April 13, 2021

Policies force some who rely on social housing to choose between a pet and a home

UCalgary research highlights potential benefits of companion animals from a public health perspective
A recent study by UCalgary and UAlberta looks at policies, decision-making around companion animals. Colourbox

People who own pets often consider them to be a part of their family — but for those who are precariously housed that can often mean making tough decisions.

The benefits of having an animal companion for seniors, or for those living with low income, a disability or who are precariously housed, are significant.

A recent study by University of Calgary and University of Alberta researchers published in the journal Housing and Society looks at policies and decision-making around companion animals in social housing in Edmonton and examines the potential benefits of pets.

People’s bonds to their companion animals are a positive contributor to their well-being, which isn’t often reflected in social housing policies, says Dr. Eloise Carr, RN, PhD, a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and one of the article’s authors.

“I think it’s a really important consideration from a public health perspective. When we look at some of the impacts out there that we're grappling with, loneliness is one of the biggest issues,” says Carr, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary, whose research areas include exploring how living with a dog can enhance the quality of life for people with chronic pain.

Researchers looked at 16 social housing organizations in Edmonton, and out of those, four organizations allow dogs, cats and other small companion animals, while three organizations only allow fish or birds.

When social housing policies do not allow people to have their pets, it can mean that some people will choose not to go, and instead choose unsafe or substandard housing.

“They may remain homeless, or they may remain in a situation that isn't positive for them in any way; therefore, it's presenting an enormous barrier to them," Carr continues.

Carr says 57 per cent of households in Canada have a companion animal, which represents a large number of people for whom policies banning companion animals would be a barrier.

There is a great deal of evidence that living with a pet has a positive impact on quality of life and well-being, as human-animal relationships lead to reduced loneliness, improved social connectedness, reduced risk of depression, improved ability to be active in the community and, for some, a sense of safety and security. Despite this evidence, making policy about allowing pets in social housing can be complicated," says fellow researcher Dr. Cary Brown, PhD.

Eloise Carr (left) Cary Brown (right)

Eloise Carr, left, and Cary Brown.

Brown says when people aren’t allowed to bring their pets with them into social housing it can lead to rule-breaking and smuggling.

“For a large number of people living with their pets, many consider them to be family members,” says Brown, a professor of occupational therapy in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta.

“We would never consider telling someone, ‘I'm sorry, you can move in, but you can't bring your child, or your grandchild,’ but we have not made that move yet to families with a companion animal.”

Brown says research like this is important to address evidence gaps and possible misunderstanding that can be reflected in policy, and to give organizations across Canada the best information possible. 

Policies can vary widely between organizations and are often not evidence-based, Brown says. Due to this lack of evidence, policies can be based on assumptions that companion animals will cost more due to damage, so more investigation in this area is needed, she adds.

“Until we have that kind of economic data, it's going to be really hard to change this, because policy-makers are forced to rely on belief- and values-based decision-making,” she says.

“This is not a new problem, but it's a growing issue, accelerating with financial problems and COVID, and we shouldn't be making decisions based solely on values and beliefs. We need to have access to better information to make decisions.”

The researchers collaborating on the article are Erin McCabe, Cary A. Brown, Maria C. Tan, Douglas P. Gross, Donna M. Wilson, Eloise Carr, Jean E. Wallace, and Maxi Miciak.

Cary Brown is a professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Alberta and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Eloise Carr is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), the McCaig Institute for Bone and Joint Health, and the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. She is a professor in the Faculty of Nursing and the Department of Community Health Sciences.