School of Public Health & Texas Center for Health Disparities
Katherine Fogelberg, DVM, PhD
In celebration of “Love Your Pet Day” this February 20th, I’d like to talk about the pets of homeless people. This population likely doesn’t cross your mind unless you happen to see them and even then, your thoughts are probably fleeting.
There are approximately 580,000 homeless people in the U.S., 5.5% of whom own pets, which translates to about 32,000 dogs and cats living on the streets – homeless but not owner-less. This is a very small percentage of the almost 150 million dogs and cats in U.S. households, but they have a huge impact nonetheless.
Part of responsible pet ownership is a yearly visit to the veterinarian to ensure their overall health. This includes freedom from disease-causing pests such as round and hook worms, intestinal bugs that can cause stomach problems, and a variety of other pests that can cause skin problems for our furry companions. Sadly, “routine care” is completely lacking for pets of homeless people, who don’t have good access to preventive care for themselves, much less their pets.
But let’s also consider the incredible benefits that owning a pet bestows. Think of your own animal companions and the many joys and comforts they provide. My husband and I have two cats and a dog who cuddle us when it’s cold, play with us, entertain us, and don’t judge us when we’ve had a rough day.
It’s not any different for those living on the streets with pets; if anything, their bond is stronger and more impactful in their lives. It is a bond that Leslie Irvine, award-winning and nationally recognized expert on homelessness and the pet population, demonstrates through her research. She has discovered that homeless people with pets often place the needs of their pets before their own, even when it comes to food and housing.
Healthcare systems are making good progress figuring out ways to provide basic care to many of our neglected human populations, including those who are homeless, but our furry counterparts continue to go without much needed care. Health doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we must expand our ideas of neglected populations to include animals who play a pivotal role in human health. Despite the contribution of pets to the overall health of their human companions, most shelters do not allow pets.
Let’s figure out ways to ensure people don’t have to choose between having shelter and having their beloved companion. Let’s support the social, emotional, and physical health of homeless people with pets by coming up with ways to provide basic preventive care to their beloved friends, which will also ensure the pets themselves are comfortable and healthy. Let’s start viewing pets as a necessity, not a luxury, for those who – for whatever reason – have fallen on hard times and have found a reason to care. Let’s all hug our own pets every day and be thankful that they brighten our doorstep, and maybe even a little more on Love Your Pet Day!