Caring for Pets of Those Experiencing Homelessness

Photo Courtesy of Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

Raven and his dog Panda spend their days and nights living on the streets of Ocean Beach, Calif. 

Photo Courtesy of Becky Rookard.

Feeding Pets of the Homeless is a national nonprofit that provides food and care to pets belonging to those experiencing homelessness. Feeding Pets of the Homeless estimated that depending on the area, 5% to 25% of those experiencing homelessness in America have a dog or cat.

Raven, a homeless man in his mid-twenties who did not feel comfortable sharing his last name,  said, “I got her [Panda] two Christmases ago and we have been together ever since, she’s my best friend.” Panda is estimated to be two years old, is a black and white mixed breed dog, and is fully up to date on vaccines, Raven said.

Panda is not the first dog Raven has owned.

“A few years ago I had to give up another dog to a wealthy family because of mental issues,” Raven said. “It’s completely different with Panda, I always make sure she’s taken care of and put first.” 

Genevive Frederick, founder and president of Feeding Pets of the Homeless, said that many people go into homelessness with their pets and will not give them up.

“Imagine being alone, homeless, with a mental or physical disability. Having a pet that loves you unconditionally, and provides protection are just two reasons to have a pet,” Frederick said via an email interview.

For Raven, some of the difficulties of owning Panda while experiencing homelessness include finding places to clean her and city officials getting upset due to a lack of resources to clean up any excreted matter from the street.

Feeding Pets of the Homeless, San Diego Humane Society and Pets Without Walls are organizations that offer support and resources to those experiencing homelessness and their pets in the San Diego area. Services from these organizations include pet food and supplies, emergency veterinary care programs, wellness clinics and foster programs for when people are in a transitional period in their life and need support. The San Diego Humane Society also supports owners needing assistance with licensing their dogs and vaccinations, which are both required for dog owners in San Diego. 

Dog being treated at the San Diego Humane Society’s Mobile Veterinary Services. Photo Courtesy of San Diego Humane Society

Nina Thompson, director of public relations at the San Diego Humane Society, said experiencing homelessness is not a barrier to owning a pet.

“Oftentimes those animals are well taken care of and always with their owner. The animals give them hope and something to live for and we do not want to take that away from them,” Thompson said.

Out of the 2,046 homeless shelters in San Diego, there are a limited number of shelters in San Diego that allow pets to stay. PATH San Diego and Father Joe’s Village are the only known shelters that allow pets on-site or have resources for pets, according to Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

“Someone should not have to choose to find safety for themselves versus giving up their pet,” Thompson said. “There is an opportunity for improvement to include pets in many more shelters and the San Diego Humane Society works to make sure pets are included in this conversation.” 

Raven said that oftentimes, businesses turn animals away without the proper documentation. 

“It is hard to get food because they don’t let Panda in since she’s not a service animal,” Raven said. “She’s fully trained but I don’t have the capability or resources to get her certified officially.”

In Sept. 2022, California State Governor Gavin Newsom signed a new bill, SB 744, that made it more accessible for those experiencing homelessness to receive documentation that would allow their emotional support dogs to stay with them in shelters and other public places.

However, many people expressed safety concerns about this bill.

In a California Globe article about this new bill, an anonymous user commented, “Street vagrants’ dogs are often used as enforcers for the drug deals and other criminal activity … even if often-vicious dogs are used to protect only the individual homeless person in his tent, the dogs should NOT be allowed to run free on the streets and should NOT be allowed to be brought into (probably already chaotic) shelters.”

Frederick has worked with those experiencing homelessness and their pets since 2006.

“Those that say we are enabling have not experienced that bond with an animal,” Frederick said. “It would be like turning away a person with a child. The pet is their family, sometimes the only being they have left in the world.”

There are many potential dangers for both pets and people living on the street. According to Hill’s Pet Nutrition, danger concerns for dogs living outside include weather conditions, poisonous plants or chemicals, or attacks by other animals.

“Sure, living on the streets has more challenges for pets than say my dog who is taking a nap on my warm bed,” Frederick said. “The pets eat things they should not, they get frostbite and burned paws from the cold and heat.”

According to The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), there is no correlation between income and a pet owner’s desire and commitment to providing necessary care to their animal companions.

Dr. David Kowalek, a veteran of the wellness clinic at Feeding Pets of the Homeless, said, “Their means of care may be different, or financially limited, but these pets are very clearly loved, attended to and in some respects have a quality of life that is better than my animals.”

The human to animal bond has existed for over a thousand years, it is a relationship formed between people and animals that is mutually beneficial and can be essential to the health and well-being of both, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association

Monica Petruzzelli, public relations and communications manager at Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego said the more time someone spends with an animal, the more bonded they become.

“Studies show the benefits of having a companion animal, such as decreased heart rate and stress. In this way, they help each other through the challenging situation they are facing together,” Petruzzelli said.

A full map and list of resources for pets of those experiencing homelessness can be found on the Pets of the Homeless website. On this interactive map, users can enter their city to find food and supplies, resources, shelters and donation sites.

“We hope that the ability to have the emotional support of a companion animal by their side will help people experiencing homelessness be motivated to improve their situation,” Petruzzelli said. “While we can’t help every person escape homelessness, in the meantime we can help protect their pet, which in turn, helps them and others.”

Written By: Becky Rookard