It is a very common picture to see someone who is living on streets to accompanied by a four legged friend or sometimes even several animals. For some people when they see a person sleeping rough with a pet they can’t help but think “why do they have a pet when they are struggling to look after themselves”. Others worry about if the animal is being well treated and cared for appropriately. Owning a pet while sleeping rough can be filled with challenges but there are also many benefits.
Founder of American based non-profit My Dog Eats First, Bethany Green states the benefits of pet ownership for homeless people as:
A pet does not judge. They see you as their friend, care taker and provider. They’re always happy to be with you. Hanging out, sleeping, as long as they are by your side they are happy. You don’t need to be rich, beautiful or a rocket scientist. Just being you is good enough.
A pet, especially a dog provide some sort of protection. They can sleep soundly knowing their beloved dog will alert them should a stranger approach. And in many cases their dog will protect them from harm.
A pet provides companionship. Having something living and breathing with you can be quite comforting. Having a pet when you are homeless means always having someone to hug, love and talk to. You are not alone.
Having a pet can provide a sense of purpose. When a homeless person has a pet to take care of, it provides them with a sense of purpose. It can lift their spirits. Bring them some light to help get them through the day. You need to walk your dog, play with your dog and ensure they sleep and eat. Having that routine, that “someone” to care for and who cares for them can make you feel “normal”.
In My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals by Leslie Irvine, associate professor of sociology interviewed 75 homeless pet guardians on the street and at vet clinics for the homeless in five cities across America. Irvine discovered through her research that animals play powerful roles beyond companionship. They give homeless people a sense of meaning in a world where they have lost almost everything — jobs, homes, families, security.
“Caring for a companion animal gives many people a sense of doing something positive, even as they often endure cries of “Scum!” and “Get a job!” It also “works to build a moral identity among people who have few other resources with which to do so,” Irvine says.
“The activities of providing food, sharing half a sandwich, going out of the way to make sure there is a dry place for the two of you to sleep…casts the person as essentially good,” she says.
However, even with all these benefits owning a pet while sleeping rough presents a raft of challenges. Some hostels, shelters and longer term accommodation have strict rules about pets meaning people have to chose between their friend and a roof over their head. Many will chose their friend and continue to sleep rough.
Another common occurrence is that due to the incredibly bond that results from spending so much time together, some people will experience such intense separation anxiety that they will not go to a hospital when they are in need of medical treatment. They worry that they have no one to care for their pet or fear the authorities will take their pet away from them.
The other main issue is access to pet food and veterinary services can be a huge struggle. Owners will often go without food or provide food to their pet before themselves. There are many reports from vets and welfare workers who have found that the animals living on the street may have some nutritional needs but on the whole are very well cared for and extremely loved.
Thankfully organisations such as the RSPCA strongly believe in the mental, emotional and physical benefits of the relationships between people and pets. They offer a range of community outreach services for homeless pets and their people to help them remain together while they get back on their feet, and to be as healthy and happy as they can be. These include distributing food for pets through our charity partners, providing emergency boarding for pets, and access to veterinary services.
The RSPCA also provide advice on animal health and welfare, distribute flea and worm treatments, and raise awareness of the services that are available. In addition, they lobby for increased availability of crisis accommodation that includes pets.
- RSPCA NSW – http://www.rspcansw.org.au/our-work/programs-community-services/living-ruff
- My Dog Always Eats First – http://www.coloradanmagazine.org/2012/12/01/my-dog-always-eats-first/ by Clay Evans
- My Dog Eats First, Bethany Green – http://mydogeatsfirst.com/