Imagine the sorrow and guilt of having to give up your best friend because that is the only way you can get a roof over your head. That is the reality for many of those Australians not fortunate enough to own their own homes. Real estate owners in SA still have the power to impose ‘no pets’ clauses in leases.
Around two-thirds of Australian households have at least one companion animal. In most cases, they are considered part of the family. This bond is even more important for people who are in some way vulnerable, for example, the elderly, the homeless, the socially isolated and those with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
For the love of Darcy – pets and the elderly
Elderly people often face a heartbreaking choice when leaving the family home to move into retirement accommodation. Many are forced to give up their companion animals who provide love and companionship. This happens at a time when they may already have lost loved ones, and now their familiar surroundings and community.
This situation faced 87 year-old Bob, who left residential care in Scotland after being threatened with eviction if he did not get rid of his dog. The dog, called Darcie, had become part of Bob’s family when he was a pup and Bob’s wife was still alive. Darcie meant everything to Bob, and he gave up comfortable accommodation and the community of residents in order to stay with his closest family member (1). No-one should have to make this choice.
When pets make life worthwhile
Many people have little social support and a poor sense of self-worth and purpose. Companion animals can play a really positive role in the lives of such people. They provide consistent and unconditional companionship. They improve emotional wellbeing, as one person described (2): “When I feel as though I’m failing and worthless, they show me love, being with them lifts my spirit.”
The responsibility of looking after an animal forces people to be organised and active, rather than staying in bed or becoming housebound on bad days. This sense of responsibility is an important reason why caring for an animal can reduce self-harm and suicidality. As one person stated (2): “I’m responsible for them, I can’t give up when I have them to care for.”
When it’s better to stay homeless than give up animals
Up to a quarter of homeless people have a pet, usually a dog. The homeless tend to be very attached to their animal friends. One study found that homeless people scored significantly higher on animal empathy and companion animal bonding than sheltered people (3).
Given this high level of attachment, it is not surprising that people would rather remain homeless than have to abandon their companion (4). Contrary to some public opinion, veterinary examination of dogs cared for by homeless people found that they were healthy, less likely to be obese, and with fewer behaviour problems such as separation anxiety and agression towards strangers (5).
This strong bond makes people feel less lonely and depressed. In one study, two-thirds of participants were depressed, according to a validated scale, but pet owners were 3 times less likely to be depressed than those without a pet (6). The sense of being needed may even result in suicide prevention by creating a reason for living. For example, a woman with 2 cats who was homeless for 5 years after leaving an abusive relationship explained (7, p. 2):
“I don’t know if I would have suicided, but I came close. Like, in thinking I don’t want to be here. So just knowing I had to get up in the morning, had to feed my cats. I had to be there for them, it was just that they gave me a reason to get up the morning, basically.”
Given the strength of this bond, many people will not accept an offer of accommodation if it means giving up their best friends. Therefore, it is particularly important that avenues out of homelessness, such as boarding houses, are pet-friendly.
As an example, a volunteer supporting homeless people in Adelaide encountered a young couple sleeping in the parklands with a cat. They had just been evicted from their boarding house for having the cat, who was much-loved and well looked after. The volunteer suggested to them that their current environment was not suitable for the cat, and that having him would make it harder to find new accommodation. Reluctantly they agreed to offer him for rehoming, while they were sitting on the kerb, crying their eyes out. Why should anyone be put in this position?
‘No pets’ clause increases shelter admissions
The RSPCA SA clearly sums up problems caused to animals by pet bans:
“In the last three years, the number of animals surrendered to the RSPCA South Australia (SA) shelter at Lonsdale by owners unable to find pet friendly housing to rent has tripled. Between mid-2021 and mid-2022, more than 600 animals were surrendered, often tearfully, by owners desperate to get a roof over their heads.
Currently, animals surrendered by owners unable to find a rental make up 1 in 5 of the total number of animals surrendered to our shelter. This has placed significant extra pressure on RSPCA’s limited resources.
If the painful decision is made to surrender pets, then those animals suffer too from the sudden loss of the humans they are bonded with and the familiar environments and routines that comfort them. Animals caught up in these situations commonly experience confusion, separation anxiety and other welfare problems.”
A year after the change in rental laws in Victoria to allow pets, admissions to the RSPCA shelter as a result of not being able to find accommodation more than halved, down to 98.
Why is SA so far behind?
France affirmed the keeping of pets as a human right in 1975, with certain provisos to safeguard animals and other humans. In the US, the National Federal Pets in Housing Bill was passed, enabling older and disabled people to keep pets in federally assisted sheltered housing throughout the US (8).
In 2020, Victoria amended rental laws so that landlords cannot “unreasonably refuse consent to a renter wishing to keep a pet”. If landlords wish to disallow pets, they have to make an application to the state’s administrative tribunal, and 340 did so in the first year (9). Most were resolved by agreement between landlord and tenant, for example, agreeing to have carpets professionally cleaned when moving out. Of the 18 cases that reached the tribunal, 17 were resolved in favour of the tenant (9).
Since then other states have amended their laws, Queensland in 2022 and WA in 2023. But not SA, not yet. Here people are still denied the right to have an animal companion because they are too poor to afford their own home.
This article is a summary of a submission made to the review of the Residential Tenancies Act.
- Rook, D. (2018). For the love of Darcie: recognising the human-companion animal relationship in housing law and policy. Liverpool Law Review, 39 29-46
- Hawkins, R., Hawkins, E. & Tip, L. (2021). “I can’t give up when I have them to care for”: People’s experiences of pets and their mental health. Anthrozoos, 34 (4) 543-562
- Taylor, H., Williams, P. & Gray, D. (2004). Homelessness and dog ownership: an investigation into animal empathy, attachment, crime, drug use, and health and public opinion. Anthrozoos, 17 (4) 353-368
- Lem, M., Coe, J., Haley, D., Stone, E. & O’Grady, W. (2013). Effects of companion animal ownership among Canadian street-involved youth: a qualitative analysis. Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, 40 (4) 285-304
- Williams, D. & Hogg, S. (2016). The health and welfare of dogs belonging to homeless people. Pet Behaviour Science, 1 23-30
- Lem, M., Coe, J., Haley, D., Stone, E. & O’Grady, W. (2016). The protective association between pet ownership and depression among street-involved youth: a cross-sectional study. Anthrozoos, 29 (1) 123-136
- Cleary, M., West, S., Visentin, D., Phipps, M., Westman, M., Vesk, K. & Kornhaber, R. (2020). The unbreakable bond: the mental health benefits and challenges of pet ownership for people experiencing homelessness. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 42 (8) 741-746
- Ormerod. E. (2015) Supporting older people with pets in sheltered housing. In Practice, 34 170-173
- Landy, S. (2021). Rental pet laws, Victoria: How reform is faring one year on. Herald Sun, March 9, downloaded from https://www.realestate.com.au/news/rental-pet-laws-victoria-how-reform-is-faring-a-year-on/