Can the Veterinary Community Help Homeless People Take Care of Their Pets?
According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, 3.5 million Americans are homeless. Five to 10 percent of homeless people have dogs and/or cats. In some areas of the country, the rate is as high as 24 percent. Pets of the Homeless have helped 17,641 animals that included dogs, cats, a pig, ferrets and reptiles.
It’s a common sight in many cities, including NAVC’s home city, Orlando: homeless men and women with a dog on a leash or a cat curled up on the blanket beside them. Often, these pets are the only source of comfort and companionship for those who find themselves homeless.
In many cases, the presence of a pet in the life of someone in crisis is a positive thing — a source of comfort and stability and a reason to find a better life. But it can also be a barrier that makes moving forward difficult. It’s important to note that not all homeless people are homeless “by choice.” According to Families By Choice, only about 15 percent of the 578,424 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in the United States — 84,291 — are considered “chronically homeless” individuals. Some homeless individuals have lost their jobs and are unable to find another one or have found one that doesn’t pay enough to cover housing costs. Among the homeless are families, disabled individuals, elderly people, abused spouses, teens and veterans. Many are drawing Social Security or disability but can’t afford housing.
Many homeless individuals and families find themselves homeless due to very difficult, often unimaginable, circumstances. In fact, some individuals are forced to remain in a terrible situation because they lack an option that includes their pets.
For example, 12 independent surveys have reported that between 18 percent and 48 percent of battered women have delayed their decision to leave their batterer, or have returned to their batterer, out of fear for the welfare of their pets or livestock, according to the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection and Sheltering Animals & Families Together (SAF-T) program.
How can the veterinary community address this issue, which has so many complicating factors?
• Ask your veterinary practice to offer to board pets for people who are in crisis.
• Encourage your veterinary practice to provide updated vaccinations, de-worming, and flea and tick preventative care for the pets of the homeless, so that the animal will be welcome at existing pet-friendly facilities. Currently, there are about 40 pet-friendly shelters in the U.S.
• When you see a homeless person, show empathy. Ask questions. Offer pet food and water. If you know of a resource in the area, provide that information. The Humane Society of the United States provides a list of national organizations that offer financial assistance to pet owners in need.
• Make a donation to organizations such as Pets of the Homeless, which allows them to cover the cost of medical treatment for pets. Talk to your veterinary practice management and ask them to consider starting a company matching program.
• Become a volunteer and help an organization recruit services for the homeless — for example, Pets of the Homeless needs volunteers to help in recruiting pet food donation sites. Or ask your local homeless shelter to distribute pet food to the homeless who have pets. Or volunteer at a wellness clinic that provides immunizations, de-worming, flea and tick preventative care, spaying or neutering and other care.
• Organize a pet food drive program.
Visit the Animal Welfare/Ethics section of our website.