Puppy with pride flag

The Power of Pet Caregiving for LGBTQ+ Youth

Pets and pet caregiving trace back millennia, as confirmed by animal remains discovered at archeological sites. Our historical relationship to animals as pets highlights something fundamental that could be valuable for the struggles LGBTQ+ youth face today.

Recent history shows that during times of crisis and social isolation, like the COVID-19 lockdowns, people turn to pets to support their wellbeing. During these moments, research indicates that pet companionship can have a positive effect on wellbeing for young people coping with anxiety and uncertainty.

A recently published study looks specifically at the ways pet caregiving can help to support LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness within a wider framework of ‘radical healing’.

Here, we look at what animal remains can tell us about our historical relationships with animals, the concept of radical healing outlined in this study, and the ways in which pet companionship can support LGBTQ+ young people experiencing homelessness.

Human–animal interactions throughout history

Research has shown that pet caregiving can bolster people’s sense of responsibility, and provide comfort in therapeutic settings. In recent decades, researchers, such as zooarcheologists, have taken a historical lens to human–animal relationships.

Zooarcheology in practice

Zooarchaeology is a branch of archeology that looks at human–animal interactions by analyzing and interpreting animal remains.

The research in this field can tell us about the different types of animals consumed in different parts of the world, a given area’s population size at a given time, human migration patterns, and even religious and cultural practices involving animals in different historical societies.

For example, a recent archeological dig uncovered a tooth belonging to a domesticated dog in the caves of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago off the coast of Canada. Analyzing and interpreting the remains helped to uncover the existence of human inhabitants in the area at a much earlier date than we knew of. The remains date back to 13,100 years ago. Evidence like this is crucial to understanding the histories of Indigenous peoples who have existed on this land for years

Another example is the Pazyryk burials, uncovered in the Altai Mountains, Siberia, where some of the oldest domesticated horse remains have been uncovered. Jeweled saddles and tail adornments were also found, indicating that horses were viewed as culturally important.

The discovery of remains like these suggest the existence of domesticated animal companions over ten thousand years ago, and sheds light on our relationship with animals throughout history.

Caring for pets

Pets have and continue to play multiple roles, including in hunting, guarding and herding, as well as companionship. Pets are different to, for example, livestock, due to the increased human–animal contact in these relationships. Companionship is one of the key elements of this increased interaction.

Examples like Alexander the Great’s horse, or the astronomer Tycho Brahe’s pet moose, reflect the affectionate, mutual relationships we’ve learned to develop with other animals.

It’s clear that companionship with pets requires caregiving, including feeding, walking and taking a trip to the vet when needed. Pet caregiving can have a beneficial effect on pet owners and provide companionship in daily life.

Today, the positive power of pet caregiving has been demonstrated to extend to mental wellbeing.

Radical healing

In an article published in Youth, the authors look at pet caregiving in relation to the concept of radical healing for LGBTQ+ you experiencing homelessness.

Radical healing is defined by the authors as “a social justice perspective in advocating for and supporting social groups who experience marginalization”. It requires looking through multiple lenses to explore how marginalized people are differently affected in different settings. These experiences are viewed in relation to wellness at three levels: “individual, community, and social-level wellness.”

The authors outline the difficulties faced by marginalized people when seeking care, noting that LGBTQ+ identities and homelessness are often pathologized in clinical settings. Namely, homelessness and identification are often viewed as health risks in clinical settings.

Because of this, clinical settings can become associated with discomfort and feelings of alienation, leaving marginalized people with limited options for effective therapy.

Furthermore, “conflict in families around LGBTQ+ young people’s expansive gender and sexual identities is also widespread, with many youth reporting complex family processes of acceptance and rejection” and is linked to a greater likelihood of facing homelessness.

Pet caregiving among LGBTQ+ youth

For young people experiencing homelessness, pets can help to shift the focus from internal, fearful thoughts about security and marginalization to something ‘external’ and potentially ‘more productive’.

Following interviews with LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness and housing precarity, the study uncovered the following:

“By having a positive distraction in the form of an adorable animal, LGBTQ+ YPEH [Young People Experiencing Homelessness] recognized the possibility of pets promoting their wellbeing through effective coping mechanisms.”

The authors also identified increased hope and greater attention to self-care among participants who care for pets.

While animal companions have been shown to have positive effects on wellbeing, there’s also research suggesting that pet caregiving can cause stress. So, there’s still a need for more research on the topic to understand its effects. It is also important to recognize that therapeutic care works differently for us all.

Supporting LGBTQ+ youth facing precarity

This study makes the important point that LGBTQ+ young people have vibrant and fulfilling lives beyond the difficult experiences they face, like homelessness, that disproportionately impact them.

[I]t is equally important to recognize the multifaceted nature of their lives beyond a singular focus on adverse outcomes.”

However, work needs to be done to better support vulnerable people, especially when facing housing precarity. Pet caregiving is just one method of alleviating the stress caused by homelessness. Better housing access and other forms of support are pivotal to resolving the widespread homelessness among LGBTQ+ youth.

Here are some ways to help:

  • Donate to organizations that help LGBTQ+ youth and adults avoid or escape homelessness.
  • Advocate for better access to housing.
  • Participate in campaigns that help to raise awareness about the housing crisis faced by LGBTQ+ youth.

The paper discussed in this article can be freely accessed in “LGBTIQ+ Youth: Experiences, Needs, and Aspirations”. Open access research makes information available to all. You can access the research published in other MDPI journals on the MDPI website.