The life of a homeless youth is not easy, but there is one thing that can provide a real benefit: owning a pet.
In a recent study by the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, researchers looked into the lives of homeless youth and whether or not owning a pet, such as a dog, provided any benefits. The idea that pet ownership has a positive impact on street youth is an idea that has been heard anecdotally, but this study is the first time the topic has been formally researched.
To validate these presumptions, researchers looked at 198 street youth in four cities across Ontario: Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston, and Hamilton. They met with youth in shelters and drop-in centers in each city, interviewing 100 individuals without pets and 98 with pets.
Through these interviews, a few interesting trends emerged. Street youth who own pets are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behavior, more likely to open up to veterinarians about their personal challenges, and are generally less depressed.
The youth expressed a goal to avoid behavior that would risk incarceration or anything else that would separate them from their animal companions. Therefore, these pet owners were less likely to abuse alcohol or use hard drugs.
Another interesting discovery is that homeless youth interviewed without a furry friend were three times more likely to be depressed, although the researchers were not able to directly relate this to pet ownership.
However, this doesn’t mean that pet ownership for street youths is without challenge. The main issue identified was that owning pets makes it difficult for these youth to obtain social services, such as access to shelters. Unfortunately, most shelters are not pet-friendly, which prohibits youth with pets from using them. Limited access to a safe sleeping place creates further difficulty for youths on the street.
As any pet owner can attest, our four-legged friends are one of the best support systems; they provide companionship without judgment and love us unconditionally. Some would go as far as saying their pet brings out the best in them. This same pattern is seen between street youth and their pets.
When a youth ends up on the street, it’s often a last resort to escape situations such as toxic environments at home, trauma or abuse, or harsh judgments from their family for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Owning a pet gives the youth a best friend that will love them unconditionally and without judgment, something that may be brand new for these young people.
During their interviews, researchers heard countless stories from youth who said that their pet has saved their lives in one way or another, whether it was keeping them out of jail or helping others see their better side. When shelters and other social services are not pet-friendly, it pushes these youth away from those who are able to offer help. This situation creates yet another barrier to youths on the street as it is through shelters that most services such as addiction and job counseling are provided.
The results of this study should be a wakeup call to the social services community. For them to make the biggest impact and reach the largest group of people, they need to take steps to become pet-friendly. When a person must choose between a bed and their pet, it’s no surprise that their pet wins every time. Pet ownership as a homeless youth may create additional barriers, but for many the benefits far outweigh the added struggle.