old puppy from a second floor apartment to teach his girlfriend a lesson. And another Ramsey County man was charged with throwing his girlfriend's kitten, Nilla, against a wall.

While such acts seem incomprehensibly brutal to most of us, Susan Neis has seen them all, and she knows that pets are too often used as leverage by domestic abusers.

"What it says is, 'Look what I can do, don't think I can't do this to you too,'" said Neis, executive director of Cornerstone, a domestic abuse prevention program that serves several suburbs in southern Hennepin County. "It's a powerful lesson that typically doesn't get that person in that much trouble."

But new legislation moving through the Minnesota House and Senate aims to increase the potential penalties for people who torture or kill the family dog or cat in order to intimidate their partners. The bills seek to authorize and encourage judges to include pets in orders for protection.

If the bills are adopted, Minnesota would join 12 other states with similar laws, according to Allie Phillips, director of public policy for American Humane, a national non-profit that seeks to protect children and animals. Because of the gruesome examples, "Minnesota is ready for this law right now," Phillips said.

Research by the organization shows just how important pets can be in domestic abuse situations. More than 70 percent of pet-owning women entering shelters reported that their batterer had injured, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or for psychological control. Almost a third reported their children had hurt or killed animals. Nearly two-thirds of battered women reported violence toward their animals, with most of these attacks occurring in front of women and children.

Most importantly, between 25 and 40 percent of battered women say they feel unable to escape abusive situations because they worry about what will happen to their pets or livestock. That shouldn't surprise anyone who saw people willing to brave Hurricane Katrina because they refused to leave the dog behind.

"If you have a pet in a home filled with violence, it's often used to keep them compliant and keep them silent," Phillips said.

No one says a new law will stop all abusers, but advocates say it will be another tool and raise awareness of how pets and domestic abuse are intertwined.

The next step is to make sure women who escape danger have a place to bring their pets, whether to the shelter where they are staying or a temporary shelter somewhere else. There are surprisingly few such programs nationwide. One is American Humane's PAWS (Pets and Women's Shelters) program, which keeps women and their animals together.

"When you've truly lost everything, sometimes a dog can give you the comfort you need," Phillips said.

Cornerstone is one of the few shelters in Minnesota that helps clients account for their pets, though at another facility. They've persuaded many women to leave because a Bloomington veterinarian agreed to take in and care for their pets, said Neis, who estimated that Dr. Kate Knutson of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital has provided $70,000 in free care to victims' pets in 2008.

Knutson said a client told her of a woman who had refused to leave an abusive relationship because of a pet in 1997. "I said, 'We can take them,'" she said. "It's grown ever since."

Knutson's clinic is currently taking care of two cats and two hamsters left homeless by abuse. They get physicals, shots, dental work and behavioral retraining before being returned to the owners.

"For a lot of people animals are the only constant in their lives," Knutson said. "They are proof that there can be goodness and unconditional love, proof that tomorrow will be a better day."

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702