For homeless people, a pet is often more than a companion; it can be a reason for living.
Vet Neerja Muncaster, who volunteers at StreetVet, says she’s met homeless people who have stopped drinking or given up drugs because of their pet, and others who decided not to commit suicide.
StreetVet is a Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons-registered practice that offers free care to homeless people and their dogs in London, Brighton, Bristol and Cambridge. It was founded in 2016 and is preparing to expand into Birmingham, Essex and Cheltenham.
It relies on volunteer vets and veterinary nurses (and donations from the public) to give homeless people access to vital care to keep their pets healthy.
There has been a significant increase in homelessness in England and rough sleeping has more than doubled to 4,751 cases in autumn 2017 from historic lows in 2010, according to government statistics.
That means there has also been an increase in people living on the streets with pets, some of whom were looking after their pet before losing a home and others had pet ownership thrust upon them.
An important bond with pets
As all owners know, the bond with a pet is emotionally rewarding and it can be incredibly important for homeless people. It can stave off loneliness, give them responsibility and help people through the toughest times.
Neerja, who works with StreetVet in Brighton, says she’s met some pets that also protect their owners. She met “an epileptic gentleman whose dog is not only his sole companion but also his pre-seizure alert dog. This gentle large breed dog sits patiently all the while his owner busks and watches over him when he is asleep”.
She’s also worked with an “ex-forces gentleman with PTSD whose cat has been his sole reason for living”.
Misconceptions about homeless people with pets
Despite harsh conditions on the street, Neerja says some members of the public have misconceptions about whether homeless people are able to look after their dogs: “We have yet to encounter a dog that has been malnourished, often their owners give up their meal for their pets. Dogs require companionship and exercise - homeless dogs have both of these in abundance!”
The most common conditions she comes across are skin conditions, diarrhoea, dental disease, mammary cancer (because many bitches have not been neutered) and arthritis.
These are issues many pet owners face that they can solve through relatively straightforward preventative measures or vet treatment covered by pet insurance. Unfortunately, homeless people many not be able to afford such treatment, which is where StreetVet can help.
Its volunteers have vaccinated and microchipped; supplied treatment for fleas and protected against lungworm; prescribed pain relief and helped fight infections; performed surgeries; and sometimes just sat and listened.
Accommodation for homeless people with pets
Homeless people also find it difficult to secure accommodation for their pets. There are relatively few hostels that accept pets, which means people often refuse temporary or shelter accommodation (especially in severe weather) because they cannot take their pets with them.
Neerja says: “We are supporting hostels that do allow pets by arranging visits to carry out routine health checks and provide flea and worm treatments, beds, collars, leads, toys and food. We are also keen to facilitate the inclusion of pets at hostels who don't currently accept pets.”
StreetVet has treated over 200 dogs (and some cats) and is growing so it’s looking for vets to join its work (they can register their interest on the StreetVet website) or offer treatment at a reduced cost for StreetVet patients.
What to do if you see a homeless person with a pet
Neerja also offers advice for members of the public if they see a homeless person with a pet: “We ask people to try not to judge. To stop and have a chat. To tell them about StreetVet if we already operate in the area or notify us via social media or our website. If we are active in that area we will try and mobilise a team.
“In cities that we are not yet active, we may be able to help arrange and fund veterinary treatment at a local practice. Aside from direct donations, we also have an Amazon wishlist or people can run fundraising events for us.”