Taking Care of Our Furry Friends

Some people who are homeless keep their pets.  It is important for providers to understand and accept the strong bond between them. Health Care for the Homeless nurse and pet-lover Sharon Morrison shares her insights and offers ideas for working with pets and their owners.

Sharon Morrison is a Health Care for the Homeless nurse based in Boston, MA and has also served for many years on the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

HRC: You are a pet lover, is that right?
SM: Yes…I am what you might call a “crazy cat lady.” I currently have six cats, all of whom were homeless. One was rescued after Hurricane Katrina, and I found the other five as feral cats in wooded areas near my home.

HRC: Have you seen many people who have pets while they are homeless?
SM: Some. As an animal lover, I am always conflicted because I want to know that the animal is not suffering because of the owner’s situation - although I never felt that one was being abused or neglected. The bond between people and their animals is often so strong that the owners will forego food and give it to their pets.

HRC: What kinds of trouble do people with pets run into?
SM: For starters, most shelters do not allow pets. This is becoming a bigger issue nationwide as more families become homeless. Also, people may require medical or respite care, and are not willing to come into a facility unless they can bring their pets. When people are ready to find housing, some places do not allow pets. Sometimes park rangers might give people with dogs a hard time because the dogs are viewed as menacing.

HRC: How have you been able to help in these situations?
Sometimes we work on the owner’s behalf to find temporary shelter for the animal so that they can enter respite care. When housing authorities do not allow animals, a health care provider can write a letter of support stating why the animal is therapeutically important to the person. We have also had the opportunity to educate pet owners and park rangers about how to ensure that dogs are not dangerous to others.

HRC: What about veterinary care?
SM: There are some organizations that provide low-cost services, such as spaying or neutering, or provide free vaccinations.

HRC: What would you recommend to providers who are working with people in this situation?
SM: I would start with the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) or your local Animal Rescue League and find out what resources are available in your area.  People can also check to see if there are any “no-kill” shelters or rescue organizations as they too may be willing to host an animal temporarily.

HRC: What else do you want people to know about pets and their owners who are homeless?
SM: It is so important to recognize and appreciate the bond that people have with their animals, especially if they have experienced significant trauma, isolation or loss. As providers, it is important to accept this relationship as a central part of people’s lives.

Soon after this interview took place, Petco Place in Hollywood, CA opened its doors for people who are homeless, and their pets. Check out the San Francisco Gate newspaper article.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA