Free Veterinary Services Help Pet Parents Experiencing Homelessness

·9 min read

Tom Kirkendall

Across the country, there are communities of Americans who care for their pets in atypical circumstances. While many people imagine cats and dogs residing in homes, there are pet owners who live without permanent housing—staying in shelters, living in tent encampments, or sleeping in their vehicle alongside their fuzzy companions.

Feeding Pets of the Homeless, a national nonprofit that coordinates low-cost veterinary resources for unhoused pet owners, estimates that 5–10 percent of Americans who do not have permanent housing own dogs or cats. These animals play a key role in the lives of Americans experiencing homelessness—providing judgment-free love to an often ostracized community.

Hanna Ekstrom, DVM and the executive director of Seattle Veterinary Outreach, travels to camps with her mobile health outreach team in order to serve pets of those experiencing homelessness, as well as their owners. She works alongside a social worker and other medical professionals to provide free veterinary services and outreach to unhomed Americans. Through her work, she has seen the vital role pets can play in their owners' lives.

Tom Kirkendall Communication and trust are central to the role Hanna Ekstrom, DVM, and her team play in helping people and pets in need. Here, Ekstrom, left, is listening to Mom’s concerns about her beloved companion, Duchess.

"They're lifesavers. One of the biggest issues of living homeless is that you feel so isolated. Having your pet by your side, it keeps you happier and healthier, mentally and physically," Ekstrom tells Daily Paws. "In addition to just being the person's best friend, a pet makes other people come forward and talk to someone about their pet. They are a human connector."

A Service Needed in Every City

Denise Fortin, a resident of Seattle, lived homeless for two-and-a-half years before finding stable housing and deciding to adopt a Shiba Inu. Her pup, named Tasha, worked as her service dog for 13 years. Fortin started taking Tasha to Seattle Veterinary Outreach after meeting Ekstrom at a pop-up veterinary clinic outside her workplace, Real Change News.

Tasha would accompany Fortin during her shifts, and Ekstrom became her primary veterinarian. Ekstrom provided low-cost veterinary services ranging from flea prevention to urinalysis, as well as special diet food. Fortin's dog passed away recently, and Fortin eventually hopes to adopt another dog after grieving. No matter when that happens, she plans to take her next dog to Ekstrom.

"She's wonderful. I just can't say enough about her. I hope every city has something like what Hanna does," Fortin says. "I think she understands that people who are poor, how important their pets are to them. And it's really important that they get veterinary care because that is not always doable for them."

Pets Become a Lifeline to People Experiencing Homelessness

Many organizations across the United States offer free or low-cost veterinary care to the pets of Americans experiencing homelessness—including vaccinations, flea and tick prevention, spaying and neutering, and pet food. Some veterinarians, like Ekstrom, travel by foot to encampments where people who are experiencing homelessness make shelters. Others create mobile clinics to serve animals at shelters and food banks.

Courtesy of Seattle Vet Outreach Princess Magnolia (Maggie for short) is dressed in a tutu for her heart check by Hanna Ekstrom, DVM, right. "Maggie lives with her mom in a car in downtown Seattle and always shows up for her exams well turned out," Ekstrom says. "You can actually see how much Maggie’s mom loves her in this photograph."

April Gessner, DVM, an ER veterinarian and the founder of the non-profit DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care, creates pop-up clinics around Fuquay Varina, N.C., to offer basic veterinary care to low-income locals around two or three times each month. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has increased the need for low-cost veterinary services for many Americans. Gessner says that she gets multiple messages each week from pet owners who have lost their jobs or homes during the pandemic.

One of the biggest issues of living homeless is that you feel so isolated. Having your pet by your side, it keeps you happier and healthier, mentally and physically.

—Hannah ekstrom, dvm

For many who are homeless or on the brink of losing housing, traveling to a veterinary office can be challenging because of the distance or the financial burden. Gessner wanted to provide judgment-free traveling clinics where people could seek veterinary care for their animals with dignity. Gessner said there is often a stigma that pet owners experiencing homelessness should not own animals, but that people who are homeless are often among the most devoted to their pets' care.

"People say, 'You're homeless, why would you have a pet?' Immediately, that gets me upset. Why would you say that?" Gessner says. "That pet can be a lifeline for someone who's on their own without a home and who has no family members or friends."

Low-income Americans experience similar barriers to receiving veterinary care. One of Gessner's clients, who requested to only be identified as Donn, took his terrier mix to her clinic because he needed a heartworm prevention medication but could not afford the vet visit. DEGA was able to deworm the terrier, update his vaccinations, test him for heartworm disease, provide flea and tick prevention, and give his owner several months of heartworm medication.

"It brought great peace of mind to have our dog's heartworm test show negative, and now we can give him the ongoing maintenance tablets that you provided," Donn said in an email to Gessner after the visit. "It was truly just too costly. All of the other things that you did today are very much appreciated. You are our puppy's angel."

Reaching Unsheltered Americans Through Their Pets

DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care works alongside The Women's Center in Raleigh, N.C., a day shelter for women that focuses on multi-service crisis intervention. Nora Robbins, the director of philanthropy and communications for The Women's Center, says many unhomed Americans with pets are hesitant about seeking resources or housing at a shelter because they fear that their pets will be taken away from them.

Many times, this is the case. Most homeless shelters are unable to accommodate dogs or cats because of lack of resources (like bedding, crates, and food) and concerns about liability. These no-pet rules in homeless shelters ultimately become an obstacle to helping those who are experiencing homelessness because people will not risk being separated from their pet—a sentiment any pet lover could relate to.

That pet can be a lifeline for someone who’s on their own without a home and who has no family members or friends.

—April Gessner, DVM

By partnering with DEGA, The Women's Center is able to connect with unsheltered women through their love for their pets. The organizations are able to provide a wide range of pet care, including pet food, deworming, flea and tick medicine, and rabies shots. While the animals are being taken care of, staff members also offer care to the owners, such as free meals, donated clothing, or hygiene supplies.

Courtesy of DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care April Gessner, DVM, on the right, and her husband, Bennett Deddens, DVM, DACVR, at their first clinic for DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care on February 14, 2021, examining a patient before giving vaccines and dewormer. "It was freezing cold and rainy AND our first clinic, but it went so well and the owners were very grateful," Gessner says.

"There's no pet shaming. Just come, and we will give you whatever the animal needs," Robbins says. "Then you can also get the services you need. If you want to come in and have a meal, or you need clothing or hygiene products. Let's start your healing journey. We wanted to reach the unsheltered through their animals."

Robbins says that pets become crucial family members and companions who can even help deter violence away from their owners who are living on the street—especially for women, who are at higher risk for assault while living without shelter.

In some instances where women have wanted to seek professional treatment that does not allow pets, employees at The Women's Center have temporarily fostered their animals. The organization is still seeking long-term fostering partners to help temporarily shelter cats and dogs while their owners receive services.

"A lot of people won't go into recovery, or they won't get the help they need, unless they know their animal is in a very safe place," Robbins says.

Ways to Help: Community Support Matters Most

Feeding Pets of the Homeless is a national organization that works to create pet food donation sites and animal care services through clinics nationwide—a similar mission to DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care, The Women's Center, and Seattle Veterinary Outreach.

Genevieve Frederick, the founder and president of Feeding Pets of the Homeless, started the organization in her hometown of Carson City, Nev. It began with a single donation center for people to donate pet food, and the efforts multiplied from there once she recognized that the need went well beyond her own community.

With the help of donations, her organization has been able to coordinate care for 17,000 pets at wellness clinics and fund emergency veterinary treatments for over 4,000 animals across the country. Feeding Pets of the Homeless works with more than 1,000 veterinary hospitals across the country to provide free or low-cost services.

In order to try and make it possible for homeless shelters to better accommodate pet owners experiencing homelessness, Feeding Pets of the Homeless began providing free animal crates of different sizes to the shelters so that animals could stay safely with their owner. They have distributed around 250 of those reusable crates to shelters across the United States so far.

"We know how important it is for animals and people to stay together," Frederick says. "It boils down to that unconditional love and that human-animal bond. These animals are non-judgmental. To them, their home is with their human. I have seen dogs and cats unleashed, and they just follow their humans."

There’s no pet shaming. Just come, and we will give you whatever the animal needs.

—Nora Robbins, director of philanthropy and communications for The Women's Center

Each model for veterinary care is slightly different, but there are organizations in every state that will offer pet food or animal care to those experiencing homelessness. Many of the non-profits are dependent on local veterinarians to donate their time, a company's willingness to provide resources, and individual volunteers and financial donors.

Despite stigmas around people who are experiencing homelessness owning pets, Ekstrom says that the pet owners love their animals and often just need a little help to ensure their pets are afforded the same level of care as pets with a consistent home.

"I wish the one thing that I could do is make people understand how much the people that I see love their pets," Ekstrom says. "They love them, just like you and I, and maybe even a little more."