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May 24th, 2006 Jon Weatherford | News Stories
 

Pet Peeves

Bitchin' news: Experts say dogs owned by homeless people don't have it so bad.

     
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IMAGE: PAUL THOMAS
When the weather heats up, animal control agencies know complaints will soar from pet lovers worried about dogs living with homeless people.

But the people who respond to those complaints say reality differs sharply from the perception voiced in those calls alleging thirsty, malnourished or otherwise mistreated dogs living beside freeway offramps, in doorways or under bridges.

Mike Oswald, Multnomah County's animal services director, says actual problems with pets of the homeless are "no more frequent" than with pets owned by anybody else.

The Oregon Humane Society responds to 1,400-plus cases a year in Portland, a city where nearly four in 10 households have a dog.

Local shelter officials and veterinarians estimate there are less than 1,000 dogs owned by homeless Portlanders, less than 1 percent of the city's dog population. But about 10 percent of complaints come from callers upset about dogs with homeless owners.

Mark Wells, lead investigator for the Oregon Humane Society, says most of the calls are unfounded.

"These are some of the most loyal, best socialized, friendliest animals I see," Wells says. "What other pet gets to spend 24 hours a day with their owner?"

Heather Lyons, homeless-program manager for Portland Bureau of Housing and Community Development, says pets often provide companionship and support for otherwise isolated people who may be struggling with serious health and emotional issues.

"A lot of times, my dog eats better than me," says Charity, a young woman in Waterfront Park, who has been living mostly outdoors for about a year.

Her dog, a friendly 9-month-old brown and white pit bull mix named Jedi, does seem healthy. Charity says it's easy to get food for him.

"You sit outside a grocery store in Portland and everybody will buy you dog food,'' she says. "For you? Not so much."

Tiffini Mueller, a spokeswoman with Dove Lewis Animal Hospital, understands why homeless people want pets but says there are legitimate concerns about the street animals' health.

"Dogs need constant access to water," Mueller says. "Someone who's homeless might not be aware of what the animal need to stay healthy."

Although street people may be committed to their pets, they don't always have the means to handle injuries and vaccinations, says Dr. Wendy Kohn, a veterinarian who works with the homeless.

Even a minor injury that goes unchecked because the owner can't afford care can fester and become life-threatening. Unvaccinated animals are especially susceptible to canine parvovirus, which is highly contagious and often fatal if not caught early.

Kohn is fighting such problems through Portland Animal Welfare (PAW), a group of volunteer veterinarians she co-founded who've held 12 public clinics in the past three years to provide free vaccinations and medical treatment for pets of homeless people.

"As a vet," Kohn says, "I am impressed by the overall health and well-being of these animals."


The next PAW clinic is June 25 at Outside In, 1132 SW 13th Ave. Report neglected or abandoned animals to Multnomah County Animal Control, (503) 988-7387, or Oregon Humane Society, (503) 285-7722. Help for homeless people with pets is available at Outside In, (503) 535-3800 or JOIN, (503) 232-2031.
 
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