dog ownership and homelessness

It’s Time to De-Stigmatise Dog Ownership and Homelessness

Written by Steph McCulloch
"Many homeless individuals find owning a pet empowering, so perhaps it’s time that instead of criticising people for owning pets we take a look at the arbitrary and ever-changing rules in place that stop them from accessing the support they need and examine the multi-faceted issue that is homelessness and the circumstances that lead to it happening."
A person sitting on the floor wearing a red jumper and holding their dog

Since the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cost of living crisis, homelessness has increased throughout the UK (current statistics estimate that there are 320,000 people experiencing homelessness in the UK, with around 5-25% of them being homeless with a pet). Sadly, lots of hostels refuse to provide accommodation for pets placing homeless people in a difficult situation with many, understandably, turning down shelter in favour of remaining with their companions.

Hostels play a vital role in addressing the escalating homelessness crisis and offering temporary refuge and assistance in securing long-term housing. Despite their importance, studies reveal that just under 10% of hostels in the UK accommodate pets. This puts pet owners experiencing housing difficulties at a significant disadvantage, leading to less than 7% of people being willing to part with their pets in exchange for housing. This shouldn’t be a decision anyone has to make.

Like most people, many homeless individuals find owning a pet empowering, so perhaps it’s time that instead of criticising people for owning pets, we take a look at the arbitrary and ever-changing rules in place that stop them from accessing the support they need and examine the multi-faceted issue that is homelessness and the circumstances that lead to it happening. In doing so, this means challenging our own internal prejudices and considering what can be done to provide owners with the resources and knowledge they need to remain united with their pets.

a dog hugging their owner

Although linked to many benefits on human health and relationships, dog ownership amongst those experiencing homelessness remains stigmatised by the general public due to a perception of poor care and mistreatment. However, whether conscious or not, these thoughts fail to acknowledge the lifesaving impact animals can have on humans, with many dogs becoming a source of physical and psychological solace for someone facing housing difficulties.

It’s been proven time and time again that pets possess the ability to alleviate feelings of anxiety, stress and depression among owners from a variety of backgrounds and lifestyles. Studies have also shown that those experiencing homelessness with pets are affected less by loneliness and depression further highlighting the integral role dogs play in providing community, support and affection to those facing immense struggles. Research from 2020 also found that pet owners sleeping rough were less likely to engage in criminal activities and misuse alcohol and drugs.

Whilst dogs can enable positive cognitive function and resilience, they also help to dismantle social barriers by acting as conversation starters and mediating interactions, as anyone who walks their dog daily knows. For someone facing homelessness, these conversations and interactions can reinforce feelings of community and inclusion as well as act as a lifeline to finding somewhere pet-friendly to sleep. But finding somewhere to sleep with a pet shouldn’t have to occur through a chance encounter.

a brown dog resting his head in a pair of hands

Though research has dispelled many negative myths surrounding pets and owners facing homelessness, pet ownership can, unfortunately, in the current social climate we find ourselves in, exacerbate the problem further. For example, many people experiencing homelessness are denied shelter and access to food simply because they own a pet. The problem then worsens due to a lack of resources, understanding and knowledge around pet ownership by those who work to alleviate issues of homelessness.

This continues to feed a vicious cycle as many owners are forced to sleep rough with their pets after being denied accommodation. The most common reason pets are denied in hostels and shelters is due to health and safety risks. However, those who work directly with pets and those experiencing homelessness help to foster a routine of exercise, cleaning, feeding and responsibility where pets are involved. This is still yet to prove a negative experience - hostels and shelters that allow owners to bring pets have reported multiple benefits to owners and even other service users.

waggel and wild at heart foundation staff stood outside of food bank holding dog food donation boxes

At Waggel, we want to help people stay united with their pets no matter their circumstances or background and will continue to provide support in as many ways as we possibly can. Since 2023, we’ve donated over £12,500 to Wild at Heart Foundation to allow them to continue offering care and support to dogs in need. Part of this donation helped to oversee the development and subsequent launch of a pet foodbank in South London. Another portion of this donation has supported Street Paws with their Dog Champion Scheme.

The Dog Champion Scheme helps to provide hostel staff with full training to ensure they’re familiar with canine behaviour and comfortable working with dogs. Staff also help to create pet policies and owner agreements to ensure a positive experience between dogs, owners, and hostel team members at all times. They also provide canine first aid training, welcome packs (including dog bowls, food, leads and collars), and accessible veterinary care to all residents.

In 2024, we partnered with StreetVet, an award-winning charity dedicated to providing free veterinary care and services for those experiencing homelessness with their pets.

StreetVet was founded in 2016 by veterinary surgeons, Jade Statt and Sam Joseph. Their mission is to ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness and their pets receive the support they need, regardless of their financial situation. StreetVet is completely volunteer-run, with veterinary professionals giving their time and expertise to help those in need.

To ensure owners and pets can seek accommodation together, StreetVet has developed the Accredited Hostel Scheme offering training and support for hostel staff to feel confident in providing accommodation to those experiencing homelessness and who own pets.

One of StreetVet’s key missions is to help owners and pets stay united where possible by offering free veterinary services, advocating for pets and owners and eliminating barriers that stop those experiencing homelessness from accessing the support they need for themselves and their pets.

Whilst many of us can look forward to the privilege of sleeping comfortably and safely in our own homes all year round, it’s important to remember that this isn’t a reality for all. We believe that changing the perception of homeless pet ownership is a key way to reduce this increasing social issue and, in turn, can help to support and empower many individuals who currently find themselves restrained by challenges out of their control. We are continuing to support StreetVet as well as the Norwood and Brixton foodbank with the hope that in the future these resources will be more widely available and recognised.

If you’re interested in helping make positive change and a shift in perspective (and are a veterinary professional) why not volunteer with StreetVet? Other ways you can support their mission are through donating, fundraising and spreading awareness through education around homelessness and pet ownership.

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