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Three Lessons I Learned from Homeless Pet Owners

March 8, 2022, Leslie Irvine, PhD

Leslie Irvine, PhD, shares insights from her research on people experiencing homelessness and their animals. “Relationships with animals provide comfort for those on the street,” writes Dr. Irvine. “They also pose unique challenges.” Read on to learn more.

People who work in animal welfare organizations confront not one, but two housing crises. They not only shelter and rehome lost and unwanted pets, they also address the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Shelter workers might encounter homeless pet owners who need food for their pets or are seeking to reclaim pets who were impounded. Although no official data exists, estimates indicate that between 10 and 25 percent of those experiencing homelessness do so with companion, service, or support animals. As housing costs soar and wages stagnate, the number of people who lack a permanent home has increased across the United States and shows no signs of slowing. 

For those of us who have always had a roof over our heads—people I refer to as “the domiciled”—it can be hard to understand why people would have pets while they themselves have no homes. I spent over a year doing research for a book entitled My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and their Animals. I interviewed people on the streets, in junkyards, under highway overpasses, and at pop-up veterinary clinics. I was not surprised to find that homeless people love their animals. What surprised me were the aspects of their relationships that I have never had to consider. Three lessons, in particular, taught me about the depth of their commitment. 

First, I have never had to defend my right to have a pet, and no one has ever called me unworthy of an animal’s companionship. Many of the domiciled consider it wrong to have a pet if you do not have a home. Most homeless people I talked to heard this criticism regularly. Some heard it daily. Those with dogs heard it most frequently because of their public presence. When I asked homeless people how they responded, most pointed out that having a roof over one’s head does not necessarily mean that a person will give a pet a good life. Instead, they defined “a good life” differently. As one young man said when I asked how he responded to those who criticize him, “I tell them, ‘My dog is with me 24/7. He gets to be out in the sunshine and fresh air. He gets plenty of exercise. Where’s your dog? Home by himself in a crate?’” 

Second, those of us who are domiciled don’t have to plan our every move around our animals. Of course, we must arrange care for them when we work or travel, but we can usually go about our day without worrying about them. Homeless pet owners cannot even use public transportation or a restroom, or visit a soup kitchen, without considering their animals. Because friendships on the streets can be unreliable, they cannot always depend on others to mind their dogs. One woman described how a “friend” who agreed to keep her dog for a few hours had gotten tired of doing so and turned him loose. 

Third, the domiciled never have to worry that their animals will be confiscated or killed. Homeless people face this fear. People told me about how police officers pulled guns on the dogs who guarded their gear and campsites. In two incidents, police officers had shot homeless people’s dogs, assuming they were vicious. People who went to jail for minor offenses learned on release that their dogs had been impounded and euthanized. A woman who lived in her car with her cat struggled to keep the cat concealed. She feared losing her sole family member if a well-meaning stranger saw the cat and called animal control. Many people vigilantly kept their animals vaccinated, licensed, and microchipped so that, as one man said of his dog, “If anything happens, they can’t take him away from me.”

Relationships with animals provide comfort for those on the street. They also pose unique challenges. Understanding what it takes to meet these challenges can remind those of us with roofs over our heads to respond to homeless pet owners with compassion rather than criticism. 

Dr. Irvine teaches a three-course Animals and Society specialization online through the Coursera platform. Learners can audit the courses for free or enroll and complete the courses to earn a shareable certificate. 

P.S. Dr. Irvine will be a keynote speaker at The Spring Conference for Animal Welfare Advancement, coming this June in Chicago. Registration will open later in March.

Learn More

Book: My Dogs Always Eats First: Homeless People and Their Animals
Eviction Response Toolkit: Keeping Families Together
Recorded Webinar: Street Medicine: Caring for the Pets of the Indigent
Needed Now: Street Medicine Teams to Help Pets of the Indigent

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

About Leslie Irvine, PhD
Leslie Irvine, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research focuses on the roles of animals in society. In addition to studying homeless people’s relationships with their companion animals, Leslie has studied animal welfare in disasters, animal sheltering, animal abuse, animals in popular culture, and the feminization of veterinary medicine. She also teaches a three-course Animals and Society specialization online through the Coursera platform. Learners can audit the courses for free or enroll and complete the courses to earn a shareable certificate.
  1. Dr. Irvine,

    Thank you for your post offering these insights into the levels of commitment and love people without domiciles have for their pets! Your book is a touchstone for me as an animal welfare professional whose dissertation will focus on how having companion animals impacts the psychological well-being of Bay Area pet owners living in non-traditional housing. Delighted to see you on the AAWA blog!

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