19 April 2016

RESEARCH - Homeless Youth With Pets Less Likely to be Depressed, Use Hard Drugs

Pets are proving to be a viable form of protection for street youth – a buffer against everything from loneliness to substance abuse.

And authors behind the research out of the University of Guelph's Ontario Veterinary College shows having a pet even sees high-risk youth three times less likely to suffer from depression.

Sadly, those same pets often pose a roadblock to services sorely needed by street youth who – when pushed – will choose caring for their companion over pursuing their own well-being, says lead author Michelle Lem.

Michelle Lem DVM, MSc
"These pets are their only friends, the only way they've experienced unconditional love without judgement. These pets have saved their lives in many cases," Lem says. "By asking them to give up their pets to access the shelter, what you're doing as a social service provider is saying, 'I don't understand your relationship' and often it pushes people away."

That can often see a youth pitched further into struggles on the streets – an unfortunate and avoidable plight according to authors of the report recently published in the journal Anthrozoos.

Lem hopes a little understanding goes a long way and that the findings encourage agencies to reconsider the role a pet plays for a youth and more importantly to accommodate them when they reach out for help.

"They can't access shelters, they can't access some addictions treatment, they can't go into hospitalization, so they (pets) are barriers to accessing services,” said Lem, director of Community Veterinary Outreach, a volunteer group that provides veterinary services to homeless people in cities like Toronto, Guelph and Ottawa. “What we're trying to show is, yeah, they are barriers, but they also have some very positive impacts."

The study focused on 198 street youth (in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton) in homeless shelters and drop-in centres. Of those 100 did not have pets and 98 did.

Those without pets were three times more likely to suffer from depression and those with pets less inclined to engage in risky behaviours like hard drug use, according to the findings.

The flip-side, however, saw pet ownership, albeit offering physical and psychosocial benefits, as an impediment to a youth’s ability to access a shelter bed for the night, housing, employment opportunities and other crucial social services.

The findings are no surprise to veteran social worker, Michelle Peterson.

As a front-line worker with street youth for many years, she saw many cases where pets gave a troubled youth purpose – to protect and care for a vulnerable animal – and often reduced chances of them being involved in risky behaviour.

Owning a pet also allowed some to provide a living being with the kindness and compassion they were denied. That rat, cat or dog, for instance, might represent “family” for a vulnerable teen and satisfy the “intrinsic need to lavish love on something that loves you unconditionally,” Peterson says.

“A lot experienced poor care in their own families and there is something magical that happens when they are able to care about something, when they can do what they wish happened to themselves. Often they take better care of their pet than themselves.”

She says some teens would make a pet a priority – some opting to feed a pet before themselves – and how simply having responsibility of ownership helped them steer clear of trouble.

“They have to keep it together to take care of their pets,” she says. “The pets definitely come first.”

Peterson, too, hopes more agencies find ways to offer services to youth who come with extra four-legged baggage. “They already have barriers with poverty but then you throw animals in and it creates more challenges,” she says.

While health benefits of pet ownership have long been recognized in other studies involving seniors who live alone, for instance, this is the first to look at how the bond benefits street youth.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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