Feeding our furry (or feathered!) friends

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The other day I was browsing the ALIV(e) (Awareness of Low Income Voices) blog, and came across this post, where Teri-Lee talks about how much her cats mean to her. In her words, “my cats give me a reason to get up in the morning and a feeling of being needed and loved. They give me a reason to laugh. When I feel down and alone, my cats make me feel secure and worth the effort of being.” Her post made me think of my own pets and how important they are to me, and of all the people who come in for hampers and ask for cat food, dog food, or even bird food for their animal friends.

Georgie is a dog without a home. Adopt him from the Humane Society!

Georgie is a dog without a home. Adopt him from the Humane Society!

A few years ago Matt wrote this post about giving out pet food. Many people who come in for food for themselves also come for food for their pet, usually a cat or dog. In fact, in a typical month about 17% of people we serve ask for pet food, which is over 400 hampers. We give out pet food whenever we have it, and many people are thrilled to get some food to get their furry friend through the week. This is a great service, but sometimes I am asked questions like “why do people coming in for food have a pet when they can’t even feed themselves?”

This is an important question and one I’d like to answer in this blog post. Being able to care for a pet is more complicated than simply having money, and everyone deserves to have the companionship and health benefits that come with having a pet.

In this academic study, the author outlines past studies that have found that just petting a dog reduces blood pressure for those with hypertension. People who own a pet are likely to have lower cholesterol levels than those who don’t, are less likely to die from a heart attack, have fewer visits to the doctor, and need fewer prescription medications. Studies have also found that owning a pet is likely to reduce stress levels and increase self esteem.

If you’ve had a beloved pet it’s likely that you’ll recognize some of these benefits, and probably you’ve noticed some other beneficial impacts as well. A pet doesn’t judge you based on your appearance, the clothes you’re wearing, where you live or how much money you make. For those who are homeless or living on low income, owning a pet can be particularly powerful if it is hard for them to maintain other social connections due to illness or other reasons. For people living on the street, a dog can offer practical benefits like warmth and protection as well.

Living on the street with a pet

There are still misconceptions about one’s ability to care for a pet while living below the poverty line, hence the question “how can you expect to feed a pet if you can’t feed yourself?” This article in the Toronto Star outlines living on the street with a pet. Many organizations who work with homeless people and their pets find that people will often forgo their own comfort to take care of their pet by sharing food, and spending what little they have on their animal. For dogs on the street with their owner, life is typically not so bad–they get to be outside with their owner all day, instead of in a backyard or house.

There are downsides; many people who are homeless are reluctant to leave their dog with a vet for treatment, fearing that their dog won’t be returned to them and they’ll be separated forever. That’s why organizations like the Community Veterinary Outreach in Toronto are so important. They provide clinics for people who are homeless and on low income, at no cost and guaranteeing that the pet won’t be separated from their owner. They explain their mission on the website as follows:

“By providing preventive veterinary education and care to the animals of those in need, we improve not only the health of the animal, but also support the physical and emotional well-being of their owners or guardians, and contribute to protecting public health. We help to maintain a strong and healthy human-animal bond for those to whom that bond may be the most significant relationship in their life.”

Pets of the Homeless is another great organization that offers food and veterinary care for pets across Canada and the United States. They also do advocacy work around homelessness and pet ownership, and offer grants to vets who will go to shelters or homeless communities to offer direct care at no cost. Outreach services like this help people keep their pets healthy so they can spend long lives together.

A House of Friendship example: Eby Village

Of course, not all people who live on a low income live on the street. At House of Friendship, our residential programs have people with pets as well. I had the opportunity to sit down with some tenants at Eby Village, a supportive residential community at House of Friendship, and talk to them about their pets.

Bill and his cat Spot at Eby Village

Bill and his cat Spot at Eby Village

Eby has a very strong pet community; staff estimated that probably about 15 tenants have pets. There are a lot of dogs and cats, and a few birds in the mix too. There are special events at Eby for pets, like dog nights, where dogs can play together. They also host workshops on training or grooming different pets, so people can learn new things. I had an opportunity to sit down with a few people who live at Eby to talk about their pets and what they mean to them.

Bill is a tenant at Eby who has a black and white cat named Spot. He brings Spot down every morning and makes the rounds, from the office, to the lounge, to the activity room. Spot even has his own chair in the office! When I asked Bill what Spot means to him he responded quickly with “everything!” Bill is clearly proud of his cat, who, by the way, is already 15 years old.

Ingrid is another tenant at Eby village who just lost her cat of 10 years, Jo-Jo. When I asked her what Jo-Jo meant to her, she said “friendship. She gave me unconditional love—when I went out she would wait for me all day, and greet me at the door when I came home. It was just like having a friend.” Jo-Jo unfortunately passed away about two months ago after having a stroke, and Ingrid says it’s a lot more lonely in her place now. She says, “I still lie in bed and wonder why she’s not coming in to say hi. When I had her she had her favourite spot and would wake me up when she wanted breakfast!” After being used to having a pet around for 10 years, I’m sure it’s a huge adjustment to get used to living without one again.

Ed, who also lives at Eby, has a cockatiel named Kayla. Kayla is a boy, but Ed named him after his 10-year-old granddaughter. He says that Kayla means love to him: “he gives me a lot of love, that little bird.” Kayla will hop around his apartment singing “pretty Kayla,” which keeps Ed entertained. Kayla’s favourite food is popcorn—if Ed has a bowl of it, Kayla will jump right in and have some too! He says that for Kayla’s first birthday in June, he’s going to make him a special bowl of popcorn.

Ed, minus Kayla, at Eby Village

Ed, minus Kayla, at Eby Village

Sitting down with residents of Eby Village and trading pet stories really resonated with me. Pets are part of the community at Eby, like an extended family. Eby is all rent geared to income housing, so people there live on low income, but pets are an integral part of their daily life and help bring them together to build relationships with other tenants.

Everyone deserves the love and companionship of a pet; a person’s ability to properly care for a pet isn’t fully dependent on income. There are people who live on the street who are able to give their dogs healthy fulfilling lives, and people who live below the poverty line who have happy pets as well. Having a pet can provide loving companionship for people who live alone, and can even connect people to a broader community–it’s mutually beneficial for the human and the animal. Benefits like those should be available to everyone, regardless of income.

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