N.S. homeless pet owners face stigma when often their pets eat better than they do

HALIFAX, N.S. — Just because a pet is sleeping rough with its owner doesn’t mean it’s suffering, said Nova Scotia SPCA officials at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Halifax this week.

Many people who are unhoused often have dogs who are companions, mental health supports and security guards, all wrapped into one.

“We definitely get calls about that, that somehow people living outside with their animals is cruelty to animals,” said Liz LeClair, director of advancement with the Nova Scotia SPCA. “But we don’t consider that a crime against an animal for them to be where they’re loved. More often than not, these individuals are taking very good care of their animals, probably better than some people do who have a roof over their heads.”

‘Unfair and unreasonable’

There’s a large stigma associated around people who are unhoused and have pets, said special constable Jo-Anne Landsberg, chief provincial inspector at the N.S. SPCA. 

“We hear many accusations that pets are suffering and must be removed from that person but we find that unfair and unreasonable. We get a lot of pressure from the community to do something … (but) we have the obligation to respect people’s rights,” she said.

“Just because a person and their pet may be without housing, it doesn’t mean that pet is suffering and in distress.”

Kolin Davidson and his dog Toots at the the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Halifax on Thursday. – Jen Taplin

Kolin Davidson, who brought his dog Toots to the session at the ending homelessness conference on Thursday, said he knows this stigma very well. He spent time on the streets of Moncton and Toronto with a dog and would often get visits from inspectors saying they’ve received complaints. Of course, the complaints were baseless.

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“People would come by, and on a good day they’d be like ‘Here’s a $20. It’s for the dog, not for you’ and I would be like, ‘what’s he going to do with $20?’”

Pets on the streets are often fed better than their owners. Davidson said his backpack used to be full of dog food.

‘That’s just not OK’

Landsberg said this year there have been 125 complaints of animal abandonment, half of them were justified and 84 animals were seized. But in a lot of cases, it’s just someone who is evicted or moving out and having a hard time figuring things out.

“We find people are very quick to assume and to judge and to call us instead of offering to help, which is a little bit frustrating for us. If they just spoke to the person and said ‘hey, are you moving? Do you need some assistance? Can I help you watch your pet?’”

They also get a lot of calls from landlords saying they’re evicting a tenant and want the SPCA to take their pets.

“That’s just not OK with us. Just because a person is getting evicted doesn’t mean it’s a legal eviction. There are so many illegal evictions that we see.”

She said some landlords are locking the doors, changing the locks on people and calling the SPCA to go get the animals inside.

“We see right through that and we’ll do all we can to help the person and reunite them with their pet. It certainly wasn’t their fault.”

Taking away someone’s pet is the last thing they want to do, she said, because it’s harmful and also, shelters are overflowing right now.

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It can be unbearable for many people to give up their pets because increasingly rentals are installing no-pet policies.

Gail Maloney and her two therapy dogs were living in a car on the Sydney Waterfront in this file photo from Sept.  - Barb Sweet
Gail Maloney and her two therapy dogs were living in a car on the Sydney Waterfront in this file photo from Sept.  – Barb Sweet

Landsberg said she’s heard homeless people say their pets keep them alive.

“And I believe them. I really believe them.”

Kathleen Dunbar, a veterinary social worker at Carnegy Animal Hospital, said that research shows that pets are shown to lower stress, help regulate people who have depression, improve sociability and reduce loneliness.

They’re also a constant supply of non-judgmental affection which is extra important for people who are homeless, said Dunbar, who has experience working in supportive housing.

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