Man’s best friend is nothing short of a pillar in many of our lives, and this is even truer for people experiencing homelessness. The 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report estimates that there were more than 326,000 people experiencing homelessness on any given night in 2021.
Among these individuals, it’s estimated that 1 in 10 people who are unhoused have pets with them. Unfortunately, these pets are often overlooked despite their significant impact on the health, safety, and lives of their pet parents.
Why are pets so important to people living in vulnerable situations?
Pets can put a smile on almost anyone’s face. However, they serve a larger-than-life role in the lives of individuals who often have no one else to turn to for comfort. As Amanda Howland, co-founder of The ElleVet Project, a national mobile relief effort providing free veterinary care to pets in vulnerable communities, explains, “Having a pet is an anchor for them.”
Many individuals experiencing homelessness are alone, separated, or turned out from their families, so the impact of having a warm, loving pet with them cannot be understated. Pets provide individuals with a greater sense of purpose and motivation to keep going, even when they are going through one of the most difficult challenges imaginable.
When asked about the impact of pets in regard to emotional support, Howland shares a story about a young woman whose dog was receiving care from The ElleVet Project. At the age of 16, this young woman had been shot in a drive-by shooting while at a friend’s house. She began suffering from crippling levels of anxiety in the aftermath. Later, she was able to start her recovery with the help of her emotional support dog, and her dog continued to support her while she was experiencing homelessness.
In addition, it’s well documented that pets can significantly impact an individual’s mental health. Humans have a need to be touched and playing with a pet has been shown to increase dopamine and serotonin levels.
Pets are an essential part of a person’s safety, especially when they are experiencing homelessness. Howland recounted countless stories of individuals, especially women who represent about3 in 10 peopleexperiencing homelessness, who were protected by their dogs. Many recount stories of their dog protecting them when someone tried to enter their tent uninvited at night.
It’s not uncommon for women who are unhoused to stay up all night out of fear for their safety. Having a dog there to protect them makes a massive difference in their physical security and gives them a chance to sleep, knowing their dog is ever alert.
Pets can also support human health and encourage their pet parents to care for themselves as much as possible.
For example, one study found that caring for a pet helped teens better manage their diabetes. During the study, teens cared for a pet fish by feeding the fish twice a day and checking the fish tank’s water levels. The group caring for a pet fish checked their blood glucose levels more than the teens without a fish, showing how the responsibility of caring for a pet can inspire greater dedication to one’s own health.
In the case of people experiencing homelessness, a pet may be their biggest reason to keep going and take care of themselves as much as possible so that they can continue to be there for their pet. It’s even been shown that a person experiencing homelessness has decreased levels of high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug usage, when caring for a pet.
Research has also shown that pet parents have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which are common contributing factors in heart disease.
Connection with others
Another benefit pets provide is an immediate connection with others. Howland shares, “When you talk to people [experiencing homelessness] about their pets, it’s incredibly helpful to break down conversation barriers.” She explains that many individuals have incredible stories of how they rescued their pets. Many individuals who are unhoused don’t start with a pet but find a dog that’s been thrown out of the car or in the trash.
The result? An unbreakable bond between the two who have found themselves in the most challenging circumstances. That bond often means everything and makes all the difference.
Having a pet has even been shown to increase how often people interact and socialize with people experiencing homelessness3. This is crucial, especially when so many people who are unhoused feel invisible to society. A pet may even make a passerby think twice about showing sympathy, not just for the pet but for the individual they’re with as well.
Pets are crucial to so many people’s well-being while they are unhoused. Howland shares, “It makes us [The ElleVet Project] want to take the best possible care and set them up for success.”
Unfortunately, the struggles of having a pet while experiencing homelessness come with its own unique challenges. Common struggles include shelter limitations and access to medical care, food and everyday pet care supplies, resulting in significant stress to the pet parent.
Many pet owners who experience homelessness opt to take their pets with them if they have no one else to turn to. Unfortunately, many shelters won’t allow pets to stay with their owners, especially if their pet is unvaccinated, which is where The ElleVet Project comes in to help.
The ElleVet Project was founded in 2020 in response to the lack of resources that the homeless and their pets have access to and the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of a 38-foot RV, also known as the ElleVan, multiple veterinarians travel around the United States to treat pets of people who are unhoused. Within the first two months of service, The ElleVet Project treated more than 1,200 pets and met thousands of people who are unhoused.
One of the most common treatments the ElleVan veterinarians provide are vaccinations so that the pet can stay in animal-friendly shelters with their pet parents. Howland explains, “By providing vaccinations, we are also helping people get into shelters too.”
She shares that many people experiencing homelessness stay on the streets in unsafe conditions rather than stay in the shelter and leave their pets tied up outside. Many will also feed their pets before they feed themselves.
Access to medical care
Like their pet parents, pets on the streets struggle to access proper medical care, which The ElleVet Project is working diligently to tackle.
Along with vaccinations, The ElleVet Project provides free veterinary care and supplies to pets of the homeless. This often includes a physical examination. If the pet needs emergency care, The ElleVet Project will get in touch with local veterinary surgeons and pay them to perform the surgery and provide necessary aftercare since the ElleVan is not equipped for surgery.
In the case of pets with chronic conditions, the ElleVet veterinarians will provide medical supplies themselves when possible, including written instructions for further care. For example, a dog with painful chapped paws might be sent home with a solution to soak their paws in and gauze to wrap them.
If the pet requires ongoing medication, The ElleVet Project connects the pet parent with free or low-cost clinics in the area and provides them with any medication they can at the time. For example, the ElleVet team often provides CBD supplements for older dogs who may be experiencing anxiety or agitation.
Giving back to pets in vulnerable communities
Supporting people who are unhoused also means supporting their pets. The need for medical care for people experiencing homelessness and their pets is massive. During our interview, Amanda Howland noted, “I always call them invisible pets. There is so much of it.”
It’s not uncommon for people experiencing homelessness to wait in line for six to seven hours to receive care from the ElleVan for their pets, even with the team working all day and night.
As a result of the urgent need for medical care for this largely invisible group of animals, The ElleVet Project is looking to expand its ElleVan fleet by having 4 to 5 vans throughout the country by 2024. In addition, they hope to grow their emergency surgeries fund.
The ElleVet Project is a 501c3 and relies on donations to fund caring for the pets of people who are unhoused and street pets. To donate to The ElleVet Project so they can expand and treat even more pets, visit https://ellevetproject.org or @Ellevetproject on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more about the many options for giving.
- The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2022, February). The 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
- Kerman, N. (2020, December 1). What can be done to better support people experiencing homelessness with pets? Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
- Admin. (2021, March 23). The truth about homeless people and their pets you need to know. Fred Victor. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
- Robinson, L. (2022, May 17). The health and mood-boosting benefits of pets. HelpGuide.org. Retrieved July 29, 2022.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2018, February). The power of pets. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved July 29, 2022.