How to improve the health of homeless pet owners and their companions

Science and Health

One out of 10 homeless people in the US have a dog who accompanies them everywhere. Although the animals lack a warm bed, a steady food supply, regular health care, and familiar and stable surroundings, they have a warm bond with their owners and endless places to smell. 

Little information exists on specific intervention strategies for improving the health of homeless people and their pets, who are often the only source of unconditional love or companionship in their life. But now, researchers in Texas have conducted a study that reveals five common ways in which the health of homeless pet owners and their dogs can be improved. 

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated that 582,500 Americans are homeless with no warm and safe place to sleep each night. The causes of homelessness are complex and often include trauma, financial difficulties, physical or mental illness, family violence, or substance abuse.

The study, just published in the Human-Animal Interactions journal under the title “‘Exploring Strategies for Pet Owners Experiencing Homelessness: A Rapid Scoping Review” found that the most common ways in which homeless people are their pets are supported to live healthier lives include free veterinary clinics, join human/animal clinics, stigma reduction, interdisciplinary relationships, and pet-friendly lodging.

Lead authors Dr. Michelle Kurkowski at the University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHSC) at Houston School of Public Health who is now a Veterinary Medical Officer for the US Department of Agriculture and UTHSC’s Prof. Andrew Springer said research on homeless people and their pets showed significant heterogeneity, but they stress that intervention is needed to recommend intervention best practices.

They suggest that joint human/animal clinics and interdisciplinary partnerships would be useful for evaluating interventions and improving health outcomes.

A 2022 study that investigated 44 homeless pet owners in Seattle, for example, found that 61% of respondents were interested in healthcare for their pets, compared to 43% for themselves. Furthermore, 86% said they would attend a joint veterinary/human health clinic.

“Research has shown that companion animals are a source of friendship and physical safety, and homeless persons with pets report significantly lower rates of depression and loneliness compared to non-pet owners,” said Kurkowski.

“Studies show that pet owners experiencing homelessness are also subjected to unique challenges in caring for both themselves and their companion animals. Individuals, for instance, are often forced to choose between finding a place to say and keeping their pets with them.

The researchers conclude that a more comprehensive and effective care package for homeless people and their pets will require the combined efforts of healthcare providers, social workers, animal-welfare workers, and governmental and nonprofit organizations to develop innovative solutions for the challenges currently facing this population.