Puppy love: Supporting pets in supportive housing
The full-grown pit-bull terrier didn’t seem to mind being cradled like a baby in her owner’s arms. Neither did the obviously well-fed cats, owned by Options Bytown residents. A few minutes later, three more tenants joined the gathering in the common room, eager to show off their canine and feline companions. The bond between these tenants and their pets was obvious, as was an element of pride. After all, a happy and healthy pet usually means the same for its owner.
The Ottawa housing provider, which provides homes for people who need help to live independently, understands the importance of pets in combating social isolation. With this in mind, Options Bytown actively supports pet-ownership. According to Jennifer Laewen, Manager of Tenant Services, pets provide therapeutic benefits to the tenants, many of whom have experienced homelessness and have complex needs. “We have always allowed pets,” she explains. “It has never been a barrier.” Laewen points out that the animals reduce loneliness, and provide unconditional love and affection to people who don’t have a lot of family involvement.
Education is key to happy pets
While the benefits are clear, pet ownership comes with financial and pet-care responsibilities that can be a barrier for people living on low incomes. To help ease this burden, Options Bytown has partnered with The Community Veterinary Outreach Program (CVOP).
The animal welfare organization holds programs in two of Options Bytown’s buildings. Veterinary professionals provide training to both staff and tenants about pet care and common health issues. CVOP’s staff also conduct research on pet owners and their experience.
The findings reveal that not only do Options Bytown tenants have a high rate of animal companions (75 per cent), the pets received above average care and attention. Supportive housing tenants often spend a lot of time in their homes and rely on their pets for companionship, so they are able to provide more time and attention to their animals. However, engaging tenants with the veterinary outreach program opened the door for them to provide better medical care. Professionals educated tenants in their units, provided spay and neuter clinics, and examinations, and even brought food.
Helping pets and their owners stay healthy and safe
The veterinary program took time to educate Options Bytown staff on proper pet care, explaining what health issues to look out for and how to identify problems with the pet ownership. When tenants are living with excessive clutter or too many animals, for example, staff can intervene through the pets. By addressing how the clutter is neither safe for the tenants or the pets, staff were able to use concern for the animals as a way to approach the situation.
Contacting municipal animal services is always an option if a tenant’s living situation is unsafe for a pet. However, Laewen has only had to make the call once, when a resident’s health had deteriorated and they were no longer able to care for the pet.
While pet ownership can sometimes lead to problems requiring staff intervention, Laewen emphasizes that the benefits far outweigh the risks. “We have not run into any major problems. We encourage pets as it’s a way to engage tenants, reduces loneliness, and stress.” She’s found it also gives staff and tenants something in common. As most people have pets, it’s a great conversation starter and helps bring people together.
During our visit at Options Bytown, a man holding a large cat with striped patches on his white fur was eager to tell us his experience with CVOP. He relayed how an accidental ingestion of a futon spring had left his pet needing surgery well-beyond his financial means. “Without them, I wouldn’t have him,” he explained matter-of-factly. A little support can mean the world to a man and his best friend.
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