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ASU grad student starts collaborative project to expand care for unhoused pet owners

March 15, 2024

Caring for a pet can take a lot of work, from making time for daily walks to dedicating a chunk of your paycheck to pet chow and vet bills. Caring for a pet while unhoused is even more demanding; without a steady income, unhoused pet owners must find food and care not only for themselves, but for another living creature.  

For that reason, many people believe that unhoused people are dooming their pets to a poor life. But Daniel Bisgrove, a third-year PhD candidate in Arizona State University’s biology and society program, wants to dismantle that stigma. In his newly published paper in the World Leisure Journal, Bisgrove argues that unhoused people have just as much of a right to own a pet as anyone else. 

“Unhoused people are people,” he explains, “and people have an interest and a desire to have relationships with animals. And there isn't a sufficient reason to deny (unhoused people) of that when we've denied them of so many other things.”  

A blonde man standing in front of a bouganvillea bush.
Daniel Bisgrove

In his paper, Bisgrove emphasizes that caring for a pet can improve an unhoused person’s life, and that unhoused people can give their pets a good life, too. One 2016 study that he cites found that dogs living with unhoused people were better behaved and less likely to be obese than housed dogs. Bisgrove also writes that in some ways, street life can be a better life for a dog, as the dog gets more time outdoors, chances to meet other dogs and time with their owner.  

Still, that doesn’t mean pet ownership while living unhoused is easy. Most homeless shelters don’t allow pets, for example, meaning that unhoused people with pets have a harder time finding safe places to stay.  

That’s why Bisgrove argues that it’s vital to expand access to homeless shelters that do accommodate pets: “So that way, people aren't being put in the impossible position of choosing between their family members, essentially, and getting off the street.” 

Bisgrove, whose PhD research typically deals with the ethics of zoos, got inspired to start this side project after shadowing the University of Arizona’s street medicine program, which provides free health care to people living on the street in Phoenix. Veterinary students at Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, have been partnering with the program to provide veterinary services alongside human health care. That way, unhoused pet owners in Phoenix can get the care they and their pet need at the same time. 

While shadowing the collaborating teams, Bisgrove was particularly struck by the pets he encountered.

“It was amazing to see how well behaved, how well taken care of, and how beloved these animals were,” he said.

Bisgrove got to talking with the Midwestern veterinary students about starting a project that used veterinary data they were already collecting on unhoused pets. He realized that by studying the subject, he might be able to do some good.

“I thought it would be a way to use the skills that I’ve developed ... to advocate for a change that was going to be really beneficial to people,” he said.

Thus, Bisgrove took the lead in starting a new collaborative project in which researchers from across the universities plan to conduct interviews with unhoused pet owners to understand their experiences, and pair those interviews with health data on owners and their pets to be able to better serve their needs. 

This is the first of Bisgrove’s papers that will come out on this topic. His work, along with the collaborative project he’s helped launch, aims to produce more evidence that unhoused people have every ability and right to have pets, as much as anyone else. He hopes his work will one day create policies that provide better care for the thousands of unhoused pets owners in the United States and the pets they love so dearly.

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