'Can you believe that homeless guy owns a pet?!'
It's easy to get judgy about a pet living in poverty. Before you do, take a moment to imagine where its owner came from.
Being homeless is an isolating experience, and in some cases, a pet is the only source of nonjudgmental love for someone who's sleeping on the street. (Adobe Stock)As you may know, my wife and I travel outside the U.S. a great deal. We've visited a number of developing countries where poverty is a way of life. Yet many people who can hardly feed themselves have pets. When basic needs are barely met, what makes pet ownership appear so natural? Recently, in Indonesia, we saw people caring for dogs and cats when they were struggling to provide for themselves. Why? What needs are these pets filling?
I recently read an online story on Medium.com about why homeless people own pets. I'm not talking about strays or feral animals but real pets that, like their owners, have found themselves without a fixed home. It's been estimated that as many as 10 percent of homeless people have pets.
Why it happens
Turns out there are a number of reasons why people who are struggling to survive take on the responsibility for another life.
Companionship. Being homeless is an isolating experience, and in some cases, a pet is the only source of nonjudgmental love for someone who's sleeping on the street.
Comfort for the mentally ill. Experts say about a third of homeless Americans are affected by some form of mental illness. We know that pets have well-documented therapeutic benefits. A pet is sometimes the only mental health-related assistance available to a homeless person.
Personal safety. People living on the streets, particularly women, are vulnerable. Pets can help homeless people protect themselves and their possessions. They can also be a stabilizing influence for a person with no family or social support.
Why it can be a good thing
There are some other less obvious considerations to keep in mind the next time you see a pooch or feline with a homeless person.
Not a forever situation. Not all homeless situations are permanent or even long-term. Less than 20 percent of homeless people are long-term or chronically homeless. More than 80 percent are "between homes." Pet owners may have had the pet while living in a previous home, and they continue to take care of it while on the street.
Purpose and accountability. This is one of the great lessons children learn from pet ownership, and adults grow up and can benefit from the same purpose. Pets impart responsibility, and this is no different for homeless people. In fact, the emotional impact of a pet can be even more powerful for owners without a home. The Homeless Hub reviewed a study that shows just how transformative pet ownership can be for homeless individuals.
It's easy to look at a homeless person with a pet and wonder whether the pet is a tool of manipulation, a prop to gain sympathy. But the next time you encounter this scenario, consider that there's likely more to the story than you know. A lot of animal care shelters and individual veterinary professionals lend a hand by providing medical care to these pets. A little compassion can go a long way, so don't judge those less fortunate. The next time you see a sign that asks for help, say “hi,” smile and lend a hand when you can to pet owners without a home.
Dr. Mike Paul is the former executive director of the Companion Animal Parasite Council and a former president of the American Animal Hospital Association. He is currently the principal of MAGPIE Veterinary Consulting. He is retired from practice and lives in Anguilla, British West Indies.