“My relationship with Mack … is the best I ever had … having my dog around I find it more comforting than having my girlfriend around … ’cause he always knows when I’m feeling bad … I don’t always have to sit around explaining to him what I mean cause he already seems to know … having Mack is easy ’cause I can talk about my problems to him and he doesn’t judge me. 1” –Terence-
This quote is a familiar refrain in the world of Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO). Terence, a street-involved youth, describes his relationship with his dog as “unconditional love.” This love is the reason many of us have pets, and for those experiencing homelessness, street-involved and/or marginally housed, pets can be their lifeline.
When talking about homelessness, it’s important to remember that homelessness is more than a lack of accessible and secure shelter; it is inadequate income, limited access to health care and social service supports, and social exclusion. Those experiencing homelessness have a lower life expectancy and higher rates of illness across a wide spectrum of disease.2 This is often related to the social determinants of health, including preventable illness from lack of basic health care, including common vaccines, poor nutrition, tobacco use, and other addictions.3
CVO is a unique veterinary-based organization that provides pro-bono health services to both pets and their owners. Our mandate is to improve the health and welfare of both animals and people, to create multilateral collaborations with community organizations, to contribute to the scientific knowledge base on social issues involving animals, and to develop program models that can be reproduced in other communities.
The issues of pets while experiencing homelessness
In Canada, up to 19% of those experiencing homelessness own pets.4 The benefits of pet ownership include increased social, emotional and physical health. For example, pet ownership can also lower the prevalence of depression. 5,6 Pets also may reduce risk behaviour, drug and alcohol use, and avoidance of incarceration.1
On the other hand, this strong human-animal bond can lead homeless or vulnerably-housed clients to place their animal’s needs ahead of their own. 1,7 Risks associated with pet ownership include difficulty in finding stable pet-friendly housing or accessing shelters, ability to work or go to school (without a place or person to leave their pet), and the financial strain of feeding and providing health care for a pet.1,5
CVO’s mission is to create healthy communities through collaboration and social innovation for vulnerable people and their pets. We lead through service and inspire social change in community health.
We serve communities in Halifax, various places in Ontario (Ottawa, Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, Kitchener- Waterloo, and York region), Winnipeg and Vancouver. Veterinary care is combined with human health and welfare service provision at each clinic.
Our programs include:
1. Veterinary Care Program
The Veterinary Care program provides free preventative veterinary health clinics for animals of those experiencing homelessness, street-involved and/or marginally housed. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the Veterinary Care Clinics served 566 clients, provided wellness examinations for 290 dogs and 422 cats, and provided spay or neuter for 295 animals.
Pets are examined, vaccinated for rabies and other infectious diseases, treated for internal and external parasites, and implanted with a microchip. Free spay/neuter surgeries (for dogs and cats seen at the clinics) are also offered in several communities. The veterinary team educates and offers advice to owners on their pet’s nutrition, dental care, behaviour, and the benefits of spay / neuter. In Vancouver, Community Veterinary Outreach partners with Paws for Hope Animal Foundation to provide the veterinary care.
The clients are accepted on a referral basis from community partnerships that we have developed, including area shelters, municipal public health, community health and youth centres, and mental health organizations.
2. One Health Program
“One Health” is a term used to describe the collaboration between multiple health disciplines to achieve optimal health for humans, animals and the environment.
CVO’s innovative One Health program combines veterinary teams with social services and human healthcare providers. This improves the health, welfare, and social service delivery for both humans and animals.
Each of our veterinary clinics has at least one human health service offered, including smoking harms reduction, vaccination (including influenza), primary health care needs, dental care access, and harm reduction including naloxone kit provision and training. Our partners in the community for One Health include the various public health units in Ottawa, Toronto and Golden Triangle, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Somerset West Community Health Centre team in Ottawa, UBC School of Nursing and Pharmacy, the University of Manitoba School of dental hygiene, the Capital Dental Hygiene team in Ottawa, and Pharmasave Respect Rx pharmacy team, to name a few.
As we expand into more regions, our One Health partnerships are growing. Over time, we hope to offer more services involving support for healthy living and nutrition, addiction, and mental health.
We believe that all people and animals are entitled to a high standard of care, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Together with human health partners, our aim is to provide access to quality services to improve the overall health and welfare of animals, humans, and the community at large.
Find out more at: vetoutreach.org
Author: Susan Kilborn