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Humane Health: Creating a Care Model for People and their Pets

In 2022, the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh (HARP) began developing a business plan for the newly proposed Humane Health Coalition and addition of a mobile veterinary unit. Fourth Economy conducted a study of similar program models, as well as an analysis of current conditions and community needs. The resulting plan outlines the structure and partnerships required for implementation of programming, funding considerations, and metrics of program success and community impact.

One Health Model

The Humane Health Coalition uses the concept of One Health to capture a continuum of care between human health, veterinary health, and human and animal support services via mobile clinic, to meet the community where they are.

HARP aims to provide veterinary health and animal support services and develop partnerships with human health and support services providers to leverage the human-animal bond to provide care to all those at risk within our communities.

Lessons Learned at the Human/Animal Health Nexus

Pets can positively impact human health.

Research has found that pet ownership is associated with reduced stress, lower heart rates, lower blood pressure, increased social support, better physical condition, and boosted immunity. Exposure to common pets may also help desensitize children and young adults to allergens.

Pets also benefit mental health. Children who grow up with pets have been found to be more empathic, social, and have higher self-esteem. In teens, the presence of pets at home is related to less loneliness, despair, and boredom. Pets alleviate stress and improve mood, two critical components of mental health. A Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) survey of pet owners found nearly three in four (74%) respondents reported experiencing mental health improvements from pet ownership. Three quarters (75%) of respondents reported witnessing mental health improvements in a friend or family member that correlated with pet ownership.

As pet ownership can address loneliness, social isolation, and purpose, it can benefit mental health for a wide range of ages, but may especially support older adults. As previously mentioned, Age Friendly Pittsburgh found older adults in the Pittsburgh region suffering from social isolation and loneliness since the onset of COVID. Given the connections between pets and mental health benefits, engaging older adults practices holistic support. Engagement should also not be limited to pet adoption or ownership, but can include fostering, volunteering, and serving as community stewards.

Pets can be costly.

Overall, pet ownership was a $123.6 billion industry in 2021, up nearly 20% from 2020. In 2021, estimated averages found average cat expenses just over $900, while dog expenses were closer to $1500.

Basic Annual Pet Expenditures 2021

Source: American Pet Products Association 2021

Surgical visits were the top dog related expense, while food was the largest cat expense. Almost a quarter of pet owners, or 10% of overall households spent at least $200 on veterinary care in the last year.

Economically vulnerable people are often forced to choose between shelter and pets.

More than half a million people are experiencing homelessness in the United States. Between 10-25% are pet owners, which translates to a lot of animals that require specific care strategies. Unfortunately, many homeless shelters do not allow animals. In 2016, 80% of people reported difficulty finding pet-friendly rental units. Similarly, 80% of people experiencing homelessness reported being denied from housing due to their pets. People experiencing homelessness often must choose between their pet and placement. While pets may be temporarily surrendered, only 15% of surrendered animals are reunited with their owners. Maintaining a pet while experiencing homelessness is made additionally difficult by harassment; up to 90% of pet owners experiencing homelessness report being harassed or witnessing harassment for owning a pet.

While people experiencing homelessness, poverty, or economic challenges face criticism for pet ownership, evidence shows that income is not correlated with pet ownership quality. Access to veterinary care is related to income.The Humane Society of the United States found that more than half (53%) of survey respondents from under-served communities had never taken their pet to a veterinarian. Unemployed people, or households earning less than $35,000 annually are less likely to seek veterinary care than households with higher incomes. Lack of economic stability or wellbeing can challenge pet retention.

In 2014, a review of 35 surrender cases revealed “economic reasons” were mentioned in 41% of cases. HARP’s existing focus on animal retention is seen through its Pet Pantry and reduced medical services. Evaluating the frequent areas of expressed need - particularly where cases of surrenders and strays concentration - can inform targeted, mobile support.

Volunteer Experience

During our spring retreat, Fourth Economy volunteered at HARP’s Northside facility. After touring the facility, our team created treats and animal engagement toys as well as picked up trash throughout the neighborhood. We also met two adorable puppies who were a hit with the team.


Fourth Economy helps create strong organizations and great communities. If your organization needs help with strategic planning, a feasibility study for a new program or service, or help measuring impact - let us know!


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