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Galaxy Vets Foundation launches free telehealth services for Ukrainian pet owners
Initiative helps owners provide necessary pet care while offering them emotional support during dire time
Galaxy Vets debuted a nonprofit arm in April 2022 in response to the war in Ukraine and consequent animal welfare crisis. The new Galaxy Vets Foundation was launched with goals to improve access to care for underserved communities, prevent economic euthanasia, and offer animal disaster and humanitarian response solutions.1
Thus, Galaxy Vets recently unveiled a free, chat-based telehealth service for pet owners in Ukraine or those temporarily evacuated from the country. The service enables owners to send their pet-related concerns to veterinarian and veterinary technician volunteers. A built-in translator interprets the messages so both sides can communicate effectively.
The company’s close ties
The Galaxy Vets CEO Ivan Zakharenkov “Zak,” DVM, MBA, is a native of Ukraine and some of its employees reside there, providing further motivation to help the country. “Ukraine is my motherland. We want to aid the best way we know how — helping animals,” expressed Zak.1
A Galaxy Vets Foundation volunteer living in Canada, Helen Singleton, RVN, previously worked for Zak at his first startup—Smart Flow. “[Ukrainian team members have] always been the kindest, most hardworking, just all-around lovely people. What’s happening in Ukraine is terrible, and this just really stood out as an opportunity to give something back and provide some help,” said Singleton, in an interview with dvm360®.
The ins and outs of the telehealth platform
In an interview, Andrew Ciccolini, DVM, MSOL, director of nonprofit initiatives at Galaxy Vets and head of Galaxy Vets Foundation, noted there are currently around 170 volunteers. They are mainly from North America but there are others from across the globe including South Africa, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Romania. Volunteers can sign up for a minimum of 2-hour shifts on their own time. Galaxy Vets provides them with training tools and tech support plus mental health resources as they partake in this emotionally challenging work—aligning with the company’s mission of burnout prevention.
“We have a family medicine physician, who's also a psychologist who has a background in mental health and well-being, providing support to all of our volunteers, so individual and group sessions,” said Ciccolini.
The Galaxy Vets Foundation utilizes 2 platforms: Slack and LiveChat. The veterinary volunteers communicate with each other via Slack while the volunteers and pet owners interact through LiveChat. LiveChat has generously donated some accounts to support the foundation. Meanwhile, Galaxy Vets has partnered with VetCT—a professional veterinary consulting company with a team of specialists—which has gifted free accounts to volunteers so they can receive expert advice regarding more challenging cases they confront.
Veterinary care and emotional support
According to Ciccolini, although many of the inquiries they receive are basic and routine, pet owners do not have access to care in Ukraine, so they often cannot get the simple answers they need. Therefore, the Galaxy Vets Foundation can direct pet owners to the right medication or resources to provide this care.
“We have to keep in mind that [the owners] don't have access to a veterinarian, or even a veterinary pharmacy, so a lot of what we do is . . . be really creative and kind of think outside the box and come up with some possible solutions understanding [this]. Sometimes even it may not be safe for them to go out and get anything. You have to keep all that in mind when you're dealing with these cases,” said Galaxy Vets Foundation volunteer Medora Pashmakova, DVM, DACVECC, in a dvm360® interview. Pashmakova is an emergency and critical care specialty veterinarian originally from Bulgaria now living in Florida.
For the more difficult cases, Ciccolini said it has been challenging to help pet owners simply through a chat-based platform. However, he stressed the significant role Galaxy Vet Foundation volunteers play in supporting that individual through a trying time.
“I think that one of the things that all of us in veterinary medicine are here to do is to help the human-animal bond. I think that recognizing the stress and that the owner is worried about their pet and being able to comfort them, being able to provide a solution for them, or even a simple something that they can do, really helps them during that stressful period,” Pashmakova added.
A fellow Galaxy Vets Foundation volunteer, Stacey Ness, RVT, who lives in the Netherlands, said in a dvm360® interview, “It seems [the pet parents have] been very thankful that we're there to listen to them and to calm their fears and to get them help when we can. It's just been a really good experience as far as the pet owners, they seem very happy that we're able to give them a hand when so many things in their world are uncertain at the moment.”
Effects of war on humans and animals
Ciccolini noted the foundation has seen its fair share of animals including dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, turtles, ferrets, rats, and even an owl. The Galaxy Vets Foundation volunteers have noticed many of these pets are suffering from stress-related conditions often affecting their dietary habits, skin, and urinary tract. This shows that along with humans, pets are experiencing the traumatic repercussions of war, the volunteers said.
Another Galaxy Vets Foundation volunteer, Janet Gordon Palm, DVM, from Colorado, highlighted some examples in an interview. “A cat was showing signs of lower urinary tract disease and it was stress induced. When you found out the story, the stress was that the roof of the shelter had blown off, and they were hunkering down trying to just exist,” she said.
Palm also shared that she had a case involving a woman with a cat that was her only surviving family member. When the war began, she moved from Ukraine to Spain but was being evicted and had to return to Ukraine, so it was imperative she had the proper documentation for her cat to enter back into the country.
“[The woman] needed to make sure her cat came back with her because she now had to go work again for a living. Those kinds of stories over and over again just have you realize that our pain that we have just for having a bad day here has to be put in perspective,” Palm said.
According to Galaxy Vets, these stories portray the true power of the human-animal bond, which is especially evident in such dire circumstances.
“[Ukrainian pet owners are] resolute in taking care of [their pets] to their best abilities possible even in times where they can probably not even take care of themselves. I think that that human-animal bond brings them strength and, in some ways, fortitude and just the courage to keep living day to day and moving forward,” said Pashmakova.
“I imagine I would probably feel the same way. Having that pet with them, I think is a big morale boost for them through this really trying time. This is probably the time that I've sensed that [morale boost] the most out of all of my 13 years of being a veterinarian,” Pashmakova continued.
Looking forward and getting involved
According to Ciccolini, for the future, Galaxy Vets is looking to implement a video chat function within its chat-based platform. An additional goal is to have enough volunteers to offer 24/7 coverage for Ukrainian pet owners.
“I would just say to anyone who is certified to provide veterinary care, whether that be as a technician or a doctor, just being able to spare any time to volunteer would just be a huge help. It really doesn't matter where you are in the world . . . it's just a case of every little [effort] helps,” said Singleton. “Also don't feel discouraged if you haven't worked as a veterinary professional for a few years, I hadn't either. But it's a bit like riding a bike and it all comes flooding back.”
“Everyone is in need of love, and understanding—human, animal, every living being. I think when we look at this kind of disaster . . . what's really important to remember is 1 person can make a difference. This goes back to this volunteer work, we can't change the world necessarily right away, but we can sure change the world for 1 person or 1 animal. And I think that's the take home message here,” Palm concluded.
To contribute to the cause by donating financially, donating supplies, or volunteering your telehealth services, go here: https://galaxyvets.foundation
Balabanov A. Galaxy Vets Foundation non-profit launched. Galaxy Vets. April 22, 2022. Accessed June 6, 2022. https://galaxyvets.com/learning-center/galaxy-vets-foundation-non-profit-launched