Homeless Youth With Pets Are Less Depressed Than Those Without

A survey of homeless youth finds that pets bring benefits – and difficulties.

Homeless youth with pets are less depressed than those without. Photo shows close-up of adog's face
Photo: Brad Steels/Shutterstock

23% of homeless youth have pets, according to research by Harmony Rhoades et al (University of Southern California). The team surveyed 398 homeless youth at two drop-in centres in Los Angeles. While previous studies have shown that pets can be very important to homeless young people, this is the first quantitative study to look at pet ownership, mental health, and the use of services amongst this group.

88% of the young people in the study had attended the drop-in for food during the previous month. Other services they had used included clothes (69%), job help (52%), housing (49%) and health services (47%). Of those with pets, dogs were most common (53%) followed by cats (22%). Other pets included a hamster, rat, chinchilla and iguana. 

“Companion animals provide emotional support and represent important, loving relationships in the lives of many homeless youth,” say the authors. 

Pet owners had lower scores for loneliness and depression, and reported many benefits to having a pet. 85% agreed that “my pet keeps me company,” 79% said the pet “makes me feel loved,” and 73% said the pet “makes me feel safe.” 

There was no difference in having been hurt or threatened on the street, but those with pets were more likely to report having carried a weapon. There were also no differences in being hit or seeing someone be hit at home. However, amongst those who were living with family, there was a trend for those with pets to be more likely to experience or witness violence in the home. This suggests some young people may be staying in a violent situation because it’s better for their pet.

The biggest difficulty for those with pets was that half of them (49%) said it was harder for them to stay at a shelter. Most shelters do not allow pets. Although those with and without pets were equally likely to be living on the street, only 4% of those with pets were staying in a shelter or housing program, compared to 17% of those without pets.

Other problems included it being tricky to find housing (16%) and hard to see a doctor (11%). Those with pets were less likely than those without to have accessed some services (housing and job help) but not others (including food, clothes and health services).

While 60% said they made sure their pets ate before them, a few reported difficulties getting enough food for their pet (11%) and almost a quarter (23%) agreed that “strangers give me a hard time for having a pet.” Most of them did not find it easy to see a vet. These findings show that programs that provide pet food and vet care are an important service for homeless youth.

Homelessness includes a range of circumstances. 49% of the participants in this study were living directly on the street and 14% were in a shelter or program for the homeless. Of the other housing situations, some were staying with family, friends, or a romantic partner. 

Many of them had experienced violence; 55% reported being hurt badly in a fight in the past year, and 46% had been hit at home.

Against this backdrop, the fact so many said their pets protected them and helped them feel safe and loved suggests pets are playing an important role. The authors say, “Housing and other services must be sensitive to the needs of homeless youth with pets.”

Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., & Rice, E. (2015). Pet ownership among homeless youth: Associations with mental health, service utilization and housing status. Child Psychiatry & Human Development, 46, 237-244.

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