Attitudes Toward Pet Ownership in Vulnerable Populations

Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ, Vets Against Insanity, Silverthorne, Colorado

ArticleLast Updated June 20233 min read
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In the Literature 

Matheson K, Pranschke M. Predicting support for social actions and policies that enable pet ownership among people living in poverty. Anthrozoös. 2022;35(6):789-807. doi:10.1080/08927936.2022.2051933 

The Research …  

Many municipalities have bylaws and regulations that make keeping pets difficult for vulnerable populations. These regulations are often based on negative stereotypes or reflect a misapplication of laws created for the domiciled public. In addition, despite the documented benefits socially marginalized individuals derive from pets,1 public and veterinary professional attitudes often reflect an opinion that those who are living in poverty or are unhoused should not have pets because they cannot provide adequate care.2  

This study assessed individual differences (ie, social justice orientation, beliefs about poverty, identification with/empathy toward others, attitudes toward animals) that may predict how reactions to those living in poverty might differ if a pet is present, as well as whether a pet’s presence causes an individual to support social service policies that either enable or restrict access to pets based on financial means.  

Two online surveys were used to assess individual differences, and novel outcome measures were used to evaluate responses to both an individual requesting financial assistance from passersby and enabling or restricting social service policies regarding pets and humans living in poverty.  

In the first survey, when a hypothetical individual asking for financial assistance was accompanied by a pet, study participants expressed less suspicion, and participants who scored low in social justice orientation expressed more concern and gave more money compared with when a pet was not present. Participants with an orientation toward social justice and positive attitudes toward animals were generally associated with greater support for policies that enable pet care and reduced support for policies that restrict pet ownership.  

The second survey largely replicated the first but also provided 2 scenarios that differentiated the benefits of a human–pet relationship to either pet or human wellness. When benefits for pet wellness were described, study participants with lower social justice orientation increased their support of policies that enable pet care. Highlighting either human or pet wellness benefits similarly affected support for such policies among those who were less empathetic toward animals.  

These findings suggest contextual cues can raise awareness in individuals who may not otherwise be compassionate toward those living in poverty with pets. This may enable development of policies that help vulnerable groups stay with their pets, thus reducing pet relinquishment and improving wellness of humans and pets living in poverty.  

… The Takeaways  

Key pearls to put into practice:  

  • Human–pet relationships benefit humans and pets, including those in vulnerable situations.  

  • An integrated and productive One Health approach to pet owners who are living in poverty recognizes that providing a network of care to address the health and social needs of these owners benefits human, animal, and environmental health.3,4  

  • Presence of a pet can provide contextual cues that increase empathy and understanding, as well as reduce judgmental bias, and may be an important focus for educational efforts to raise awareness of hardships endured by those living in poverty. Inclusive, multilevel social programs and policies are also needed to enact lasting, beneficial change.