Opening the Door to Pet Wellness

Two veterinarians and a little girl sit on a porch holding a small dog
The SVM Shelter Medicine Program, together with the Wisconsin Humane Society, has since 2016 conducted door-to-door outreach and veterinary house calls in several Milwaukee neighborhoods where veterinary clinics and other pet resources are limited or non-existent. This summer, the same initiative was launched in South Madison in partnership with the Dane County Humane Society. (Photo: Wisconsin Humane Society)


The Shelter Medicine Program at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) is helping to make pet care more accessible through an innovative initiative that delivers veterinary medical care direct to the doorstep of underserved pet owners.

Together with the Wisconsin Humane Society, SVM Shelter Medicine faculty, staff, and students have since 2016 conducted door-to door outreach in several Milwaukee neighborhoods where veterinary clinics and other pet resources are limited or non-existent. The team provides free wellness care, vaccines, pet food and supplies, and more through veterinary house calls. Free training classes and spay/neuter surgeries are also offered to the community.

The work is part of a nationwide program, Pets for Life, developed by The Humane Society of the United States to extend the reach of pet wellness resources to those with the least access. Through relationship-building and an ongoing neighborhood presence, the program aims to keep pets in the homes they already have, improve their quality of life, and elevate the human-animal bond.

“In the communities we serve there’s not even a pet store or vet clinic,” says Sandra Newbury DVM’03, clinical assistant professor and director of shelter medicine at the SVM. “But the love for their pets and the need for their pets to be part of the family unit is incredibly strong.”

[quote]Prevention is really our primary route to solving the problem of animal homelessness … supporting the human-animal bond before it’s broken.”

Sandra Newbury DVM’03[/quote]

As part of an SVM clinical rotation in shelter animal medicine, fourth-year veterinary medical students travel to Milwaukee every other week to participate in Pets for Life house calls. With only the supplies that can fit into bags they carry, the team has diagnosed and treated ear, skin and parasite infections, eye problems, minor wounds, and even managed some fractures, in addition to providing guidance around pet care.

One case — a small black and white dog (pictured above) with curly hair and seriously infected ears — sticks out to Newbury as emblematic of the power of these visits. A young girl in the home had placed hair bands around the dog’s ears in an apparent attempt at doggie pigtails, but when the hair bands were forgotten and masked by the dog’s fluffy locks, they cut into the skin and the wounds became infected.

Noticing that the dog’s ears smelled bad, the family requested care. When the team arrived and the problem was revealed, initial tension amongst the family then developed into a tender teaching moment.

“The little girl was obviously terrified about what the possible outcome would
be, but I was able to explain and invite her to help,” Newbury recalls. “We had to clean and give antibiotics, and the girl went from being scared to interested and happy. In the end she’s sitting there with her happy dog on her lap and it was clear she did not mean to hurt the dog. Everybody loved the dog.”

Under another set of circumstances, without their assistance, a scenario such as this could have ended badly, Newbury says. When options or finances aren’t available for veterinary care, pet owners often must surrender or even euthanize their animals. “You could see everything could have gone one way, but just a little bit of help makes everything go in a different direction,” she says. “A tiny little intervention, at the right time, in the right way, can change everything.”

“We’ve had numerous people say to us, ‘Thank you so much; if you hadn’t done this, we’d have to give our dog up,’” she continues. “And we don’t want them to give their dog up for a whole host of reasons.”

“Every time we go out and work in the communities, we learn more about what they know, what they don’t know, what they have access to, and what resources they need,” says Sandra Newbury, director of Shelter Medicine at the SVM. (Photo: Wisconsin Humane Society)

Newbury sees this type of work as representing the future of shelter medicine and animal welfare — “getting into communities and supporting the human-animal bond before it’s broken and before animals end up in shelters,” she says. “Prevention is really our primary route to solving the problem of animal homelessness.”

This summer the Dane County Humane Society (DCHS), in partnership with the UW Shelter Medicine Program, launched Pets for Life in South Madison. The Shelter Medicine team will provide house calls modeling the program in Milwaukee, while the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic will provide spay/neuter surgeries and ongoing medical care for animals served by the program. Pets for Life will also support a yearlong internship for a graduate veterinarian through the UW Veterinary Care Primary Care service who will work four days each week at WisCARES.

“It’s this win-win situation. WisCARES opened their new clinic right next to our target neighborhood just as we were making the decision to move forward with Pets for Life. The timing was unbelievable,” says Newbury.

Data collected by DCHS and the Shelter Medicine Program around pet health and other community metrics in South Madison will inform a four-year research study, in collaboration with the University of Denver, measuring the effect of Pets for Life interventions.

As Newbury and colleagues serve and learn from the community, she is proud to advance the Wisconsin Idea, which emphasizes the university’s service to the state and its impact on lives beyond the classroom. Children’s enthusiasm around the team’s work has been an especially gratifying aspect for Newbury, who recently gave a presentation at a Milwaukee youth center about careers in veterinary medicine in response to this interest.

She says it’s important for veterinarians to engage with underserved communities — “to show up and show that you get it, that they care about their pets too.”

“Every time we go out and work in the communities, we learn more about what they know, what they don’t know, what they have access to, and what resources they need,” she adds. “That informs our program, our understanding of animal welfare, and why things go wrong or why they go right.”

The house calls also help SVM students appreciate firsthand the barriers facing vulnerable communities and the impact of outreach and direct service.

“It’s one of the students’ favorite parts of our rotation,” says Newbury. “There is something about being in the community, talking to people and seeing them with their animals, that brings up a kind of empathy you could never possibly teach, but you can show. And that showing is incredibly valuable.”

Meghan Lepisto

This is part two of a two-part story from the summer 2018 issue of On Call magazine spotlighting School of Veterinary Medicine outreach partnerships that deliver veterinary medical care and other social services to pets and their people in underserved communities across Dane County and Milwaukee. Read part one, about the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic.

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