Homeless youth with pets less depressed, less likely to use drugs

Homeless youth and petsA new study led by researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) shows that homeless youth with pets are less likely to engage in potentially harmful behaviour, are three times less likely to be depressed and are more likely to open up to veterinarians about their personal challenges.

However, the team found that pets can make it difficult for their owners to obtain social services.

The study looked at 198 street youth in Toronto, Ottawa, Kingston and Hamilton who were in shelters and drop-in centres. Among the participants, 98 had a pet and 100 didn’t.

Many youth are very open to discussing their struggles and issues with veterinarians, said lead author Michelle Lem, DVM ’01, M.Sc. ’12, and founder and director of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), a volunteer group providing mobile veterinary services to homeless people in Toronto, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph and Ottawa.

Calling for pet-friendly shelters, she says, “So many of these youth have lost trust in people, and the animal gives them unconditional love. They will do anything for their pets, which means they are less likely to commit potentially harmful acts, but also face more challenges with accessing housing, health care or addiction treatment services.”

The study is the first of its kind to look at the benefits of pet ownership among homeless youth in Canada.