ASK THE VET: Research finds homeless teenagers are safer if they have pets

Q: I am troubled by a homeless teenager and his dog who live on the street near my office. I am thinking about offering to adopt the dog to make it easier for the teen to get into a shelter and find work. Does this make sense?

A: You are kind to want to help this teenager, but his dog could be providing more benefit than you know.

In the United States, 10% to 15% of homeless people have pets. Research in the U.S., Canada, the UK and elsewhere has shown that homeless youths benefit from having a pet, and the pet's health and welfare are not compromised.

For example, a 2016 study followed 189 homeless street youths, 89 with pets and 100 without. Researchers found that homeless youths with pets were three times less likely to be depressed than their counterparts without pets.

Homeless teenagers with pets also were less likely to engage in risky behaviors that might get them arrested, such as using alcohol or illegal drugs. In addition, they more often confided in veterinarians and other professionals about the challenges they faced.

These challenges include physical abuse, drug abuse and other trauma at home, sometimes related to the teenager's gender identity or sexual preference. The teen's pet doesn't judge and could offer the only unconditional love the teen has ever known.

Researchers concluded that social service agencies need to find ways to let homeless people keep their pets. So you may wish to rethink how to help this teenager and his canine companion.

One suggestion is to give local doggie day care vouchers to the homeless teen to use when he needs to get medical care, go for a job interview or buy food -- all places that don't welcome dogs.

Q: I am about to adopt my first cat. I want to understand what my new cat is trying to tell me through meowing and body language. Please educate me.

A: Congratulations on adopting your new family member and learning how to communicate with your kitty. Feline vocalizations, body language, scent communication, visual signals and tactile communication are fascinating.

Vocalizations range from the trill or chirp cats use to greet feline and human friends to purring. In addition, cats meow in dozens of ways, and each meow has a distinct meaning.

Hissing and spitting usually indicate that a cat feels threatened or defensive, while growling and snarling signal the start of an attack.

Body language, the most important method of communicating for cats, involves the face, eyes, ears, tail and body posture. When a cat greets a friend, the body relaxes, the hair lies flat and the tail stands up and often quivers.

When cats want to look large enough to scare away an enemy, the fur on their body and tail sticks out, the back arches, and the tail stands erect. By contrast, when cats are fearful and want to look inconspicuous, they crouch and drop the tail.

When cats are content and relaxed, the tail sways gently. When they're annoyed, it twitches.

Cats' ears also communicate feelings. Erect ears show the cat is alert, whereas ears flattened back against the head signal fear or aggression.

Cats leave scents produced by glands at the corners of the mouth, on the cheeks, on the sides of the forehead, on the foot pads and along the tail. Head butting is a common way of leaving a scent signal. When cats scratch a vertical surface, they leave their scent and a visual signal in the form of your shredded upholstery.

Tactile communication occurs when cats rub against or groom other group members, including humans.

I hope this glimpse into feline communication helps enhance your bond with your new cat.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

[email protected]

Upcoming Events