Homeless youth can benefit from owning pets but not without a few challenges, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.
Led by researchers from the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), the team found that homeless youth with pets are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behaviour, more likely to open up to veterinarians about their personal challenges and generally less depressed.
However, the team found that pets can make it difficult for their owners to obtain social services.
Its findings mirror what researchers had been hearing anecdotally, said Prof. Jason Coe, Population Medicine.
“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,” said Coe. He studies the human-animal bond and communication in veterinary care.
“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.”
Among major challenges, he said, “Many shelters do not allow pets, so these youth may be limited in where they 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.”
Prof. Bill O’Grady, Sociology and Anthropology, studies youth homelessness and helped design the study.
Calling for pet-friendly shelters, he said “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.”