4 ways to help pets with homeless owners

September 5, 2019
Brendan Howard, Business Channel Director

Brendan Howard oversees veterinary business, practice management and life-balance content for dvm360.com, dvm360 magazine, Firstline and Vetted, and plans the Practice Management track at all three Fetch dvm360 conferences.Brendan has proudly served under the Veterinary Economics and dvm360 banners for more than 10 years. Before that, he worked as a journalist, writer and editor at Entrepreneur magazine and a top filmed entertainment magazine in Southern California. Brendan received a Masters in English Literature from University of California, Riverside, in 1999.

Street Dog Coalition board member Jon Geller, DVM, DABVP, CVJ, shares a few tips for veterinarians interested in providing care for the pets of Americas indigent population.


After 20 or so years in practice, Jon Geller, DVM, DABVP, CVJ, told attendees at a recent Fetch dvm360 conference that he was worn out from talking about money for big-ticket medical procedures in an emergency hospital.

Dr. Geller speaks

Dr. Geller has spoken at numerous Fetch dvm360 conferences, from coast to coast. Here, he talks about doing the work.

So he turned to the Street Dog Coalition, spreading the word nationally about how to provide care to indigent populations.

“No money changes hands,” Dr. Geller says. That fits Dr. Geller's values.

If you want to dip your toe into so-called “street medicine,” Dr. Geller offered some advice in his overview about current programs, current care provided and the future of helping homeless Americans with pets.

The perpetual challenge? “How effective can we be with the least amount of resources?” Dr. Geller asks.

1. Follow your heart and don't be afraid to help

You should never do anything that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable when practicing outside the confines of your hospital, but also don't let fear of liability turn you away from you inner calling to help.

If you're a licensed veterinarian, you've got professional liability insurance and you keep reasonable records of when and how you help in cases, you should be covered, says Dr. Geller.

“You can jump out of your car, and if you have the stuff with you, you could help a pet on the street,” he says.

2. Don't rush

Because of communication gaps, Dr. Geller says some of his free events have had two pet owners and others have hundreds. But calibrate your volunteers' expectations (and your own) about how many pets you can help, because you'll need to take a good history.

Without a lot of diagnostic rule-outs at hand, “you need to talk to people” to get a complete history, he says. That will take a little time per person.

At bigger events, Dr. Geller powers a microscope, because he recognizes “field cytology” can be helpful, but it can be a challenge, too. If you find something at an event that you can't treat, like cancer or an infectious disease, you may not be able to help. Ask yourself with the diagnostics you're doing, what will you do with that information?

3. Ask for help

If you identify a need in your area for free vaccines, free pet food or even pet-friendly housing for shelters, reach out to companies and the distributor reps who represent them. Dr. Geller was able to get cat condos donated to one shelter that helped people who otherwise would have feared leaving pets behind in an abusive home.

Join with an existing nonprofit, or start your own, and “you can get a lot of donated vaccines and volunteers to help you do the work,” Dr. Geller says.

4. Don't give up

Dr. Geller says some motivated veterinarians don't even try to offer street medicine because they're concerned it doesn't meet the standard of care. “AAHA has standards of care. Our hospitals have standards of care. But the standard of care is what another reasonable veterinarian would provide in the same situation,” Dr. Geller said.

“You're trying to minimize adverse outcomes, but there will be more risk involved because you won't have as much information [without hospital diagnostics]. You're making your best guess with your clinical reasoning skills,” he said.

Street medicine is not for everyone. However, if you're called to it like Dr. Geller was, it may be worth your time to find out what small things you could do today, and potentially what big things you could help build tomorrow to further help indigent Americans keep their pets healthy.