4 reasons Homeless Veterans have Pets

1 way we can make a difference

Visit the 2nd annual Homeless Pet Outreach Event, Saturday April 13th from 11a-2p. This event is sponsored by Plateau Veterinary Hospital and Orthopedic Center and held at the Bend Elk’s Lodge #1371, 63120 Boyd Acres Rd, Bend Oregon.

Services will include: Free Vaccines, Nail trims and dewormer for dogs and cats. Exam vouchers will be issued and can be taken to the clinic if additional treatment is needed. Lunch will be provided, courtesy of the Elk’s Lodge.  All pet food generously donated by our local Bend Pet Express. Additional sponsorship by Street Dog Hero. Services are available to all in need. For more information call 541-797-6960.

Why do homeless Veterans even have a pet?

How often have you heard people say “Those homeless people can’t be too bad off, they have a dog”. Or “She’s just got that dog so you feel sorry for her and give her money”. Or “If they can’t take care of themselves, they don’t deserve to have pets”. The cynic in all of us might wonder why it’s such a common occurrence for homeless people to own pets.

Pets of the Homeless reports that approximately “3.5 million Americans are homeless {and} five to ten percent of homeless people have dogs and/or cats”.[1] Simple math equates to around 280,000 pets who are living with people insufficiently housed.

That’s a lot of four-footed friends potentially on the street. We’ll touch on just four of the reasons why someone might have a pet companion while homeless, then check out a great program coming to Central Oregon to help to with some of the challenges. For the sake of clarity, we’ll use the terminology “dogs” but rest assured, there are cats filling the void as well. Let’s look at some of the reasons, and some of the ways you can participate in making a difference in the lives of these pets and their owners.

1. Pets are non-judgmental companionship

In a world where everyday people can be pretty judgmental (see paragraph one), dogs provided unconditional love and companionship. For those on the fringes of society, having a friend who loves them consistently – feast or famine, success or failure – can be the key to staying hopeful in hard times. According to a study on the redemptive properties of having pets, “the perceived unconditional love from animals rewards the caregiving with a sense of mattering, or “the perception that, to some degree and in any of a variety of ways, we are a significant part of the world around us”.[2] One only has to see the look of adoration in the eyes of a dog, to know you matter: homeless or otherwise.

2. Pets are protection

The streets can be a dangerous place. Whether in a large city or a small town, assault on the homeless happens and is increasing. This account is from late March, 2019 in the Pacific Northwest:

A 42-year-old man was standing over a few folks sleeping and kicked the victim.

He then picked up an ax and hit the sleeping man over the head with the ax’s 30-inch handle.

The victim threw up one of his arms to protect himself from the blow.

… No motive for the attack was given. [3]

Having a dog can provide at least a sense of security. Whether the dog is guarding the person or their possessions, those with ill-intent are less likely to commit criminal acts upon that homeless person. And while it’s easy to think that crimes like these don’t happen in Central Oregon, they can and do. For our homeless clients, it’s often better to be safe than sorry.

3. Pets provide purpose and accountability

When every day seems to be an uphill battle, each morning can lack incentive to keep going. Having someone that depends upon you for their survival; someone who looks at you to say “What’s next, partner” can be the motivation to continue on. In addition, for those who have little opportunity to establish personal significance, showing a commitment to caring for a pet while homeless can provide a sense of self-worth.[4] One of the women interview on Homeless Hub, stated about her pet “She’s the reason why I keep going, because I made a commitment to take care of her when I adopted her. So she needs me, and I need her. She is the only source of daily, steady affection and companionship that I have”. [5]

Some of our homeless clients – especially our homeless Vets – suffer from depression and/or PTSD. In the overall population “Veterans have an elevated risk, with a suicide rate of 35 per 100,000, compared to 26 per 100,000 for civilian adults.” [6] Furthermore, “A study … found that the suicide rate among Veterans with homelessness in the past year was 81.0 per 100,000 as compared to Veterans without recent history of homelessness with a rate of 35.8 suicides per 100,000.”[7]

Having an animal that depends on you for survival can be the reason that a person continues to hang on, or as they say on the website MyDogEatsFirst, “Everyone deserves someone that makes them look forward to tomorrow.” In addition, “Dog ownership appears to reduce the likelihood of a homeless person committing a crime[8] again potentially because imprisonment necessitates loss of the animal.”

4. The situation is often “only temporary”

Many people fluctuate from being housed to being homeless on a cyclical basis. They get settled into a situation which ends up changing, causing them to be homeless again. At what point would you ditch *your* family member? If you think the situation is just temporary, you’re going to keep your furry friend with you, even if that means living on the street. Central Oregon especially struggles with cyclical housing issues, as more and more rentals are becoming unaffordable and renters are being forced out.

Some of the challenges of pet ownership

Most shelters don’t accept animals

Very little comes easily when you’re homeless. Probably the number one challenge to owning a pet while homeless is that most shelters do not allow pets. This means that even if the weather turns bitterly cold, most of our homeless clients cannot go into shelters, if it means leaving their four-footed partner outside in the cold. They can also be reluctant to leave their pet with an acquaintance or agency, for fear of having their animal taken from them.

For shelters that do accept pets, the bar to entrance is often quite high, requiring current vaccines, licenses and a pet crate – something financially out of reach of many of our homeless.

Pet food

In studies of homelessness and pet ownership, it’s very obvious that in most cases, “Pets eat first”. In almost every study, homeless pet guardians reported that they would go without food so their dog would not go hungry. Access to quality pet food is a very real concern, as dogs do best with a consistent diet, something difficult to procure while living on the streets.

Veterinary Care

Access to regular Veterinary care and associated vaccines is usually cost prohibitive for transient people. According to The health and welfare of dogs belonging to homeless people, “amongst homeless participants, 27% reported no access to veterinary care…”[9] Furthermore, 42% said they would absolutely find veterainary care if and when needed, but often the fear was that if they released their animal to a vet clinic, they would not get the dog back.

How to help

Small things can make a huge difference. One of these is by a direct donation of quality dog food and supplies. Our client population is in need of pet food – dry preferred – as well as leashes and rain/warm gear. We know that doggie costumes can be pretty cute, but these working animals need to stay warm and dry while living in the elements, so good quality practical gear is a must. If you’re uncertain about what to purchase, give us a call at 541-383-2793 x125 or consider a cash donation. Foldable pet crates can also be donated either at COVO or the various shelters themselves. Give us a call and we can provide a list of shelters in need. You can also donate directly to COVO for this endeavor.


Learn more about the great things the COVO Outreach team does!

Pets of the Homeless Shopping List


[1] FAQs.” Pets of the Homeless, Feeding Pets of the Homeless DBA Pets of the Homeless, 2019, www.petsofthehomeless.org/about-us/faqs/.

[2] Elliott Gregory C., Kao Suzanne, Grant Ann-Marie. 2004. “Mattering: Empirical Validation of a Social-Psychological Concept.” Self and Identity 3:339–54.

[3] Glenn, Stacia. “He Hit a Homeless Man with an Ax While the Victim Was Sleeping, Records Say.” Thenewstribune, Tacoma News Tribune, 27 Mar. 2019, www.thenewstribune.com/news/local/crime/article228480239.html.

[4] Snow David A., Anderson Leon. 1993. Down on Their Luck: A Study of Homeless Street People. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[5] https://www.homelesshub.ca/blog/why-do-homeless-people-have-pets



[8] Taylor, H., Williams, P. and Gray, D. 2004. Homelessness and dog ownership: an investigation into animal empathy, attachment, crime, drug use, health and public opinion. Anthrozoos 17: 353-368

[9] Leonard, David, et al. “The Health and Welfare of Dogs Belonging to Homeless People.” Apollo Home, Cordoba University Press, 1 Apr. 2016, www.repository.cam.ac.uk/handle/1810/254894.

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