Veterinary Clinic for Pet Owners Experiencing Homelessness Provides Low-Cost Services Amid Increased Demand

WisCARES clinic awarded $135,000 grant from PetSmart Charities to meet the need for accessible care

 

feline patient of WisCARES
Baby Girl, a feline patient of Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES), visits the clinic in 2018.

Pets, both new and old, have been a source of comfort amid the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic. One in five people nationwide adopted a pet during the pandemic, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It makes sense; growing research demonstrates the benefits of a human-animal bond. However, this influx in pets translated to an increased need for veterinary care – a need clinics taxed by the pandemic sometimes struggled to meet.

The Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic in South Madison has experienced this firsthand. From 2019 to 2020, the average number of new patients per month at WisCARES increased by 70 percent. Since then, its clientele has continued to expand.

“It’s a constant balancing act,” says Ruthanne Chun, WisCARES co-founder and a clinical professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “Like every other veterinary clinic, demand increased, and it’s not like we could automatically see that increased demand. So many people and animals need help, and we can’t help all of them.”

Since 2014, WisCARES has provided low-cost veterinary care to pet owners experiencing homelessness and financial difficulty in Dane County. The clinic offers subsidized veterinary care, a pet food and supplies pantry stocked by donations, and access to social workers.

The program – located in a neighborhood considered a veterinary desert, without veterinary clinics and pet care resources – is a collaboration of the UW-Madison schools of veterinary medicine, social work and pharmacy. WisCARES’ goal is to keep all pets with their families.

Pet food and supply pantry
The WisCARES pet food and supply pantry fills a void for South Madison pet owners.

“By creating better access to veterinary medical care, we are keeping pets and families together, so they don’t have to surrender or euthanize their animals for otherwise treatable things,” Chun says.

WisCARES provides pet boarding services and both short- and long-term foster programs. This allows pet owners experiencing homelessness to seek in-patient medical care or safe temporary housing that may not allow them to be with their animal companions.

Despite the influx of patients and difficulties caused by the pandemic, including reduced staffing, WisCARES is bouncing back, ready to care for more patients and keep families together.

Since spring 2022, WisCARES has been fully staffed. Their team has expanded to include two full-time veterinarians and two veterinary technicians, a social worker, two reception and support staff, and several veterinary assistants.

WisCARES also relies on student support. Not only do they hire students as assistants, but fourth-year veterinary medical students complete a clinical rotation at WisCARES alongside students from the schools of pharmacy and social work. And two social work interns at WisCARES gain practical experience over an academic year.

Working collaboratively, students build and apply clinical and professional skills, self-awareness and cultural humility through the access to care experience. Additionally, WisCARES has developed a social work curriculum for veterinary students.

Priscilla Marroquin DVM’21, certified veterinary technician Niki Albridge and veterinarian Elizabeth Alvarez, from left to right, deliver care to a terrier named China at the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services (WisCARES) clinic.
Priscilla Marroquin DVM’21, certified veterinary technician Niki Albridge and veterinarian Elizabeth Alvarez, left to right, deliver care to a terrier named China at WisCARES in 2018.

“That’s a big piece of what we call interprofessional education, where students of two or more health professions learn together at the same time,” Chun emphasizes.

This progress would not be possible without outside funding. WisCARES is a subsidized clinic supported by the university, grants and private gifts. Income from their veterinary medical services alone doesn’t cover operational costs.

Recently, WisCARES received two grants from PetSmart Charities to help continue their mission and provide low- to no-cost veterinary care. A $10,000 grant will help cover operational expenses, and an additional $125,000 grant will fund WisCARES’ Keeping Friends and Families Together Program. This initiative aims to keep families with their pets through pet housing resources and access to proper veterinary care.

“At PetSmart Charities, we couldn’t stand by knowing 50 million pets don’t have accessible veterinary care in the United States,” says Aimee Gilbreath, president of PetSmart Charities. “As the largest funder of animal welfare in North America, we were compelled to facilitate innovative improvements to improve access to low-cost veterinary care. We’re proud to support the important work WisCARES is doing to help pets live long, healthy lives with the people they love.”

Previous support from PetSmart Charities allowed WisCARES to add additional staff members and facilitate broader student training and education. “We are always looking for ways to support our staff and fortify our work,” says Chun.

Looking ahead, WisCARES plans to emphasize increasing human health care literacy amongst the pet owners who visit the clinic in partnership with the schools of nursing, medicine and public health, and pharmacy.

“Our clients who come to see us obviously understand the importance of caring for their animals,” Chun notes. “It’s an honor to be able to help them.”

To learn more about WisCARES or to support their effort, visit wiscares.wisc.edu.

Britta Wellenstein


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