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Growth continues for veterinary clinic supporting homeless and low-income pet owners

February 28, 2020 By Meghan Lepisto
Photo of a veterinary technician holding a white terrier while a veterinary student provides treatment and a veterinarian pats the dog.

From left to right, veterinary medical student Priscilla Marroquin, certified veterinary technician Niki Albridge and veterinarian Elizabeth Alvarez, from left to right, deliver care to a terrier named China at the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic in 2018. Meghan Lepisto

For so many of us, a home isn’t a home without the love of a pet. So, to be asked to sacrifice one for the other — keep your housing but lose your pet, or keep your pet but lose your housing — is a heartrending dilemma. 

Such is the scenario, however, for a number of clients of Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES),launched in 2014 to provide veterinary medical care, housing support and advocacy, and other social services to Dane County pet owners experiencing or at risk of homelessness.  

The clinic also offers pet boarding and fostering as well as subsidized veterinary medical care to the county’s lower socioeconomic population. 

“I don’t think I could afford the services if it wasn’t here,” client Hope Barajas said during a visit to WisCARES with her dog China. “I’m thankful and she likes coming here, too.”  

Within Dane County, approximately 41 percent of households struggle to afford basic needs, 600 individuals are homeless, and 40,000 pet-owning families live paycheck to paycheck. The neighborhood surrounding WisCARES, on Madison’s south side, is considered a veterinary desert — it lacks veterinary clinics and pet care resources. The program fills a major void. 

An outreach partnership of the University of WisconsinMadison schools of veterinary medicine, pharmacy, and social work, WisCARES works to keep pets with their owners. The program helps provide options to people who might otherwise need to surrender their pets to animal shelters; it helps empower them to care for their animals; and it helps pet owners in need gain access to housing, social support services, and their own health care. 

Barajas, who has experienced homelessness in the past, says that if it came down to it, as is the case for many WisCARES clients, she would rather be homeless again than lose her dog China. “She’s a family member, not just a dog, Barajas says. 

In addition to veterinary medical care, WisCARES offers a pet food and supply pantry, stocked by donations, with items ranging from foods and safe toys, to collars and harnesses, carriers and crates. The items not only support pet nutrition, they also aid healthy animal behavior. Combined with training resources provided by the clinic, this helps ensure pets don’t pose an extra risk for eviction or a barrier for leasing.

Photo of canned pet food and pet treats in the clinic pantry.

The pet food and supply pantry fills a void for South Madison pet owners. Meghan Lepisto

The clinic’s pet boarding and foster program also provides a safe, temporary place for cats and dogs to stay while owners secure housing or emergency shelter, access inpatient health care, seek mental health services, or enter treatment programs.  

Since WisCARES relocated to a larger facility in spring 2018 the clinic has added surgical and dentistry procedures to their roster of veterinary medical services and an x-ray unit and in-house laboratory testing 

A recent two-year, $600,000 grant from PetSmart Charities will also allow WisCARES to add additional staff members, support low- to no-cost veterinary care for Dane County pets, and facilitate additional training and education of School of Veterinary Medicine students.  

“This lifts a huge weight off of our shoulders to feel like we can sustain the program as it’s growing,” says Elizabeth Alvarez, curriculum director for WisCARES and clinical assistant professor of primary care with the SVM. We can offer so many more procedures than we could a year ago and now this grant is the perfect steppingstone to hit that next level of impact.” 

The clinic plans to hire an additional licensed veterinarian and certified veterinary technician, support the salaries of current staff (including a receptionist and outreach worker), and expand into vacant space in their current building to use for teaching. Previously open Tuesday through Friday, WisCARES is now also serving clients on Mondays as of February 2020 

Having extra people to support the day-to-day operations of the clinic and additional space to be able to step back and teach students is great,” says Alvarez.  

Students from the UW–Madison schools that support WisCARES are an integral part of the clinic’s daily operations. The clinic also plans to eventually collaborate with the School of Nursing and the School of Medicine and Public Health.  

Currently, fourth-year veterinary medical students examine patients and manage cases during two-week clinical rotations throughout the year. Social work students assist clients in accessing housing, health care, and other resources. And pharmacy students fill and stock medications and observe appointments. All told, more than 100 students volunteer annually, building interprofessional relationships and collaborations, engaging with a broader swath of clients, and seeing firsthand how outreach and community service can be part of a veterinary practice. 

PetSmart Charities supports similar initiatives across the country intended to enhance the practical experience of future veterinarians while also improving access to high-quality wellness services and medical care for pets.  

“At PetSmart Charities, we believe that all pet parents want to provide the very best care to their pets, and we want to help them to access that care,” says Lindsay Del Chiaro, director of community relations and programs at PetSmart Charities. “At the same time, we know that students pursue a career in veterinary medicine because they want to help all pets in need. Grants like this one enable us to bring those two principles together by funding community veterinary clinics that will help pets and pet parents to live their healthiest, happiest lives together.”