Street medicine in action: Providing veterinary care for San Diego's homeless

December 21, 2019

My experience with the Street Dog Coalition during the Fetch dvm360 conference provided insight, experience and ideas for my own community when it comes to caring for pets with no roof over their head.

A homeless resident of San Diego with her cat participated in a clinic organized by the Street Dog Coalition in San Diego Dec. 14 during the Fetch dvm360 conference. (All photos courtesy of Kyle Palmer, CVT. )

John Geller, DVM, DACVB, isn't a flashy speaker. But two of his sessions at the 2019 Fetch dvm360 conference in San Diego-“A hard life made harder: Life on the streets for the homeless and their pets” and “Solutions that work: The art and science of street medicine”-drew me in completely.

During one of those sessions, Dr. Geller mentioned that his nonprofit Street Dog Coalition was putting on a three-hour street medicine clinic for pets belonging to homeless or near-homeless people in the area and mentioned that anyone was welcome to come observe or participate. Half a dozen attendees took him up on that offer Dec. 14, driving or taking an Uber almost eight miles to the Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach. I was one of them.

This was only the second clinic by the Colorado-based organization in the area (they operate in several states), but another dozen volunteers showed up to help-DVMs, RVTs and general members of our profession and beyond. The clinic's attending doctor, Jeanne Potter, DVM, got some assistance from Leeann Limburg, DVM, one of the recruits from Dr. Geller's lectures, as well as several others. 

Dr. Jeanne Potter and an assistant examine a dog brought to the street clinic.They had a full spectrum of vaccines, flea treatments and dewormers available as well as the equipment necessary to perform basic exams and some treatments on the pets that showed up. Some of the supplies were donated and some purchased outright. The clinic was staged at the same time as a regular free breakfast provided at the church, so there were a lot of citizens present who had come just for that.

During Dr. Geller's lectures, he hit on a number of societyal myths about the homeless and their pets (I suppose to go hand in hand with society's many myths about the homeless in general). Many feel that someone who isn't sheltered has no business having a pet. On the contrary, for some homeless individuals, their pet gives them a reason to keep going.

Pets provide value and a purpose-what greater responsibility is there than caring for another being?

Pets provide companionship-sometimes the only companionship they can depend on to keep them from sliding into the darkness of isolation and feeling discarded by society.

Pets also provide a little security-helping them judge whether or not the people they encounter can be trusted.

Another dog receives care during the street clinic in San Diego.And that's just what these human beings get from the pets. As is the case for all pet owners, it's a reciprocal relationship. Every one of the pets we saw that day was happy and completely devoted to their humans. They were also mostly easy for the team to handle (save a calico juvenile that couldn't escape her destiny)-at least as easy as any group you'd see in your hospital most days. These pets and their humans need each other deeply.

It wasn't clear if the veterinary professionals participating had any background in Fear Free care or if they'd simply had some training with street pets, but they did everything right. Bags of bacon treats (and canned food for the one cat) were used to make friends and provide a distraction during those procedures pets typically detest. Assuming many street pets have a heightened sense of protectiveness, it was a smart move on the veterinary team's part.

Several of the clinic patrons hung around well beyond the time needed for their pet's services. Their gratitude for the care was obvious.

In addition to my role in the veterinary profession, I also happen to be the mayor of the town of 10,000. For several years our community has been pushing forward with ways to address the needs of our homeless citizens. We have an amazing nonprofit organization, Sheltering Silverton, that provides a warming shelter in the winter and a year-round day center as well as layers of case management designed to help people back to stability. 

That said, except for a free day of care provided by my former veterinary hospital, our community hasn't explored this area of compassionate assistance in any structured sense. After spending time at the Fetch dvm360 conference in San Diego and at this street medicine clinic, that's sure to change soon.

Long-time dvm360 magazine and Firstline contributor Kyle Palmer, CVT, is hospital manager for VCA Salem in Salem, Oregon, as well as the mayor of Silverton, Oregon.

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