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Animal Behavior

Homeless People Have Happy Pets

Rescue is not Indicated.

Key points

  • Approximately 6-24% of homeless individuals have a companion animal.
  • Homeless individuals will regularly feed their animals before they feed themselves.
  • Companion animals to the homeless provide love, warmth, and security.
  • The relationship between a homeless person and their companion animal exemplifies the human-animal bond.
a katz/Shutterstock
Source: a katz/Shutterstock

The presence of homeless encampments under freeways, in vacant lots, or behind shopping centers is an unsettling sight. Seeing people living in such conditions of poverty can trigger feelings that range from pity to anger. Add the recognition that anywhere from 6-24% of the homeless population own a pet, and whatever feelings were present before likely become more pointed. Whether you feel a sense of protectiveness toward the animal, or frustration toward the human, the end result is often a feeling of righteous indignation because the animals have no choice in the living conditions. Public perception of homeless individuals as pet owners is often interpreted to be so deleterious for a pet that the animals may be viewed as “in need of rescue” and well-meaning people offer cash to homeless individuals in exchange for their dog or cat. While the perception of the “need to save” a homeless individual’s pet from their situation is common, it is thoroughly inaccurate.

The pets that live with homeless individuals are some of the happiest pets I have seen. They have a unique relationship with their human because they are so utterly devoted to each other. When homeless individuals have brought their pets to our hospital, a very real separation anxiety is displayed by the pet, and the human, until they are reunited.

The reasons for this are multiple. Humans who are homeless are typically with their pets continuously: 24 hours a day, every day. They also make certain their pet eats at least half, or all, of the food they have. This is such a basic tenet of their relationship, there is a book called My Dog Always Eats First: Homeless People and their Animals by Leslie Irving. From a pet’s standpoint, continuous attention, the first choice of food, and utter devotion is a very good life.

The relationship from the human standpoint is equally beneficial. A normal body temperature for a dog or cat is 100-102.5 degrees F. Human body temperature is 98.6 degrees, so having a soft, warm companion to cuddle with at night makes a big difference in one's level of warmth and comfort. Additionally, dogs are protective of those they love. They are a reliable security system that warns when someone is getting too close, or may have ill intent. Most importantly, pets are a good source of company. If someone is living on the street, they may no longer have any humans who consistently communicate love and/or caring to them. Sharing their life with an animal gives many homeless individuals a sense of normalcy and someone to live for; if you know your pet depends upon you every day for survival, it influences the choices you make.

What about the legal standards for pet ownership? Are homeless people able to meet them? In fact, most consistently are. The minimum standard of animal care to prevent animal control from charging someone with neglect is that the pet must not be abandoned without food, water, or shelter. A lack of abandonment, and adequate food and water, are pretty straightforward; but the term shelter is relative. A house or apartment is not necessary. An adequate shelter must allow for the animal to get out of the elements, have a roof, a floor, and at least 3 sides, where the pet can adjust their own body into a natural position. That means a pop-up tent, or even a sleeping bag, especially when shared with a human, is considered adequate shelter for a companion animal.

When I have spoken about the homeless population and their pets at seminars, there is typically one individual who states confidently the pet is nothing more than a prop to get more money from the soft-hearted individuals they panhandle. Obviously, I cannot affirm that every single individual with a companion animal keeps them for the love they provide, and not the extra bit of money they might earn. What I can attest with absolute sincerity is that every homeless individual with a pet I have met meets the very definition of the human-animal bond: "a mutually beneficial and dynamic relationship between people and animals that is influenced by behaviors essential to the health and wellbeing of both. This includes, among other things, emotional, psychological, and physical interactions of people, animals, and the environment.”

You may have your own opinions about individuals who survive without a home, living on the streets of our cities and towns. Whatever you may think of them, recognize that the animal in their care is treasured. It isn’t their most valuable possession; it is their best friend, their family, and the companion that tells them every day, “You matter, and you are perfect in my eyes."


Rhoades PhD., Harmony, et al "Pet Ownership among Homeless Youth: Associations with Mental Health, Service Utilization and Housing Status" Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 2015 Apr; 46(2): 237–244.

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