"Some of them say, 'my dog is the reason I get up every day."
That's UBC Clinical Instructor Kelsi Jessamine, who helped launch the Community Veterinary Outreach program in Vancouver in 2016. The program aims to improve the lives of people in the community by also helping their four-legged furry best friends.
For people who are experiencing homelessness, their pets may mean everything to them.
"The relationship between someone who is vulnerably housed or living in the margins of society — the relationship that they have with their pet is often stronger than say someone in the general population," Jessamine tells Vancouver Is Awesome. "They are with that animal 24/7 and often that animal is the only family they have."
Community Veterinary Outreach is a registered charity that was founded by veterinarian Dr. Michelle Lem in Ontario in 2003. In 2016, Jessamine took initiative to launch a program locally with the support of community partners.
Now, Jessamine runs CVO One Health clinics with veterinarian Dr. Doris Leung. The program, which is supported by a UBC Community University Engagement Support (CUES) grant—is offering a series of free “One Health” veterinary clinics that provide pro bono veterinary care while supporting marginalized pet owners’ own health needs.
For community nurses, reaching clients can be one of the most challenging parts of outreach. Through these free clinics, however, nurses are able to provide primary care services to individuals, who they might not otherwise be able to reach, through their animal companions.
Leung says: “The animal gives us that point of connection to the person. It provides an opening and begins to build trust with people who very likely have mental health issues, who likely have chronic health issues.”
Pets provide emotional support for mental health
While community members may have trouble trusting people right away, they would open up more when Jessamine used to bring her dog Malachi to a shelter on the Downtown Eastside.
"Because of their life circumstances they may be very guarded," she says. "And then they saw the dog, then all of a sudden something would change.
"They're on the floor [and] petting the dog [and] telling you about the animals they had growing up."
A community member named Robert adopted an abused pitbull that he named Pretty Girl. After his mobility issues progressed, he made the decision to find her another loving home.
In a happy turn of events, CVO volunteer and UBC nursing grad Tiana Stuart adopted the young female pit bull cross. As a volunteer at the Overdose Prevention Society and community nurse in the downtown east side, Tiana loves to bring Pretty Girl with her whenever she can, including on visits with her previous owner and rescuer Robert.
“The animal gives us that point of connection to the person."
In addition to offering companionship, Jessamine says pets are a "grounding force" for keeping their owners well.
And Leung adds that most of the pets are in good health, too. "The animals that we see are actually not malnourished and they are very happily socialized because they're interacting with animals and people on a daily basis.
"They're also usually well-muscled and they're usually not obese because they're walked on a daily basis."
Provided in partnership with a number of community partners, CVO One Health clinics derive their name from their innovative approach of offering interdisciplinary health services and support to clients, notes UBC Community Engagement. Although the events centre on offering pro bono veterinary care, they also act as a segue to supporting marginalized pet owners’ own health needs. “The animal gives us that point of connection to the person,” explains Leung. “It provides an opening and begins to build trust with people who very likely are dealing with mental health issues, who likely have chronic health issues.”
In Vancouver, UBC faculty and students in a variety of health disciplines work alongside the vets at the free clinics to offer care or provide referrals and resources to ensure the clients get the follow-up care they need.