by Shawn Llewellyn, DVM
It is a busy start to the morning at McLaren House in downtown Vancouver, as the schedule for appointments with veterinarians is fully booked and a fit-in list has already been started. The staff at McLaren Housing Society has organized appointments for pets of both residents and homeless guardians to be seen today. The team of volunteers for the no-cost animal health clinic includes veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians, and assistants, along with students from Douglas College’s veterinary technology and psychiatric nursing programs.
Over the course of the clinic, veterinary professionals will examine and vaccinate pets as well as educate guardians on their pets’ health and wellness. Deworming, pet food, supplies, grooming services, and free spay/neuter referrals will be provided, and minor medical conditions treated. Any complex conditions identified requiring a more thorough workup are referred to neighbouring veterinary clinics where they will receive the further care they need.
In this morning’s clinic, Teddy, a five-year-old Chihuahua cross, was brought to the clinic by his guardian, Jeremy. Jeremy recently adopted him from a friend he came to know during his time living on the streets. Teddy’s original guardian was unable to keep him when he moved into community housing that was not pet friendly. Luckily, he trusted Jeremy, and Jeremy was able—and more than willing—to adopt Teddy.
Jeremy was concerned that Teddy seemed to be taking longer to eat than usual. On Teddy’s examination, it was determined he had stage four periodontal disease and would require multiple extractions. Teddy was referred for further workup including blood work in preparation for dental surgery. Jeremy was grateful for the support he was given to get his closest friend and companion healthy and happy again. In the end, Teddy had ten teeth extracted, but will be healthier because of it. Jeremy was educated on the importance of oral care and has committed to working on maintaining Teddy’s dental health through regular teeth brushing.
Animal health clinics for the marginalized began on the notion that providing care to the pets of those in need supports not only the animals but also the more marginalized in our society. Strengthening the bond between animal and human guardian fosters a connection that runs deep and builds on the support network people have in their community.
Pets of the homeless and those most vulnerable provide necessary companionship and a structure to daily life that has proven to be life-altering in numerous instances. From the stories we are told as we build relationships with people and their pets, we learn of the lives that have been saved because of a pet coming into the care of a previous drug user or someone who was contemplating suicide. The human–animal bond is known to enhance psychological and emotional well-being and, in many circumstances, can be critical to people seeking further community supports and ultimately gaining a foothold back to some form of stability in society.
Some people may believe that pets of the homeless are not well cared for; however, this is a misconception. The volunteers at the numerous clinics throughout the province can attest to the care and well-being provided by these pet guardians. Data shows that homeless pet guardians have significantly higher mean scores on attachment to their pets compared to the population as a whole, and that their pet is important for their mental and physical health . One barrier to pet ownership that is often raised is housing. Many homeless pet guardians choose to remain on the streets due to inadequate housing options that allow pets. They choose their pet, often their sole companion, over affordable housing or a shelter environment. More pet-friendly housing options are becoming available, but there is still a lack. The site of today’s clinic, McLaren House, is one of those pet-friendly affordable housing organizations. McLaren Housing Society believe in the human–animal bond, as staff have witnessed time and again how a pet can help combat isolation, depression, and other mental health issues.
Research shows that animal companions help street involved youth cope with loneliness and improve their sense of well-being through unconditional love. It also shows how pets motivate positive change, such as decreasing drug and alcohol use. While pet guardianship provides many liabilities, companion animals offer both physical and psychological benefits that youth otherwise have difficulty attaining.
Veterinarians can build upon the bond that exists between pet and guardian. Opportunities for veterinarians include volunteering for an animal health clinic or running one in the community, partnering with an organization to provide support to those in need, donating supplies or preventive medications such as parasite control, fundraising for a community program, support and/or sharing stories of the work being done through social media networks. Many BC organizations and programs support the homeless and marginalized, including The Canadian Animal Assistance Team, Charlie’s Food Bank, Paws for Hope Animal Foundation, Vets for Pets Victoria, and One Health Clinic.
Pets serve as a meaningful source of constant companionship and support for the homeless and marginalized. This companionship has thwarted the worst effects of depression and helps those contemplating suicide regain an element of mental well-being and purpose. In line with that, veterinarians can, and do, play a leading role in the support and recognition of this influential human–animal relationship. Veterinary professionals help promote the health and well-being of both the animals and people involved, further strengthening an everlasting bond.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of West Coast Veterinarian Magazine, the quarterly publication of the CVMA-SBCV Chapter.