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Dog Tags: Homeless Veterans and Their Pets/Animal Companions

By Susan K. Lee, Pamela Willson

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Purpose: Overall, military veterans, who are at increased risk for homelessness and are over-represented when it come to the general population, comprise 10% of the United States (US) population. However, they account for 16% of the homeless adult population. Typically, homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era and are older and disabled, reporting a myriad of health concerns, including physical and psychological problems, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcohol or drug dependencies. There are many challenges that affect physical, mental, and emotional health status and quality of life, such as separation from or death of family members and friends; decreased social supports; depression; and becoming dependent on others because of illnesses (Molinari, Brown, Frahm, Schinka, & Casey, 2013). Companion animals play a significant role in effecting change or providing stability to the homeless. The purpose of this study was to examine the construction of self-worth among homeless veterans by assessing the value of pet/animal companionship. Through the use of qualitative interviews conducted with homeless veteran pet guardians, coping strategies, views, and concerns through which marginalized people survive may be experienced.

Methods: After applying for and receiving permission from Institutional Review Boards (IRB), acute and chronic homeless veterans were interviewed to understand the role and impact pets/animal companions have on decision-making and mental/physical health. It was thought that homeless veterans would demonstrate high scores on a standardized pet attachment survey, indicating high levels of attachment for their pets/animal companions. Additionally, it was believed that homeless veterans with pets/animal companions have difficulty finding housing and refuse opportunities for placement if pets/animal companions were not allowed, impacting the decision-making process of whether or not to exit homelessness if terminating the human/animal relationship was required. Participants were approached and surveyed at veterinary clinics offering free food and veterinary care for animals of homeless people, and in parks where the homeless congregate. Participation was voluntary. A mixed methods study included a questionnaire that asked about demographic information, duration and frequency of homelessness, numbers of pets, and pet ownership patterns. A qualitative open-ended probes included questions, such as, 'Tell me about the role your pet/animal companion plays in your overall well-being' or 'What concerns do you have about your pet/animal companion?'

Results: Data analysis was conducted by transcribing interviews and searching line-by-line for themes. Each interview was analyzed and compared to previous interviews to reveal repeated themes and categories. Once all interviews were transcribed, compared, and analyzed, and no new concepts were observed, data saturation was felt to be achieved, and a central concept was identified. Homeless veterans have a strong, unyielding bond with their pet/animal companions that over-rides personal needs. Interviews revealed that the homeless claim companion animals save their lives, help to overcome adversity, play key roles to facing a better future, and become the impetus for wanting to move out of homelessness, thus encouraging responsibility. Further, animal companions provide unconditional love and decrease lapses into unsafe behavior, such as that associated with drugs and alcohol. 

Conclusion: Homeless veterans are denied housing because of their unwillingness to separate from their pets/animal companions and strict regulations against having pets/animal companions in shelters and rental units. Homeless veterans are frequently accompanied by pets/animal companions. The role these pets/animal companions play in establishing and maintaining self-esteem and emotional stability is documented, yet the motivation to find homes if it means parting with the pet/animal companion continues to be ignored. A potential strategy to improve homeless veterans' self-worth might include co-habitation shelters for the homeless and their pet/animal companions that provide food, shelter, and healthcare.


Mason N McLary

HABRI Central

Date July 2016
Series Title Working With Our Military
Publisher Sigma Theta Tau international, the Honor Society of Nursing
Location of Publication Cape Town, South Africa
Conference Title 27th international Nursing Research Congress
Format PDF
Size/Length 16
Language English
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal-assisted activities
  2. Animal-assisted therapies
  3. Animal roles
  4. Animals in culture
  5. Companion
  6. Dogs
  7. Health
  8. homelessness
  9. Mammals
  10. Pet ownership
  11. Pets and companion animals
  12. Physical environment
  13. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
  14. Service animals
  15. Social Environments
  16. social support
  17. veterans