Miriam O'Callaghan: 'Your dog is your best friend, with you every day – people won't give that up'

Just back from the park with your dog? Planning a snooze later since the Boss – your cat – left you clinging to the edge of the bed all night? Wondering how you or your children would manage without that whiskered powderpuff or muscular 15kg of unconditional love?

If you’re saying yes to any of these questions, spare a thought for the pet owners who are having to surrender their dog or cat so they can rent somewhere to live.

The international online campaigners change.org are now petitioning the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy in the matter, since animal sanctuaries are reporting experiencing a “surge” in pet surrenders, as would-be renters face landlord intransigence in the application of the ‘No Pet’ clause in rental contracts.

Last Hope Animal Sanctuary in Navan is one of those reporting increases. Founder Hilary Bartley says the housing crisis is causing trauma to numerous individuals, couples and families forced to find new accommodation and who consequently surrender their pets.

“They ring us and they are devastated. These are responsible pet owners, the good people who should have animals. They have had their cat or dog for years but now to have a place to live, they have to give them up. Mothers are distraught, the children crying in the background. Animal lovers will know it’s like saying to a couple ‘you can come and rent this house, but you have to leave your children behind’.”

She believes the ‘No Pet’ clauses and their effects on animals and humans reflect what she calls “the changing Ireland”. She says; “We’re here since 2005 and we see that animals now are down the list of priorities, but so are people themselves and their needs as human beings. We see now that a small group of people are deciding how a big number of people can live”.

She continues; “What we are seeing is heartbreak. The pain is enormous for the animal and the human. Because animals are no different to us. They feel the pain of separation from their families, their owners. And for what?”

All animals taken by Last Hope are in what is called ‘soft care’, fostered out to families until they can be adopted. The refuge requires a letter signed by a landlord for every animal it adopts out.

Gillian Bird, director of communications at the DSPCA, told me; “We have a list of people wanting to adopt from us but always say to them what about your next move? Your current landlord might allow a pet, but if you move, what then?”

Gillian is pragmatic about the ‘No Pet’ rule, advising prospective tenants to open up dialogue with landlords, offering perhaps, either a ‘Pet Deposit’ or a written undertaking that an animal would access only specific areas of the property. Like Hilary Bartley and Last Hope, for Gillian and the DSPCA responsible pet ownership is critical.

Her number one rule for tenants? “Don’t lie. If you do, it’s the animal that will suffer.”

Last week, I spoke to somebody who I will call Grim, a long-term tenant facing eviction due to the sale of their apartment.

Grim would like to stay in the local area that has become home, but with rents having risen dramatically, there is nothing they can afford. However, to compound Grim’s financial difficulties, there is now the social, emotional and psychological jeopardy of the ‘No Pet’ clause.

“I adopted my dog when he was a puppy, one of 12, who would have been put down if I hadn’t,” says Grim. “He’s known to half the town as Sausage. Now I couldn’t even consider giving him up.

“My dog changed my life in a period where all I wanted to do was to lock myself away. He has given me a new lease of life, forcing me to get up and exercise, go out into the fresh air and mingle. When you think about it, people having their pet is saving the government a fortune on services.”

Grim has a point. The link between pet-keeping and mental and emotional well-being has long been established.

Equally, it is widely known that pet owning can reduce blood pressure and make people more resilient in the face of stress, grief or loss. Officially, the benefits are recognised, globally, in the rise of the registration of Emotional Support Animals.

Last year, Time magazine published scientific research on the benefits of dog owning from the university of Uppsala in Sweden.

Even adjusted for factors such as BMI and socio-economics, the study showed that people living alone with a dog showed a 33pc decrease in risk of death and an 11pc decrease in risk of cardiovascular disease.

Not since the Famine have homelessness and eviction impacted so strongly on the Irish consciousness.

Today, hired balaclaved heavies, protected by balaclaved gardai – think about that – might have replaced the battering ram in enforced removals and clearances of properties.

But that a dog or cat could be a barrier to finding a home in the first place, when the animal might be a person’s sole companion, seems unnecessarily cruel, particularly in a world where we have never been so interconnected and isolated simultaneously. In these circumstances, people’s love for their pets strengthens them but it also makes them vulnerable.

Brian McLoughlin, head of communications for Dublin Inner City Helping Homeless (ICHH) points to how having a pet can deter people homeless on the streets from using a hostel. Dealing with people who are homeless day in day out, he says he can understand why. “OK, you might get a long-term place for a few months, or an overnight stay, but your dog is your best friend, there with you every day and people won’t give that up,” he says. He points out that the ICHH teams which go out at night, also pack dog food in their supplies. “Put money in someone’s cup and they’ll feed their dog first, then themselves. They love their dogs, their dogs love them, that’s how it is.”

For Grim and his family, loving their dog is cold comfort in their search for a new place. The ‘No Pet’ clause reduces them to an income source benefiting an investor in a property, with no regard for the quality of life they as the tenant will have in it.

“From a previous medical condition, I suffered years of depression and though medication and therapy were useful, nothing brought me out of myself like my dog,” says Grim. For people in Grim’s situation, the idea of a Pet Deposit might sound like yet another barrier to those struggling to find accommodation in the first place and then paying exorbitant rent. But I suspect there are many animal lovers, heart-scalded by the homeless and housing crisis, and who value the centrality of pets to a human life, who would be willing to pay into a fund for tenants with animals. If you are one of them, let me know.

Clearly, landlords have the right to protect their assets, just as tenants with pets have the responsibility to protect the property they are renting.

But with the State now giving €30m a month – yes €30m – to private landlords for private tenants, this has to give the Government some sway and say in the application of the ‘No Pet’ rule. Considering the positive impacts of pets on our physical, emotional and mental health it cannot be the case that owning a pet means first owning a home.

In the presidential elections, the Higgins’s dogs Brod and Sioda had a big impact. Luckily, at Aras An Uachtarain the ‘No Pet’ clause doesn’t apply. But the magic of the Aras dogs is in what they signify – comfort, family, joy, loyalty, happiness and above all, love.

The very things that make us human. The very things we must abandon now, to find a home?

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