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Should homeless people have pets?

Question: If a person does not have enough money or permanent shelter for themselves, should they keep a pet? How can they care for an animal if they can’t even guarantee their own next meal or roof over their head?

I thought about this when my husband and I started volunteering about a year ago for Pets in the Park, a national charity that provides free veterinary care at monthly vet health clinics and quarterly desexing clinics for animal companions of people struggling with homelessness.

With permission from PITP, our young daughters occasionally accompany us to the Parramatta clinic to see what we do. It’s a great opportunity to teach them about the importance of giving back to the community; doing something for someone they don’t know.

My husband and I help out with whatever is needed – filling up water bowls, holding or weighing animals (thanks hubby!), handing out donated pet food and accessories, or just lending a sympathetic ear.

Every month, families in need line up with their dogs at the registration table to see a vet or to pick up some pet food or a new collar to replace the broken one. If a dog needs grooming or life-saving surgery, PITP organises this with veterinary hospitals.

Last month, we met Michael and his dog, Angel. I don’t know who is more the saint. Michael, who saved Angel from a life of abuse and dog fighting? Or Angel, who protects and lovingly supports her owners through life’s challenges? Sadly, Michael’s wife has cancer and was too unwell from the chemo to attend the clinic.

My daughters and I, along with another volunteer, sat with Michael and Angel on the grass, listening to him talk about his wife and her battle with cancer, which was understandably taking its toll on him, too. Michael’s story was confronting especially for my children as they lost their grandfather to the same awful disease just a few months ago. I was amazed and so proud of my girls for being so brave, big-hearted and compassionate with Michael.

“My wife refers to Angel as her daughter,” he told us. “Angel sleeps with her. When she gets up, Angel gets up and follows her wherever she goes. If she gets up at night, not feeling well, Angel nudges me awake so I can help.”

She’s like an assistance dog, said my eldest daughter with a smile.

Michael put his arms around Angel and kissed her on the head. “Angel knows her purpose. It’s to give love,” he said.

I knew the answer to my question. People who struggle with homelessness should keep a companion animal. Their pet is their home, their sanctuary, their place of safety. A companion who helps to lessen their anxiety and offer them comfort.

I understand now that it’s people struggling to stay alive and well, need pets the most. And they can do it with the help of Pets in the Park.

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