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Veterinarian on a Mission Helps Pets with Homeless Owners

By Arden Moore

About five years ago, Jon Geller, DVM, spotted a man sitting on a bridge in Nashville with his dog. Their eyes met, no words were spoken, but Dr. Geller thought about the loyal dog huddled close to his owner, who was living on the streets.

The chance encounter inspired this veterinarian board-certified in emergency medicine as well as canine and feline medicine to create the Street Dog Coalition, a nonprofit group that provides free care to pets of people who are homeless throughout the United States.

“We mobilize volunteer veterinarians, technicians, and students through small street clinics,” says Dr. Geller, managing partner of Fort Collins Veterinary Emergency and Rehabilitation Hospital in Colorado. “Homeless owners are usually great pet owners and put their pet’s health ahead of their own. They are with their pets 24/7. They feed their pets before themselves and for many, especially homeless military veterans or those with a mental illness, their pets give them a purpose.”

He says indigent clients may be veterinary medicine’s biggest challenge today.

What to Expect

Dr. Geller recently provided insight into this emerging field of veterinary medicine at the Fetch DVM360 Conference in San Diego. His talk was appropriately titled, “Street Medicine: Providing Care to Pets of the Indigent.”

Even though most dogs and cats living with people who are homeless have rarely seen a veterinarian or received vaccinations, Dr. Geller says many are surprisingly healthy, although street pets do seem to be more at risk for rabies, leptospirosis, or tick-borne diseases.

Often, the animals are well socialized and do not exhibit high levels of fear, anxiety, or stress. These “street-smart” pets usually are easy for Street Dog Coalition veterinarians and staffs to assess and provide needed vaccinations and donated pet food.

“The cats tend to be very tolerant and not display a lot of stress,” Dr. Geller says. “Sure, some dogs protect their people, but usually not in an aggressive way. These dogs seem to have the temperament for providing protection and companionship. How they act and react makes sense. After all, many of these pets of the homeless are around chaos with what’s happening in the streets, so getting a veterinary exam is not a big deal to them.”

Key Points

* Experts estimate that between 5 to 10 percent of the estimated one million people without shelter living in the United States have pets. Dr. Geller estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 pets are paired with people who are homeless.

* Often uncounted are people who sleep on sofas in homes of friends, in cars or campers, or who share motel rooms.

* These pets are at higher risk for rabies, intestinal parasites, and infectious diseases because they often are not vaccinated.

* The estimated number of homeless military veterans tops 30,000, with 20 veterans committing suicide every day.

* Most homeless shelters do not welcome pets, so many people without homes choose to live in tent communities, under bridges, or in other outdoor areas.

* Pets are often not allowed on public transportation such as buses, subways, or trains, making it difficult for people without homes or transportation to get veterinary care for their animals.

* People who are homeless usually do not have access to Care Credit, pet insurance, or in-hospital financial payment plans offered to low-income people who take their pets to veterinary clinics.

Providing Help

Since creating The Street Dog Coalition in 2014, Dr. Geller says more in the veterinary profession are joining the cause. The first Street Dog Clinic took place in Fort Collins, Colorado, where Dr. Geller and his team provided free veterinary care for 25 dogs and five cats. He estimates there are teams in about 20 U.S. cities providing free veterinary care to pets who live with homeless people. Cities include St. Augustine, Florida, Oahu, Hawaii, Ithaca, New York, Las Vegas, Nevada, Bakersfield, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The list continues to grow.

Due to cost restraints, teams must often be creative by relying on over-the-counter medications or donated medications as well as homemade remedies such as canned pumpkin for digestive issues, diluted apple cider vinegar as an ear rinse, Epsom salts for wounds, garlic for flea-bite dermatitis, and rolled up newspapers and gauze for temporary splints for limb injuries.

For those on limited incomes, Dr. Geller also founded a nonprofit called The Ladybug Fund. It uses donated money to provide after-hours emergency funding for pet owners facing financial hardship at five emergency hospitals in Colorado. It recently has partnered with Waggle, a pet-dedicated crowdfunding solution to direct money to verified veterinary providers to guarantee that 100 percent of the funds go directly to care of pets.

“Pets give some much-needed emotional support to people, regardless of their income or whether they live in a nice home or in the streets,” says Dr. Geller. “Street medicine is making a real difference.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.