ST. CLOUD – The northern Minnesota woman needed a safe place to escape a threatening relationship, but she hesitated to leave for a domestic violence shelter, worried about what would happen to her four-year-old cat.

"I had him since he was three weeks old," she said. "I didn't want to give him to a shelter … He's kind of like my baby … I also wanted to protect him."

She ended up giving the cat away to a relative's neighbor before seeking refuge at Anna Marie's Alliance, a women's shelter in this central Minnesota city. Sitting in a break room there this week, the woman worried about the cat and missed his comforting purrs.

It's a scenario that workers at Anna Marie's have heard so often that they're doing something about it: Raising money to build a pet center on their grounds so that victims of violence don't have to be separated from their animals or give them up.

Anna Marie's is part of an increasing trend in domestic abuse shelters around the country. While many make arrangements for pets to be fostered or kenneled elsewhere, the number of shelters allowing pets there has surged from just four in 2008 to at least 77 now, with 15 more planned, according to Allie Phillips, founder of Sheltering Animals and Families Together.

A refusal to be separated

"There's far too many families that refuse to be separated from their pets," Phillips said. "Especially when you're going through a traumatic situation, your pets can provide you great comfort."

An estimated 68 percent of American households have a pet, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. Phillips said various studies show that up to 48 percent of women with pets delay or refuse leaving their abusive home out of fear for their pets or livestock.

Animals are often used as pawns in abuse, shelter workers know.

Margaret Bushinger started advocating for pets at Anna Marie's after working nights as an advocate there in 2008. "A family came in. A little boy was crying and begging his mom to go home because he knew if the dad got upset, he was going to kill his dog," she said.

Since then, the shelter has found foster homes for pets while victims are housed there, but leaders saw it would be better to house the animals with their owners.

So far, the 36-bed shelter has raised $30,000 toward a planned 20-foot-by-24-foot, heated and air-conditioned building. Building plans show space for a living room area with furniture and a television for humans to spend time with their animals, along with separate boarding space for up to five dogs and five cats.

Shelter leaders also plan to use the space to teach children from abusive homes how to properly care for animals, knowing that many of them have witnessed animals being treated harshly.

St. Cloud will join a couple of other Minnesota shelters known to accept pets: Women's Shelter Inc. in Rochester allows pets in clients' rooms on a case-by-case basis, evaluating each pet to make sure it won't cause problems for others.

The Mid-Minnesota Women's Center Inc. in Brainerd also allows pets in certain rooms and was among the first in the country to do so in the late 1970s.

An early lesson

Founder Louise Seliski said one of the first women at the shelter was married to a man who told the woman's friends that if she didn't come home he was going to kill the cat, Seliski recalled. The man followed through, beating the cat to death with a baseball bat.

"I said that's not going to happen again," Seliski recalled.

Since then, the shelter has taken in just about any pet — gerbils, birds, dogs, cats. Shelter leaders take a range of precautions, including keeping a couple of rooms animal-free for residents with allergies. The shelter won't accept certain dog breeds. Each resident bringing a pet must sign a shelter policy agreeing to restrictions such as keeping animals out of the communal kitchen and dining room.

Seliski said it has not raised any serious problems over the years.

Tammy Berger brought her 12-pound shih tzu, pug and terrier mix, Betsy Moo Moo, with her when she came to the shelter in December. Her boyfriend had thrown the animal several feet after learning Tammy was leaving, she said.

"This was the only place I could bring my dog," said Berger, cuddling Betsy atop the single bed that she called home for three months.

Now in her own place, she said the dog helped her move forward into a new life.

"Without Betsy, it would have been much harder, the loneliness."

Phillips, a former Michigan prosecutor who is advocating for more pet-friendly domestic violence shelters around the country, created a list of guidelines to address concerns including insurance, allergies, loud animals and safety.

In St. Cloud, the northern Minnesota woman, whom shelter officials wouldn't allow to be identified for safety reasons, said she misses her black-and-white cat with tuxedo markings. She hopes to get it back someday.

"He's a good cat. He was therapeutic for me," she said. "I cried when I had to leave him."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102