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Shelters Closing Access to Care Gap for At-Risk Communities

The pandemic has forced many shelters to change their way of doing business. Social distancing recommendations and reduced hours or staff mean that the days of accepting every animal who walks in the door are suspended, if not over for good. Shelters still want to serve the public, however, and increasingly are becoming community resource centers that offer medical support, training and pet supplies to keep pets in homes.  

For those whose access to such care was already hampered by a lack of basic resources, such programs are a lifeline. Instead of being forced to make the heart-wrenching decision to give up a beloved pet, owners in low-income areas can keep their families intact.  

We spoke with two shelters that offer programs specifically designed to serve lower-income residents of their communities. And although each had challenges getting buy-in initially, in the long run the results have been more than worth it. 

San Antonio Animal Care Services  

San Antonio Animal Care Services (SAACS) started offering diversion resources about five years ago, and today those options probably help 25% of the pets coming in over the counter as found strays or owner surrenders. 

“If there are behavior issues, we can make training resources available to the owner. More often, however, these are cases where people want to surrender their pet because they can’t afford medical care,” says Bethany Colonnese, SAACS’s live release manager. “Sometimes our clients are homeless, and it can appall people that we support them keeping their pets. But those dogs spend all day with their owners getting fresh air and exercise, and in many cases, you would not know they are homeless. Those people deserve the right to have a pet, too.” 

Although SAACS cannot provide the same services as a private veterinarian—and the intake staff makes sure the owners understand that—the shelter can offer treatments for mange or do amputations and enucleations. Every pet that comes through the medical diversion program is also spayed or neutered. Instead of staying in the shelter, the pet goes home to recover and complete treatment, or is brought in regularly for such things as bandage changes.  

A caveat of the medical diversion program is that the pet truly needs to be in jeopardy of being relinquished.

“We aren’t here to provide free medical care to the pet-owning public,” Bethany says. “That was definitely a concern of the vet staff when we first started this. But this is not to support people who say, ‘My friend got free medical, so I want that too.’ If someone is not at the point where they will otherwise surrender their pet, then we don’t provide the care.” 

Bethany notes that some people are understandably nervous about relinquishing their animals. However, the shelter legally cannot provide medical services to pets that are owned by someone else, because that would compete with private vets.  

While most pets do go back to their families, occasionally an animal needs treatment beyond the scope of SAACS’s clinic.  

“In such cases the owner has the option of permanently surrendering their pet to the shelter, or they can take it back and seek vet care on their own,” Bethany says. “We also have discretion about returning pets that are in really bad condition. For example, we had a gentleman recently who brought in his older Pekinese; the dog was in great shape but needed an enucleation. We were happy to perform that and send the dog home. The next week, another couple came in with almost the exact same situation, but the dog was flea-ridden, matted and in overall terrible shape. We took that dog in instead.” 

Although the diversion programs have been in effect for years, Bethany says there were staff who had a hard time supporting them at first.  

“They got on board once I took the time to explain that this wasn’t about free medical care, it was about supporting pet owners,” she says. “If the pet is surrendered, the shelter would have to do the medical work anyway. This way animal care staff doesn’t have to provide daily care and the live release staff doesn’t have to find placement. It makes more sense to keep the pet with the owners, who already love and are attached to their animals.  

“If you are considering adding such a program at your shelter, I would stress that you give your team time to work through their reservations. I did not do that very well in the beginning and it took years to correct.” 

LifeLine Animal Project 

Citizens in some of the poorest sections of Atlanta have benefitted from the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program since 2013. This grassroots program closes “the service gap that exists for people and pets in underserved areas and (brings) awareness in a new way to larger systemic inequities and injustices,” according to the PFL website. 

“About 38% of the people who live in PFL’s focus area live below the poverty line with little or no access to pet care services,” says LifeLine COO Andrea Peterson, who worked for HSUS when the program first began. “By going door to door and offering free services like vaccinations, spay/neuter, training classes, new leashes and collars, food, flea and tick medication and one-on-one advice for pet owners, PFL has made a huge difference for countless pets and their families.” 

HSUS transitioned the PFL program to LifeLine in 2017, which Andrea says was a great fit. 

“And Fulton County Animal Services (FCAS), which is run by LifeLine and is located in the focus area, has proven to be a big resource. Most of our clients get their pets from a neighbor and not only are they not fixed, chipped or vaccinated, people don’t know where to get those things done,” she says.  

“Now they can get free rabies shots five days a week at FCAS; we also do 20 to 30 spays and neuters every week. Because of COVID our shelter population is down, so our vet team can go out and do mobile vet visits twice a month.” 

For urgent cases, LifeLine works with several emergency clinics in the area who can call when they have a situation with a client who can’t pay.  

“We recently had a woman who was pregnant and homeless, and her dog was really lethargic,” Andrea says. “Although someone called animal control for her to surrender, our field officers knew we could probably cover it through the program. Here was a woman who could have lost not just her favorite dog but the only source of comfort to her, and it turned out that the dog only had hookworms.” 

Andrea acknowledges that shelters may be leery about starting such programs because they worry that people will abandon their pets with them or take advantage of the system. But, she says, you have to throw judgment out the window. 

“We took this woman’s dog on a leap of faith that she would reclaim it. We said, ‘We trust you and we will figure it out’,” she says. “It’s easy to think, ‘What if this goes wrong?’ Just try it, take the risk, and you’ll find that it’s totally worth the payoff.” 

For more information about how your shelter can help close the access to care gap in your community, go here.   
Aimee St. Arnaud
Director of National Veterinary Outreach
Best Friends Animal Society