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How Helping Pets Helps People

By Caroline Jedlicka, LMSW

When social workers intervene on behalf of a family in need, it helps to take every member of the family into consideration—including their pets. This inclusion not only benefits vulnerable animals but also can be a major advantage in helping human clients cope with and recover from crises.

Pets provide love and companionship, and studies have shown that pet ownership is beneficial to both mental and physical health. Being separated from a pet or being unable to care for a pet can have negative consequences.

In New York City, help comes from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Cruelty Intervention Advocacy (CIA) program. Formed in 2010, CIA addresses situations where owners can't adequately care for their animals due to limited financial resources or circumstances including domestic violence, housing restrictions, animal hoarding, lack of transportation, and medical or mental health issues.

In the past five years, CIA has has assisted thousands of animals and people, providing services including access to spay/neuter, emergency veterinary care, and pet supplies. CIA team members also connect clients with temporary boarding or foster care for the pets, as well as social services to help address the underlying issues that play a role in the ability to care for a pet.

The CIA program regularly assists pet owners who are no longer able to care for their pets and may even be putting themselves in peril because they are placing the needs of the pet above their own. Some pet owners delay medical treatment or ignore personal safety to stay with and care for a pet. This challenge is clearly seen among domestic violence survivors. Studies estimate that as many as 48% of domestic violence victims remain in abusive situations due to fear of what would happen if they left their pets behind (Ascione, 2007), and that more than 70% of women entering domestic violence shelters report that the abuser has threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet (Ascione, Weber, & Wood, 1997).

Social workers can play a very important role in helping pet owners plan for the care of their pets during emergencies, including gathering contact information for neighbors, friends, or family who can care for a pet. The ASPCA recommends that social workers working with domestic violence survivors include pets when creating safety plans. 

Social workers should have conversations with pet owners to determine in advance who will care for the animal if the owner is suddenly unable and develop strategies for reuniting them later. Being knowledgeable about animal welfare organizations, pet-friendly resources, and low-cost veterinary services in the community can also be beneficial in helping clients access services.

Pets can also make it easier for social workers to develop trust and rapport with their clients, including serving as an "ice breaker" when getting to know a client. A social worker who shows interest in a client's pet demonstrates care about a very important companion in the client's life. This can help the social worker establish a connection and earn trust. Clients are often more open to receiving help for pets than for themselves. Conversations about pets can be an entry point into more difficult conversations about a person's well-being.

Better understanding of the connection between people and pets will also help defeat the perception that disadvantaged pet owners—whether they are homeless, impoverished, or elderly—shouldn't own pets. What these owners actually need is access to resources to help them keep their pets healthy and happy.

To help domestic violence survivors, CIA works closely with the Urban Resource Institute's (URI) PALS (People and Animals Living Safely) program, New York City's first-ever initiative to shelter domestic violence survivors with their pets. The appreciative response from URI families when they learn they can keep their pets is a testament to the value animals add to people's lives.

During a typical day, the CIA program receives referrals from social service agencies, the New York City Police Department, the ASPCA Animal Hospital, as well as from concerned citizens. Case workers follow up on these referrals through phone calls and home visits, and connect pet owners to crucial services with social workers or other human service providers.

The approach is friendly and nonjudgmental, making it clear to pet owners that the ASPCA is there to help them and their pets. When visiting a new client, the CIA team does an assessment of the needs of both the pet owner and pet. They ask questions about the health and well-being of the pet: Is the pet healthy? Has the pet seen a veterinarian and been vaccinated within the last year? Does the pet need spay/neuter surgery? They observe the home and note if the pet has access to fresh food and water, pet supplies, a litter box or housebreaking pads, and a clean living environment, and monitor for any signs of neglect. Through the assessment, the CIA team determines what services and resources are needed.

They also assess the needs of the pet owner, asking about issues of health and well-being, the living situation, social supports, and any barriers the pet owner may be facing in self-care and care of the pet, so they can best connect the pet owner with social services.

Pet owners served by CIA come from many different and unique circumstances. If pet owners need linkage to social services, CIA program staff makes referrals to agencies including Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, legal assistance, elder care, case management, and domestic violence providers.

One example is Lily, an administrative professional who lived with two small-breed dogs. Lily was being physically and verbally abused by her boyfriend who'd recently threatened to kill her. Lily wanted to go into a domestic violence shelter but had no friends or family who could care for her dogs while she was there. Like many survivors, Lily was not willing to leave her home unless she knew her pets—whom she considered her "best friends"—would be safe.

The CIA program connected Lily to the Domestic Violence hotline and made arrangements for her pets before she left her home. Lily left with all her belongings and the ASPCA arranged for her dogs to stay at a 24-hour veterinary clinic. The dogs were vaccinated and groomed, and they were eventually fostered by ASPCA volunteers.

Lily contacted CIA staff regularly for updates, and was thrilled to see the dogs' new haircuts. After two months, Lily had saved enough money to get a pet-friendly studio apartment, and was finally reunited with her dogs, who will undoubtedly help her cope with this new, safer chapter in her life.

Another client was Olivia, an older woman referred to the ASPCA because her cat needed care. Olivia told CIA staff that she had additional cats at home in need of assistance. The CIA team made a home visit and found 15 cats infested with fleas in a home that was cluttered and in deteriorating condition.

The team brought veterinarians to the home to provide vaccines, flea and tick treatment, ear cleanings, nail trims, and general exams for all the cats. CIA also reached out to an elder care service provider to help Olivia get to her medical appointments and keep her home clean.

In Lily and Olivia's cases, as in many CIA cases, the needs of pets and pet owners are inextricably linked. Viewing pets as an integral part of a family can help keep people and pets together and improve the well-being of all members of the family.

Caroline Jedlicka, LMSW, works with the ASPCA's Cruelty Intervention Advocacy program.

Ascione, F. R. (2007). Emerging research on animal abuse as a risk factor for intimate partner violence. In K. Kendall-Tackett & S. Giacomoni (Eds.), Intimate Partner Violence. Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.

Ascione, F. R., Weber, C. V., & Wood, D. S. (1997). The abuse of animals and domestic violence: A national survey of shelters for women who are battered. Society and Animals, 5(3), 205-218.