Primary Sources: Owning Pets Has Pros and Cons for Homeless Youth

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Two young people cuddle a dog.

Pet Ownership Among Homeless Youth: Associations with Mental Health, Service Utilization and Housing Status” (abstract). Harmony Rhoades, Hailey Winetrobe, Eric Rice. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, April 2014.

What it’s about: Researchers Harmony Rhoades, Hailey Winetrobe and Eric Rice wanted to know whether owning a pet significantly affected homeless young people’s mental health symptoms, their use of services, and their ability to find and keep housing. To find out, in 2012 they asked 398 youth using Los Angeles drop-in centers a series of questions about their experiences of homelessness and their pets, if they had them.

Why read it: Prior studies of homeless people show that owning pets can have a positive influence on mental health. At the same time, having a pet can keep people from getting housing, healthcare and other services. While studies have estimated that as many as 25 percent of homeless people have pets, researchers hadn't studied pet ownership quantitatively with homeless youth. To the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to fill that gap.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: The authors report that of the young people interviewed, 23 percent currently had a pet. Popular pets were dogs (53 percent) and cats (22 percent). Other pets included hamsters, rats, chinchillas, fish and iguanas. 

The researchers found that being a homeless youth who owns a pet comes with a mix of benefits and challenges. Benefits included the following:

  • Pets kept youth company, made them feel loved, helped them feel safe and protected them. The animals provided important caring relationships in the youth's lives.
  • Young homeless pet owners had fewer symptoms of loneliness and depression than non-pet owners in the study. 

On the other hand, challenges associated with homeless youth pet ownership included the following:

  • Only 36.5 percent of young homeless pet owners had used housing services in the past month compared to 52.4 percent of non-pet owners. Only 4 percent of pet-owning youth were staying in a shelter or housing program, compared to 16.8 percent of non-pet owners. 
  • 37.3 percent of pet owners had used job-finding services while 56.3 percent of non-pet owners had done so. 
  • While young homeless pet owners did not report that it was difficult to get pet food, they found it hard to get veterinary care.

Based on the results of their study, the authors feel that youth and family service providers should acknowledge the importance of pets for the safety and emotional well-being of homeless youth. Making pets welcome at drop-in centers would make it more likely that pet-owning homeless youth would use their services, they note, as would helping youth access and afford pet food and veterinary care. They also suggest that housing services be expanded to provide pet-friendly options. Finally, because of the relatively small sample group in their survey, they recommend that further, broader study is needed to determine the risks, protective factors, and needs of homeless youth who own pets.

Additional references: Find abstracts of other literature on safety, healthcare and mental health for runaway and homeless youth in our digital library.

For examples of agencies accommodating clients with pets, read our Bright Idea articles, “A Pet-Friendly Domestic Violence Shelter Lets Survivors Keep Their Four-Legged Friends,” and “Bring Animals and At-risk Youth Together, and Everyone Wins

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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