Helping Pets and People in Crisis

happy pets

As more research emerges about the link between human welfare and animal welfare, it has become increasingly clear of the relationship that binds the two together. In recent years, the animal welfare community has fully embraced the human-animal bond issue as animal shelters across the country work to reduce the number of owned animals being surrendered due to emergencies and find innovative ways to strengthen pet owners who are at risk of falling through the larger safety-net.

These new efforts are raising awareness of opportunities to better address the link between child abuse, elder abuse, and animal abuse and cruelty by expanding cross reporting and training among all first responders. It is now a pertinent time for human service agencies to begin to integrate animal welfare issues to meet the needs of the individuals they serve.

While it may initially seem awkward for social service organizations to expand their scope in this arena, this is actually not new for social workers who are historically at the front lines of addressing the needs of most marginalized populations. Today, more than 65% of the US population are pet owners, and it is very likely that some of these individuals and families face significant challenges impacting their housing, health, and safety.

Incorporating animal welfare into the work of human service organizations is not hard difficult but does require a meaningful pivot in thinking about helping a person/family in their whole environment. In terms of key social work interventions, much of the work remains the same from engagement and assessment through treatment. However, by recognizing a pet in the household, engagement and assessment can actually be stronger, thereby facilitating a treatment that is comprehensive for people and animals in the home. Incorporating animal welfare into traditional human service work can be done through these ten areas:

Engagement: Ask about the pet’s name and learn about the client’s relationship with the pet. Knowing about the animal (history, age, veterinary care, behavior) can reveal issues related to the individual as well.

Document: Include the presence of pets in all chart documentation, including a photo of the pet if possible. That way, the information of an animal can be shared with new workers. Include a Pet Information Page to collect information about the pet and services needed.

Assessment: Using the animal as an assessment point can showcase gaps in care (is there pet food, is there human food) as well as address environmental issues. Identifying pet needs (veterinary care, spay/neuter, grooming, food) is useful to the understanding of the client in the environment. In addition, assessments can highlight the relationship between the pet and person, whether there is a risk of human or animal neglect, or if there is a concern for elder abuse or animal cruelty.

Learn about the Issues: Pet owners face a number of crises along with the rest of the population including domestic violence, eviction, and illness. Some states have protections in place legally for situations of domestic violence including naming pets on Orders of Protection. One starting point is the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals online toolkit for social workers:

Explore Resources: There is an increase of low cost/free services targeting at risk pet owners to encourage spay/neuter and regular veterinary care.

Advocate: Front-line workers in under-served communities can advocate for animal welfare issues including spay/neuter, community cat issues, and increase of services (such as pet food banks) to help clients at risk of relinquishing their pets.

Collaboration: Human service agencies can partner with animal welfare organizations to address needs in the most under-served communities and assist the most at-risk clients. By recognizing the issues and understanding solutions, human service organizations can meet additional needs by monitoring and following up with clients and animals in the home.

Early Intervention: Early acknowledgement of pets in the home requiring services can allow interventions for individuals facing emergencies (hoarding, domestic violence, health/mental health issues) to encourage pet retention versus pet relinquishment.

Emergency Planning: Recent events showcase that everyone benefits when preparedness is encouraged whether the emergency is a terrorist attack, a large-scale hurricane, or other event. Social workers can encourage pet owners to secure emergency supplies for themselves and their animals, identify emergency temporary pet caretakers (in case of hospitalization or other emergency), and compile pet go-bags so that no one is left behind if an emergency is activated.

Program Expansion: Human service programs can address gaps in service delivery by expanding their initiatives to better meet the needs of vulnerable pet owners. Several ideas for expansion include identifying pet owners and assessing needs, providing pet food banks, implementing pet foster programs, offering veterinary clinics, and developing small grant programs to help pet owners in case of hospitalizations.

Having a pet that is loved and considered a family member should not impede accessing a level of assistance that non-pet owners can easily access. Locally, several social service organizations are beginning to lead the way by expanding their programs to target pet owners. These include Urban Resource Institute for implementing an emergency co-shelter for victims of domestic violence and their pets, and Search and Care, for expanding their friendly visiting program to target homebound seniors with pets. While these are great advances, it is now time for more human service programs to consider incorporating animal welfare into their work.

Online Toolkit for Social Workers to Help Pet Owners in Crisis

Comprehensive guide from the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals covers topics including domestic violence, homelessness, hoarding, illness, among others. 

A mentally challenged woman is evicted from her apartment but refuses to enter a shelter because it won’t allow her three cats. An elderly man refuses urgent medical care because he has no one to look after his dog. A domestic violence victim returns to her abuser because he threatens to kill the family pet if she does not.

pets-domestic-violenceThese are just a few of the many heartbreaking and complex situations faced by New York’s pet owners and by the social workers and human services organizations that help them.

Today, the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, a coalition of more than 150 New York City non-profit animal shelters and rescue groups, has launched the Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit, a first-of-its-kind online resource for these front-line professionals.

Divided into six sections covering domestic violence, illness and hospitalization, homelessness, animal hoarding, pet relinquishment and animal-assisted therapy, the Toolkit offers a comprehensive set of resources, assessment tools and promising intervention techniques for virtually every type of crisis involving pets and their owners.

The Toolkit is an outgrowth of the Alliance’s Helping Pets and People in Crisis program, spearheaded by social worker Jenny Coffey, LMSW. Created in 2008, the program has helped in more than 1,000 individual cases in which New Yorkers faced life-challenging situations involving pets. Coffey assembled the Toolkit from her years of experience combining animal welfare and human welfare in New York City.

“This one-of-a-kind initiative extends the reach of one of the Alliance’s flagship programs,” said Jane Hoffman, President of the Alliance. “Every year, the number of calls we get about pet owners in crisis has grown exponentially, and we don’t foresee any let-up. With the launch of the Helping Pets and People in Crisis Toolkit, we’re able to share what we’ve learned, through our collaboration with dozens of other dedicated animal and human services organizations, about how to help pet owners deal with difficult and often unforeseen circumstances.”

In the Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit, human services professionals will find a wide range of suggestions, intervention strategies and resources to help them assist pet owners in crisis. Each section identifies a problem, explains how to recognize it and suggests ways to address it:

Domestic Violence and Pets – Describes the role pets play in such situations and how to extricate domestic violence victims and their pets from them. Special Features: How to help clients develop a pet-safety plan, request an order of protection, or petition to have a pet registered as a therapy animal.

Homelessness and Pets – Explains how to assist the 5 to 10 percent of homeless people who own pets and who are precluded from entering homeless shelters because of the prohibitions against them. Special Features: Links to helpful organizations like the Animal Relief Fund, Feeding Pets of the Homeless, Seer Farms and Collide; information on Americans with Disabilities Act regulations and on New York City housing programs that allow pets.

Hospitalization, Illness and Pets – Explains how to arrange temporary or permanent care of pets for infirm or elderly patients without family or friends. Special Features: Information about temporary care, “re-homing” and requesting help from Animal Care & Control of NYC.

Animal Hoarding – Explains how to recognize and address animal hoarding. Special Features:  Animal Hoarding Assessment tool.

Pet Relinquishment – Explains how to help clients deal with life events that may require giving up a pet. Special Features:Tips on “re-homing” animals.

Animal-Assisted Therapy – Explains how to identify situations in which pets might play a therapeutic role, helping clients improve their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Special Features: An explanation of the differences among Service, Assistance and Therapy Animals; links to animal-therapy organizations.

Resources – Provides a recap of all of the resources mentioned throughout the site. Special Features: Hyperlinks and complete contact information.

Tips & Tools – Provides suggestions for social workers preparing to meet with individuals and families with pets, including tips on how pets can be used to engage otherwise reluctant clients, and what can be learned about an owner’s situation based on the condition of her pets.  Special Features:  Colorful, easy-to-read charts; links to local pet services for every possible need.

The Helping People and Pets in Crisis Toolkit is just one of the many resources available through the Alliance. To see all of them, visit

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