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Pet Before Self: Relationship between people facing homelessness and their pets

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

Written by: Varleen Kaur

Edited by: Jacqueline Cheung

Dear CCP readers,

"There's a strong, enduring bond between homeless people and their pets," said Daly. One in four homeless people has a pet in Canada, according to anthrozoology professor Beth Daly at the University of Windsor. "They derive a lot of support and purpose from having their pets."

If you are returning for more information regarding the current state of homelessness in Canada and the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) and the particular challenges faced by youth experiencing homelessness and those with animal companions, welcome back! If you are new to our blog, welcome to the community and thank you for your interest in learning more about issues regarding the homelessness crisis in Canada and beyond - you are one step closer to becoming a changemaker in your community, and you are in great company.

Today’s post will provide an overview of animal companionship for people facing homelessness.

What does the term homelessness encompass?

It's crucial to remember that homelessness is more than simply a lack of safe and readily available housing; it also refers to inadequate income, limited access to social service assistance and healthcare, and social marginalization. People facing homelessness have a lower average life expectancy and are more likely to fall ill from various diseases. This is frequently connected to the social determinants of health, which include preventable illnesses caused by a lack of access to primary healthcare, such as standard immunizations, poor nutrition, cigarette use, and other addictions.

Why do people facing homelessness prefer having pets?

People who live on the streets are lonely. Their pets provide them company, security, assistance in avoiding danger, and a sense of purpose. Pets can provide psychosocial advantages for their owners. Owning a pet can improve social, emotional, and physical well-being. For instance, having a pet helps reduce the occurrence of depression. Pets may also decrease risky behaviour, drug and alcohol use, and the likelihood of being locked up. Research has shown young people prioritize their bond with their pets when making decisions, a phenomenon known as the "pet before self" effect. For instance, they would rather sleep on the street with their pet than in a shelter that would not accept them. Research suggests that being there for their pet also is correlated to abstaining from drugs and trouble with the authorities.

A cross-sectional study conducted on the impact of pet ownership on the mental health status of street-involved youth was conducted in 2011 in Ontario, Canada. 189 street-involved youth aged 18 to 24, some of them pet owners and some not, were surveyed in four large cities - Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Kingston. 89 participants owned pets. Of the pet owners, 52 were male, and 35 were female. A total of 121 pets were owned by youth in this study. According to the study, 64.5% of the study's street-involved young participants reported having depression. However, adolescents who did not own pets were three times more likely to be depressed than youth who did, even after adjusting for gender and drug use. Although the researchers mentioned that this is a point-in-time analysis and cannot be used for making causal inferences, this research can aid with policy implications for people facing homelessness.

Implications of pet ownership for people facing homelessness: exacerbating the problem

Despite efforts by homeless service providers that encourage and/or demand people to separate from or give up their dogs to increase their chances of receiving shelter, they rarely do. Pets can be dangerous to other people in shelters and can likely cause bites and scratches. The shelter staff are not trained or experienced enough to care for pets. Shelters can lack resources and funds even if they want to welcome both owners and pets. Access to animal vaccinations, figuring out food and shelter, and caring for pets’ safety and needs can be challenging for people facing homelessness.

The link between humans and animals is so strong that many people facing homelessness won't live apart from their pets, which means they can't or won't use services like emergency shelters if their pets can't go with them. To fully understand the needs of the large proportion of people facing homelessness with animal companions, we require a structured, system-wide strategy to collect data to begin to mitigate their challenges.

Here are a few resources that can be helpful for people facing homelessness.

City of Toronto

The city of Toronto and the Toronto Humane Society provides the following free pet services:

  • Spay and Neuter: prevent health problems such as tumours and behavioural problems such as inappropriate urination and aggression. Also prevents unwanted kittens and puppies

  • Vaccination: annual shots prevent diseases and keep your pet healthy

  • Microchip: helps reunite you with your pet if they get lost

  • Flea Control: makes your pet more comfortable by preventing and removing fleas

  • Health Exam: keep your pet healthy by taking them to see a veterinarian at least once a year.

Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO)

Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO) is a registered charity. Its mandate is to improve the health of homeless and vulnerably housed communities through veterinary care for their pets and to connect their humans with health and social services.CVO clinics are present throughout Canada, including Vancouver, Kelowna, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, Guelph, Kitchener-Waterloo, and York.

Their programs include,

  • Full-service clinics offer preventative care, including an examination, vaccinations, parasite treatment, and implantation with permanent identification (microchip), and owners receive education and advice on nutrition, dental care, and behaviour.

  • Pet Fairs include pet health education, pet dental education and supplies, grooming and nail trims, and access to pet food and supplies.

Fred Victor's Bethlehem United Shelter

The only long-term shelter in Toronto that permits pets to stay with their owners is Fred Victor's Bethlehem United Shelter. This 70-bed wheelchair-accessible shelter at Caledonia Road and Lawrence Avenue is open to all genders, singles and couples. This shelter is a joint project between Fred Victor, Bethlehem United Church (Apostolic) and the City of Toronto.

While at the shelter, residents have the opportunity to meet with staff to draw up a plan of action so they can move forward. Case managers work one-on-one to help people fill in the necessary paperwork and forms to access healthcare, housing, employment and income support. This is a friendly approach and a beginning for someone who wants to end homelessness.

Canadian Courage Project is Canada’s first non-profit organization to support youth facing homelessness and their animal companions; we strive to promote the mental well-being of youth through mindfulness, education and resources.

Anya, co-founder of CCP with her dog Nala.

One of the Canadian Courage Project delivered bags of dog food, dog treats and blankets

Thank you for reading our blog! Feel free to leave a comment with your feedback and/or insights to help us enrich the quality of future posts and cater to the interests of our community of changemakers.

- The CCP Team


1- Kilborn, Susan. (2017). Pets as the gateway to caring for communities. Homeless Hub pets-gateway-caring-communities

2- Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). The friend who keeps you young. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from the-friend-who-keeps-you-young

3- Lem, M., Coe, J., Haley, D., Stone, E., O’Grady, W. (2016). The Protective Association between Pet Ownership and Depression among Street-involved Youth: A Cross-sectional Study. Anthrozoos 29(1). 123-136.

4- City of Toronto. (n.d.). Pets services for clients of homeless shelters. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from pet-services-in-homeless-shelters

5- Toronto Humane Society. (n.d.). Animal homelessness. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from reducing-animal-homelessness

6- Community Veterinary Outreach. (n.d.) Community medicine for people and pets. Retrieved October 19, 2022, from

7- Fred Victor. Shelters. Retrieved October 20, 2022, from shelters

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