Regulars and Shorts

Animals Animals: Homeless People with Pets

By Sunny Branson

Dogs belonging to homeless people are some of the most well adjusted in America.
by Sunny Branson
animalsAn estimated 5-10% of homeless people have pets. I always thought that having animal companions must be very beneficial for homeless people, because pets provide companionship, security, and a sense of purpose. Studies have shown that pets also provide homeless people with mental and physical well-being and that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression and drug use. But whenever I see a homeless person with a pet, I worry about the animals – I mean, it couldn't be much of a life, could it?

It turns out it may not be as bad as I thought. An animal living with a homeless person often gets more camaraderie, exercise and mental stimulation than a dog left in a yard or a cat confined to a house all day.

In fact, Cesar Millan, the famous Dog Whisperer from the National Geographic Channel, says that dogs belonging to homeless people are some of the most well-adjusted. For some reason, dogs with homeless owners understand their place in the "pack." If you watch a homeless person walking his or her dog, the animal is usually well behaved, staying just behind the person, accepting them as the "pack leader," even without being leashed.

Millan explains this phenomenon with his theory that dogs need exercise, discipline and affection-in that order. Some dogs belonging to homeless people walk miles every day, have consistent treatment, scavenge for food giving them purpose, and at the end of it all, have their human companions for affection and warmth at night.

The bonds formed between homeless people and their pets are often very strong. Many homeless people take better care of the animal than they do themselves. Some will skip a meal in order to feed the animal. Some turn down shelter if the animal is refused.

However, don't drop your underattended Fido under the viaduct just yet! Major problems with homeless people owning dogs include some of the same problems their owners face: malnutrition, disease and improper medical treatment to name a few. Some homeless pet owners will attempt to treat a wound or illness themselves, because they can't afford vet care, and this can make the condition worse.

Also, in a homeless community often people struggle with drug and alcohol abuse or mental illness. This is a distressing environment for anyone, animal or human.

We can learn from the homeless way. Have clear, defined roles for our dogs, making them a useful part of the "pack." Spend more quality time with our feline and canine friends, giving them long walks and undivided attention during play time. Seek out activities to do with our pets – taking them to the park, the groomer, or the pet food store. Socialize our dogs by bringing them on car rides and creating situations for them to be around new people and other dogs.

Scheduling regular time with our pets, whether for play, exercise or training, gives them structure and stability. When we aren't with our pets, we should make sure their day-to-day environment has plenty of enrichment and stimulation. Make sure a cat or dog has lots of toys and things to do while you're away. If you are away for long periods of the day, you might want to consider getting your pet an animal friend.

Like any relationship, a relationship with a pet requires daily care and nurturing in order to flourish – whether in a home or on the street.

Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media,

volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2007.