Wholly Devoted: Supporting Pets, Empowering People

Man in blue baseball cap adoringly holds his little dog
Tina the dog and her owner Clarence wait to see the vet at a Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic in Madison in 2015. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

For so many of us, a home isn’t a home without the love of a pet. So to be asked to sacrifice one for the other — keep your housing but lose your pet, or keep your pet but lose your housing — is a heartrending dilemma.

Such is the scenario, however, for a number of clients of Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES), a veterinary clinic supporting homeless and low-income individuals in Dane County.

“I couldn’t get rid of her,” says Hope Barajas during a visit to WisCARES in May with China, a three-year-old terrier with pristine white fur and brown brindle spots.

Barajas, who has experienced homelessness in the past, says that over the years she’s had to hide China from landlords to be able to keep her. If it came down to it, she says, she would rather be homeless again than lose her companion. “She’s like my daughter.
She’s a family member, not just a dog.”

An outreach partnership of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) and the School of Social Work, WisCARES was launched in 2014 to provide veterinary medical care, housing support and advocacy, and other social services to Dane County pet owners who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness, or unable to pay for veterinary medical services, such as vaccinations, that are needed for access to housing.

Within Dane County, approximately 41 percent of households struggle to afford basic needs, 600 individuals are homeless, and 40,000 pet-owning families live paycheck to paycheck.

“The pets aren’t a luxury item; it’s the veterinary care that is,” notes WisCARES Director William Gilles DVM’13.

Supported by the university, grants, and private gifts, WisCARES works to keep pets with their owners, prevent surrender to animal shelters, and empower people to care for their animals and gain access to the housing, social support services, and health care they need.

“Our ultimate goal is that the family unit, including animals, can stay together and be in stable housing, getting care,” Gilles says.

Pet food and supply pantry
WISCARES’ pet food and supply pantry is a vital resource for South Madison pet owners. The surrounding neighborhood is a veterinary desert, with no veterinary clinics and minimal pet care resources.

This spring, WisCARES relocated to a 4,200-square-foot building on Madison’s south side that is five times larger than their previous location. In addition to continuing their original services, the program now also offers subsidized veterinary medical care to Madison’s lower socioeconomic population.

Mary Knight snuggles her cat, Tiny, during a visit to the WisCARES clinic.

I don’t think I could afford the services if it wasn’t here,” says Barajas during China’s exam. “I’m thankful, and she likes coming here too.”

Barajas first visited WisCARES when China was seven weeks old. As she talks with veterinary medical students at her most recent appointment, she retrieves papers from a red folder she’s brought along that contains all of her records related to China’s care. Barajas lives about a mile from the clinic and departs with a fresh supply of preventative medicine for heartworm, fleas, and ticks; dog food; and a new leash.

WisCARES’ pet food and supply pantry is a vital resource for clients, with items ranging from wet and dry foods to treats and safe toys to collars and harnesses and carriers and crates. Stocked by donations, the items not only support pet nutrition; they also aid healthy animal behavior — in addition to training resources the clinic provides — so pets don’t pose an extra risk for eviction or a barrier for leasing.

During a recent appointment, Mary Knight and her 18-year-old cat Tiny received an assortment of food for the finicky feline, who has been a patient of WisCARES for a year and a half. “She’s going to like this,” Knight says, browsing the packets while noting Tiny’s preference for pâté. Tiny earned her name as a kitten. “She was half the size of my hand; everyone kept saying she’s so tiny,” Knight recalls.

As Priscilla Marroquin DVMx’21 conducts a physical exam of the gray cat, Knight shares her gratitude while softly stroking Tiny’s back.

“Without WisCARES, I don’t know where I’d be,” she says. “I swear, if they weren’t here, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Refuge and Remedies

To date, WisCARES has served nearly 500 clients and more than 600 animals. About half have been seen multiple times; the clinic works to establish long-term, ongoing relationships.

On numerous occasions when the odds were stacked against animals and their families, WisCARES has intervened. Central to this success is a pet boarding and foster program that provides a safe, temporary place for cats and dogs to stay for up to 14 days in boarding or up to three months in a volunteer foster home environment.

“We’ve had a number of families who have been direct referrals from the humane society because they’ve been ready to surrender their animal because of loss of housing or getting evicted,” says Gilles. “We’ve been able to disrupt that cycle on a number of occasions.”

We’re learning how as veterinarians we can use the special bond people share with their pets to increase access to health services for people.”

William Gilles DVM’13

In addition to offering refuge for pets while owners secure housing or emergency shelter, the boarding and fostering is also intended to allow family members to access inpatient health care, mental health services, or treatment programs, because people often won’t leave their pets to get such care, Gilles says. “We’re learning how as veterinarians we can use the special bond people share with their pets to increase access to health services for people.”

The clinic’s work is guided by a One Health framework, which acknowledges and leverages the relationship between people, animals, and their environment. Dr. Bethany Howlett, a family medicine physician with the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, is developing additional initiatives with WisCARES around this topic.

More than 100 dogs and cats have entered WisCARES’ boarding and fostering, with over 90 percent of animals reunited with their owners.“We try really hard to make sure we get everybody back together,” says outreach coordinator Levi Sable.

A grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will allow WisCARES to expand the program at their new clinic with the installation of dog and cat kennels and a dedicated area for exercising animals and hosting visits with pets’ families.

Clinical offerings have also grown at WisCARES’ new location with a larger staff, extended hours, five days a week, broader diagnostic capabilities, laboratory testing, a surgery suite, and plans in place to provide dentistry services and X-ray imaging (with much of this equipment provided through in-kind donations). And a social work room outfitted with a couch, children’s activities, and other comforts provides a private space for sensitive conversations or, when needed, pet euthanasias.

The neighborhood surrounding WisCARES is considered a veterinary desert, lacking veterinary clinics and pet care resources, so the expanded hours and services fill a major void.

“In our old location we had limited offerings — wellness-based care, core vaccines, parasite prevention, and managing some chronic diseases,” says Gilles. “Here we have a lot more robust capability. It really expands how we’re able to manage cases.”

The clinic also hopes to serve as a referral option when Madison-area veterinary clinics are faced with clients who can’t afford recommended care.

Equal Access

Across all of WisCARES’ offerings, Gilles aims to thread new connections, free of judgement, between the veterinary profession and vulnerable communities.

Johnie, a six year old collie
Johnnie, a six-year-old Collie, stands patiently as Priscila Naula DVMx’20 and certified veterinary technician Heather Bonti deliver care at the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic in South Madison.

“One thing I really want to give our clients and patients is the understanding that our profession is here to help in ways that they need our help, and not to dictate,” he says. “There are a lot of pets and people out there who don’t have any connection with the industry. And just because most veterinarians don’t see them, it doesn’t mean that they’re not important.”

For Bridget Holck DVM’18, providing veterinary medical care to WisCARES patients after establishing relationships with the owners based on trust and mutual respect, and then seeing their appreciation, is something she especially valued about her externship at the clinic this spring.

“Every person I have worked with during my time at WisCARES loves his or her pet and wants what’s best for the animal. I don’t believe financial restrictions should be a barrier to seeking veterinary medical care and I love being a part of making these services available to people and their pets,” Holck says.

Noah Hoeper, a social work major who has volunteered at the clinic for two years, echoes this. “All of our clients are so appreciative,” she says. “Having people express that they wouldn’t have been able to keep their pets without us makes me feel good. It just speaks to how our clients would rather sacrifice other things in their life than give up their pet.”

Gilles adds, “Our clients are incredibly dedicated to their animals. And because we let students form connections with clients, they’re able to see the impact the animal has on the family relationship.”

One of many animals Holck treated during her time at WisCARES was Baby Girl, a long-haired black and white cat, age eight, who had been experiencing limited vision.

“I need to know if she’s going to be okay,” the cat’s owner, Dorothy, says as the appointment gets underway in the clinic’s dedicated cat room. “My ‘baby girl’ is not even enough to describe how I feel about her.”

Registered as an emotional support animal, the cat is inseparable from Dorothy’s 10-year-old son, who has autism. “They have a great relationship, she says. “She loves her big brother.” Dorothy brought Baby Girl to WisCARES after learning from a friend about the clinic’s free and subsidized care. “Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to take her to a vet.”

Invaluable Experience

Students from the UW Schools of Veterinary Medicine, Social Work, and Pharmacy are an integral part of WisCARES’ daily operations, with future collaborations planned with the Schools of Nursing and Medicine and Public Health. All told, more than 100 students volunteer annually, in addition to a small staff of licensed veterinarians, a certified veterinary technician, and administrative personnel.

First- through third-year veterinary medical students lead weekly pet wellness clinics each Saturday, while fourth-year students examine patients and manage cases during two-week clinical rotations throughout the year. Social work students assist clients in accessing housing, health care, and other resources, and help address barriers unique to pet owners (for example, conducting landlord outreach and education if a building requires that cats be declawed). And pharmacy students stock medications and observe appointments. As all of these students buzz about the clinic and interface with staff, interprofessional relationships and collaborations develop.

Supporting WisCARES

Financial contributions support WisCARES’ efforts to provide Dane County pet owners with equal and consistent access to veterinary medical care, social support, and human health services.

To give, visit: go.wisc.edu/wiscaresgift.


The challenge of delivering exemplary care within a tight budget and technical constraints, “where you don’t have all the bells and whistles we have at the vet school,” helps students develop critical problem-solving skills says Elizabeth Alvarez, WisCARES medical director and clinical assistant professor of primary care at the SVM. “Students realize they can do a lot to help these patients and people with just their smarts and a few tests or donated medications.”

Perhaps even more important, the experience allows students to engage with a broader swath of clients and see how outreach and community service can be part of a veterinary practice.

“Students have commented that it’s been a great experience because they get exposure to something they wouldn’t in the rest of their training,” says Gilles. “And for a lot of our students, it’s exposure to something they don’t have any personal history with,” be it poverty, housing instability, or a physical disability.

“If the students don’t actively go out and get these sorts of experiences, they can go through their whole four years of vet school and never really work with a clientele that may not have very much money or are homeless or of a different ethnicity or race,” Alvarez adds.

Journaling and facilitated discussions following students’ rotations show that the message is clear: love isn’t the limiting factor for these pets and their people, but rather limited financial means or other life circumstances.

“Students will say things like ‘I can’t believe this client was willing to give up a bed at a homeless shelter because they wouldn’t take her dog, so she instead decided to live in her car because of the bond she has with her pet,’” notes Alvarez. “That part of what we’re teaching seems so much more profound.”

Holck’s experience at WisCARES, “providing veterinary medical care with limited resources to those animals who need it most,” has inspired her to seek out additional opportunities to serve low-income communities as she continues in her career.

“Veterinary medicine is about helping to preserve the bond between animals and their people, and WisCARES does just that every day,” she says.

Meghan Lepisto

This is part one of a two-part story from the summer 2018 issue of On Call magazine spotlighting UW 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 two, about the Pets for Life initiative.

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