November 15, 2018Blog

Pets of the Homeless: Attachment Figures and Social Support

What pets can mean to those without homes.
By Zazie Todd Ph.D.

Waiting at traffic lights, I watch a man with a shopping cart and a dog. He has few possessions; just a couple of bags in the cart. He sets a bowl on the sidewalk and pours water in from a bottle. The dog is waiting expectantly.

On the way home, I pass them again. This time, the dog is riding in the cart – there’s no space for many possessions when you have a Golden Retriever to fit in. The dog looks happy, watching the world go by, while the man pushes hard to move the trolley.

The bond between man and dog is obvious. But should homeless people have pets? Why do they have them?

Research shows that pets mean a lot to homeless people, and can even be the impetus to get clean, get off the streets, and/or get a job. According to Irvine (2013), pets feature in what she calls the “redemption narratives” of people who are or previously were homeless: ways in which the animals are described as “either motivating them to change their lives or preventing them from taking their lives.”

One example reported by Irvine is Donna, who lives in her car in San Francisco with her cat. She says of her cat, “She is the only source of daily, steady affection and companionship that I have. The only one. I can’t imagine being without her, wanting to go on at all, without her.”

According to Irvine, homeless people’s narratives of their pets show a sense of responsibility for taking care of the animal, receiving unconditional love from the pet, and not being judged by the pet for the mistakes they have made in their lives.

In fact, a survey of homeless youth in Los Angeles (Rhoades, Winetrobe, and Rice, 2014) found that although pets make some things harder for them (such as access to shelters, where pets are often not allowed), they also bring psychological benefits.

Specifically, homeless youth with pets are less likely to report being lonely and depressed than those who do not have pets. And although many reported it sometimes being hard to provide support for their pet (such as veterinary care), the majority said they made sure their pet always ate first.

This finding of advantages and disadvantages is also echoed by Lem (2016), who says that dogs provide security and emotional support to homeless youth. When someone’s history involves trauma and insecure attachments, as is often the case for homeless youth, attachment to a pet may even be the first secure attachment in their life.

It may surprise people to learn that dogs belonging to homeless people are often in good health and well cared-for. Williams and Hogg (2016) compared 50 dogs belonging to homeless people to 50 dogs belonging to people with homes. After the owners completed a questionnaire, the dogs were given a brief vet exam. Dogs of the homeless were less likely to be obese, and less likely to have behavior problems. It makes sense that, being on the streets a lot, the dogs were more likely to be well-socialized to other people. And they often spent many hours a day walking, compared to dogs-whose-owners-have-homes, who do not necessarily get a daily walk.

The downside is some dogs had calluses as a result of time spent on city streets. And only 39 percent of dogs of the homeless were up to date on vaccinations, only 30 percent were regularly de-wormed, and many of their owners said it was hard to get veterinary care if needed. This shows the value of clinics that provide free or low-cost veterinary care to people on low incomes or without homes.

Rhoades, Winetrobe, and Rice conclude their study by saying, “As pets have a positive impact on homeless youths’ mental wellbeing, we recommend that service providers do all they can to support pet-owning relationships in this extremely vulnerable population.”

About a quarter of the homeless youth in their study had pets. It seems that, for the homeless with pets, helping them to support their pet may also be helping to support the person, given the potential beneficial role of pets. But we still need a better understanding of the psychological mechanisms by which pets may improve mental health in this group. Further research can also continue to explore the role of attachment in pet-owner relationships for those with a history of attachment issues.

Irvine, L. (2013) Animals as lifechangers and lifesavers: Pets in the redemption narratives of homeless people. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 42(1), 3-30.

Lem, M. (2016) Street-involved youth and their animal companions: Stigma and survival. Chapter 4 in Blazina, C. and Kogan, L.R. (Eds) Men and their dogs: A new understanding of man’s best friend. Springer.

Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H. and Rice. E. (2014) Pet ownership among homeless youth: Associations with mental health, service utilization, and housing status. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 46(2), 237-244.