a pet-friendly society

Why I Think Pets Are Good For Shelters

What are the benefits of letting pets accompany their owners in refuges and shelters? Patrick Caruana shares his personal experiences in the sector, seeing the many and varied benefits of animal companionship.

Patrick Caruana

Guest author Patrick Caruana has a passion for social justice and housing and has been working in the sector for many years to help people change their lives for the better. He currently works at GCJ Sessional Management Services to help businesses reach their potential in a dynamic environment.

I have seen the benefits first-hand of providing accommodation for pets of the homeless in shelters and refuges.

As a landlord, I provided my tenant a property with two kennels, secure gates and fences for her two dogs. When she came to view the house and saw the facilities for her dogs I saw her visibly relax. She had separated from her husband, who had threatened to destroy the dogs if they were left behind. She had been unsuccessful in securing housing because she had four girls and the two dogs. She has lived in the house and made it a home for the past five years.

I managed a retirement living and aged care facility in rural Victoria in the early 2000s. All the Independent Living Residents were encouraged to have pets. Those that did were encouraged to take their pets when visiting the Residential Care Facility to see friends or family. The joy on the faces of both residents and staff was really special. The staff were also encouraged to bring their dogs in to the residential care facility. The Director of Nursing and the two Division 1 nurses used to bring in their golden retrievers daily. From the moment they walked through the doors they would be off lead and free to wander the facility. They could sense the impending passing of a resident and would go and sit in their room with them.

Having the dogs there was so successful that we actually turned a glassed-off internal courtyard into a mini zoo. The local vets advised us and we put together a menagerie of birds, different reptiles, possums and a small pond. The animals were not natural predators of each other and we made sure they were always well fed. Residents often watched the animals around the glass. It was a really calming feature.

I moved on from that organisation and began working for a youth support agency, which had a crisis refuge for young people up to the age of 21. Again, all staff were encouraged to bring their dogs in when they came to work. The really amazing thing is that the dogs seemed to sense which of the young people were really vulnerable and approach and nuzzled them until they got a response. The dogs stayed by the side of the young person until they sensed that they were calm. They wandered freely through the house. If a group of young people stayed for a week, the dogs would rotate and spend one night with each young person. They did this intuitively without any input from the staff. Those who called the service were asked if they had a pet and were invited to bring them

The amazing thing is that the dogs seem to understand that the refuge was a place of high stress and tension and they didn’t get aggressive with each other at all. They sensed that peace and calm was what was needed, and they provided that.

I, myself, have two kelpies and could not consider a life without them. When I’m down or worried and when I’m happy, they sense that and provide fun and extroverted companionship.

In 2014, the recognition that pet therapy is integral to also assisting those with mental health issues, along with the anecdotal evidence that I presented, should go some way to establish and confirm the benefits of allowing pets to accompany their owners into homeless refuges. Perhaps the refuges could form partnerships and collaborate with animal shelters. That way, the shelters can provide the homeless centres with either pet food packages or through larger economies of scale purchasing partnerships to provide the homeless centres with cheaper pet foods.

From my experience and perspective, there are no significant negative impacts in allowing the homeless to bring their pets into the centres and providing pet accommodation. The only impediment to instituting initial change is in our minds. Once we are prepared to step outside the accepted thought lines, anything is possible.

A pet-friendly society

Off-leash Dog Park

With one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, Australians are known to be animal-lovers. Almost two-thirds of Australian households have a pet and four out of five have owned one at some stage before. Things brings into question the people who are without a place to call home. What happens to their loyal companions? And what is being done to help support the bond they have with their beloved pets?

The benefits of pet ownership are far and wide and the local government would do well to support it. Not only have significant physical and psychological benefits from pet ownership been proven, but pets help to bring communities and people together.

Quite simply, they provide happiness, companionship, love and bestow a sense of pride and responsibility. These may seem like small features but are priceless to those who are homeless. It has been estimated the over $4 billion is saved each year from the national health bill, due to the physical and mental benefits that pets provided.

Around Sydney, the signs are rising to make the city a better place for dogs. This includes more off-leash areas, drinking bowls and more education programs for owners. Yet, there is still a long way to go to becoming a truly pet-friendly society. Policies are restrictive when it comes to allowing pets on public transport, apartments, retirement villages and sadly, homeless shelters or refuges. Unfortunately, these are some of the places where a pet’s presence is needed and appreciated the most.

An ideal future will see policies governing admission of animals into shelters, apartments and retirement villages, to name a few. The issue of homeless people and pets is also one to address.

This requires the support of government members, and all members of society can give voice to the issue by bringing it to their local MPs.

The bond between pet and owner is truly unique, and should be honoured in any situation.