Homeless youth can benefit from owning pets, but that comes with a few challenges. That’s according to a new study from the University of Guelph in Canada, published in March in the journal Anthrozoӧs.
Led by researchers from the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), the study found that homeless youth with pets are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behavior, more likely to open up to veterinarians about their personal challenges and generally less depressed.
On the flip side, because of their pets, homeless people might find it difficult to obtain social services.
Its findings mirror what researchers had been hearing anecdotally, said Jason Coe, DVM, an associate professor at the college.
“Those homeless youth with pets don’t want to risk incarceration or anything that would prevent them from being with their pets, so they are less likely to abuse alcohol or use hard drugs,” Coe said in a press release. “We also found those without pets are three times more likely to be depressed, though we have not yet determined if this is directly relatable to having a pet.”
One of the major problems is that many shelters do not allow pets. That limits the places where homeless youth can sleep.
Many youth are very open to discussing their struggles and issues with veterinarians, said lead author Michelle Lem, an OVC graduate.
She is the founder and director of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), a volunteer group providing mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph and Ottawa.
“We’re able to collaborate with public health and social workers as they attempt to reach these marginalized people, essentially using the human-animal bond and veterinary care as a gateway to provide accessible social support and healthcare,” Lem said.
“So many of these youth have lost trust in people, and the animal gives them unconditional love. They will do anything for their pets, which means they are less likely to commit potentially harmful acts, but also face more challenges with accessing housing, healthcare or addiction treatment services.”
Bill O’Grady, professor of sociology and anthropology at OVC, studies youth homelessness and helped design the study. He’s calling for more pet-friendly shelters saying, “Many homeless youth are prohibited from using services offered by the shelter system because they have pets, particularly dogs. There is an opportunity here to use this information when we’re developing services and plans for young people.”