How Canadian Vets Are Helping the Homeless With Their Pets

Canadian Veterinary Outreach has treated and vaccinated more than 1,800 such animals.


Community Veterinary Outreach is helping people by helping their pets. The program was created in 2003 by Michelle Lem as a way to provide veterinary care for the animals of the homeless at the Ottawa Mission in Ontario, Canada. She wanted to not only treat the beloved pets of her homeless patrons, but also to educate this marginalized community on proper nutrition for their animals, dental care, the benefits of sterilization and how to better deal with behavioral issues.

Lem had always wanted to contribute to the community through her profession, and once she had an accredited mobile veterinary unit, she met with the executive director at the Ottawa Mission, who was very supportive of Lem’s project. They will be celebrating the 10-year anniversary of their partnership this fall.

For Lem, whose Master’s thesis focusses on pet ownership among street-involved youth, her work with marginalized populations and their pets was truly a calling.

“I have heard it said that ‘we are all just two steps away from being homeless’ and I believe it,” she says.

Community Veterinary Outreach was formalized as a non-profit organization in 2009 (six years after Lem first starting going out into the community as a volunteer vet), and received charitable status in 2012, allowing them to apply for grants. But the challenges are still there. Lem says that when applying for funding, she finds that human health funders won’t fund veterinary care, and animal welfare funders are less likely to fund care for owned animals, and so finding funding is a struggle.

Since its beginnings in Ottawa, CVO has expanded and now offers Mission Veterinary Care programs and veterinary services in southern Ontario (Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto) as well. Due to the ever-increasing demand for these clinics and services, CVO now also accepts clients on a referral basis from local homeless shelters, community health centers and mental health organizations.

“Our goal is to have our programs in communities across Canada,” Lem states. “Our clients are incredibly and overwhelmingly appreciative.”

Tyler Jordan started volunteering for CVO clinics when he was still a vet student and says the experience has not only made him grow tremendously as a young professional, but also as a compassionate, thoughtful and caring human being. He says the program allows vet students to practice their clinical skills while also interacting and communicating with a population they otherwise would not have met.

“Rather than turning someone away due to financial constraints in our future careers, I would hope that my classmates would look back on their experience with Community Veterinary Outreach, the people and pets they met, and be able to exercise some compassion,” he says.

Unfortunately, homeless and marginally housed pet owners are often stigmatized, not only by the general population, but also by those in the veterinary profession. Jordan says it was not uncommon for students in his vet classes to inherently believe that people who cannot afford a pet should not own a pet. To which Lem adds, “I can tell you that of the 1,800 animals I’ve seen come through outreach clinics in the past 10 years, I’ve never seen an animal in any worse condition than those animals which have come into a full hospital where I’ve worked in 12 years of practice.”

She goes on to talk about just how bonded and involved the homeless and street youth can be with their pets. “[Unpublished] data collected during my Master’s research from pet-owning street-involved youth in Ontario showed that [of the] 52 dogs and 60 cats owned by 89 young people, 100-percent of the dogs and 90-percent of cats received more than one hour of play or exercise per day.”

This is compared to an average of 19 to 28 minutes per weekday of play or exercise for pets of Canadian households, as reported in the 2011 Canada’s Pet Wellness Report.

And, according to Jordan, the “human-animal bond” does not discriminate based on finances. For many of CVO’s patrons, their pets represent one of the only positive relationships they have had in their lives.

In the past year, more than 60 volunteer veterinary students have participated in CVO-run clinics set up to encourage homeless and marginally housed pet owners to bring their dogs and cats in to be vaccinated, dewormed, examined for any medical issues and treated if possible, all pro bono.

Jordan talks about one man he met at a CVO clinic who described his pet as having “saved his life.”

“Rather than commit suicide, this patron decided to persevere and battle his depression as there would be no one else to take care of his beloved dog. In this light, Community Veterinary Outreach is not only helping animals, [but it’s] also about helping people through helping their animals,” he says.

And CVO is helping by building relationships and improving communication between populations of people who do not often interact. It is a “servant leader”-based organization, encouraging all those involved to lead by serving others. Lem hopes that those who serve eventually become servant leaders themselves, and that those served are able to grow as people and take away something positive from the experience.

And sometimes really awesome things can happen.

At a recent CVO clinic in Toronto, a young girl and her mother came in with their dog. Lem explains that the girl’s father was in hospital, and they were all being evicted from their apartment. The girl and her mother were preparing to move into a homeless shelter, but when they came to vet outreach clinic, the director of the host agency was there, and she was able to get them and their dog into pet-friendly affordable housing.

Lem didn’t know back in 2003 that outreach work with marginalized pet owners would eventually become her life’s work.

“The most common question I get asked is, ‘Should homeless people have pets?'” she says. “The question we should be asking ourselves is, ‘Should there be people who are homeless?'”

Community Veterinary Outreach is always in need of volunteers (particularly those with fund-raising experience), in addition to monetary donations. Please visit the website and Facebook page for more information.

Read about more Dogster Heroes:

About Crystal Gibson: A child-sized Canadian expat in France who is fluent in French and sarcasm. Owned by a neurotic Doxie mix, a Garfield look-alike, and two needy Sphynx cats. An aspiring writer and pet photographer with a love of coffee and distaste for French administration, she can be found blogging over at Crystal Goes to Europe.

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