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August 21, 2023

Unleashing hope: the power of dog ownership for people experiencing homelessness

Dr Jenny Stavisky

Last week, we released a new collection of non-stigmatising images that highlight the experiences of dog owners who are experiencing homelessness. In this blog, Dr Jenny Stavisky, Clinical research Manager, VetPartners, and former assistant professor in shelter medicine at the University of Nottingham, explores the benefits of dog ownership for people experiencing homelessness whilst highlighting the arbitrary and inflexible rules that restrict access to accommodation or support services for people with a pet.

Pet ownership among people impacted by homelessness is common, but the UK prevalence is unknown. Studies report that anywhere between 5% and 25% of people experiencing homelessness own a pet, with the majority being dogs.

Despite being linked to a range of human health and social benefits including reducing loneliness, isolation and depression, dog ownership among people experiencing homelessness receives considerable criticism due to public perception of poor care provision. However, this disregards the profound positive impact that the human-animal bond has, where pets – particularly dogs – become an essential and sometimes sole source of physical, psychological and social support for someone experiencing homelessness. 

Companion animals have been widely recognised for their ability to alleviate feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression, while also increasing resilience. Acting as a buffer against stressful life events, the presence of pets has been shown to have a significant positive impact, with studies showing that individuals affected by homelessness who have pets exhibit lower levels of depression and loneliness compared to those without. This highlights the crucial role that companion animals can play in providing emotional support and fostering a sense of connection for those facing the challenges of homelessness.

“Ever since I’ve had him, my life has been totally different. I only got a dog to support my mental health, and now I can’t live without him”. 

– Michael about his dog, Pride

Dog companionship not only provides emotional support, but can also act as a catalyst for social interaction and a powerful icebreaker to dismantle barriers for initiating conversation. Research shows that dogs may act as social facilitators, increasing encounters with other people and helping to mediate interactions. These social interactions may create avenues for support and understanding among the general public, and a dog may be the bridge that connects people to create a sense of camaraderie.

Dogs play additional important roles, addressing various needs such as personal safety, instilling a sense of motivation, responsibility and routine, and also providing physical warmth. Pet ownership has even been linked to a decrease in criminal activity, a reduction in drug and alcohol misuse, and an improvement in self-care.

But despite all this, pet ownership can perpetuate homelessness by creating an additional barrier to accessing services including medical care, food provision and most crucially, housing. Where people are forced to choose between giving up a pet and remaining homeless, many will refuse to part with their animals. A 2020 study of homelessness accommodation providers found that some people experiencing homelessness are being forced to sleep rough to avoid giving up their pets. Health and safety was the most often cited reason for accommodation providers refusing to accept pets, while those who accept pets on their premises were able to manage these risks and work with the owners to exercise, clean up after and care for their pets, fostering a sense of responsibility and routine.

Of the providers who did allow pets, over 83% responded that it benefitted the owner, 58% said that it benefitted the animal, and nearly a quarter also suggested that it benefitted other residents.

“I have lost everything in life, I’m not willing to lose my dogs”. 

– Patryk, about his dogs Hachiko and Bonnie

Preventing an individual from experiencing homelessness for just one year is estimated to result in saving over £9,000 in public expenditure. The cost-effectiveness of early intervention is clear, and by prioritising the right support and assistance, we have the opportunity to reduce homelessness and generate benefits for society as a whole. Changing the perception of pet companionship is therefore imperative, and holds the potential to uplift and empower those navigating the challenges of homelessness. 

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