Pets may bring many health benefits to homeless children, but they can also make it tougher to find shelter or to use other social services, new Canadian research suggests.
A team of researchers, led by scientists at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, found homeless young people who have pets are less likely to abuse drugs or engage in risky behavior.
Pets may also help ease depression among those living on the streets, according to the study published recently in the journal Anthrozoos.
“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,” study author Michelle Lem, a graduate of the veterinary college, explained in a University of Guelph news release.
Jason Coe, a professor of population medicine at Guelph, added that, “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.”
Homeless young people with pets may also confide in veterinarians about the personal difficulties they are facing, the researchers found.
“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 health care,” said Lem. She is also the founder and director of the Community Veterinary Outreach, which offers mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Canada.
Despite these health benefits, there is a downside to pet ownership for homeless youth, the study showed. Pets can become a barrier to social services for these young people.
“Many shelters do not allow pets, so these youth may be limited in where they can sleep,” Coe explained.
The researchers argued that pet-friendly shelters are needed to accommodate homeless people who have dogs and other animals.
“There is an opportunity here to use this information when we’re developing services and plans for young people,” said Bill O’Grady, a sociology and anthropology professor at Guelph.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on the health benefits of pets.