MISSOULA — When Christina called the Poverello shelter and learned of a one-day veterinary clinic for homeless residents and their pets, she jumped at the chance to have Leo, her little dog, screened for good health.
The 1-year-old canine patiently endured the screening from tooth to tail. The results gave Christina peace of mind knowing her best friend was in decent health, even if his appetite has been fickle lately.
“We got Leo when he was about 8 weeks old and he’s been my little buddy ever since,” Christina said during the check up. “I can’t even put into words how important he is to me. He’s my best friend.”
The Pruyn Veterinary Hospital in Missoula reached out to the Poverello under the umbrella of The Street Dog Coalition, a national nonprofit that helps pets and their homeless counterparts overcome the cost of veterinary care with good health in mind.
Joseph Conrad, the managing veterinarian at Pruyn and Leah Gavin, the hospital’s lead technician, arrived early Friday in what proved to be the first Street Dog clinic held in Montana. Conrad’s wife was a veterinary technician when they met in Colorado, where she worked for the organization’s founder.
“I was looking for something to give back to the community,” Conrad said. “We came fairly prepared, but we’ll learn a lot from this experience and we hope to do more of these things in the future. We’re already in talks with the Poverello to figure out how to do a better job next time.”
The Street Dog Coalition works to ensure the homeless or those facing housing insecurity don’t have to surrender a pet due to the cost of keeping the pet healthy or meeting other expenses. In partnership with participating hospitals, veterinary screenings are offered free of charge for homeless and at-risk pet owners.
“The number one thing is lack of vaccinations and preventative care,” Conrad said of the pets. “Parasite prevention is a huge deal, and some of these things can be transmitted to people as well. By treating the pets, we’re helping keep the homeless population a little more healthy as well.”
Clad in gloves and masks, Conrad and Gavin calmed the morning’s nervous patients while inspecting teeth and gums, skin and paws. A few got their nails trimmed. The doctors also handed out vouchers to pet owners, offering spay and neuter services, along with other medical care at a reduced cost.
“If we run into an issue today while we’re providing some preventative care and see that a pet needs more emergent care, we can send them to Pruyn and they’ll do it at a discounted rate,” said Conrad. “Street Dog will help support that.”
The morning service caused a stir at the shelter, where the pets brought smiles to the faces of many homeless clients. One little chihuahua wandered the courtyard greeting the morning crowd while waiting its turn at the table.
The dog’s owner, who goes by “T,” was eager to have her pet screened for good health while she moves toward a more stable living arrangement.
“It’s very important to have him looked at – you worry about your pets,” she said. “She means the world to me. She’s my everything. If I didn’t have her, I don’t know that I would have made it this far. It’s been pretty rough for a while now, but she’s there every time I have a rough time.”
The bond between people and their pets extends beyond those with stable living arrangements. The issues leading to homelessness are diverse and not easily resolved. Many had pets before becoming homeless and surrendering their companion is unthinkable.
“A lot of folks who are experiencing homelessness, that can be a really isolating experience,” said Jesse Jaeger, the Pov’s director of development and advocacy. “Oftentimes people will have pets, just like all of us. That companionship is really important.”
But at times pet ownership can also serve as a barrier for those needing shelter and those transitioning into housing. Options are already limited due to their economic circumstances, and those with pets are often left with difficult choices.
Street Dog tries to help by removing an animal’s health costs and vaccination needs from the equation. For the Poverello and several of its past and current clients, the service proved valuable during Friday’s inaugural clinic.
“They’re trying to save every penny so they can get out of homelessness,” said Jaeger. “Having these services paid for is a real benefit to them. We’re also opening it up to former clients who are currently housed or folks who receive some of our food services that are on the edge of being homeless. That gives them a chance to save their money and use that to stay housed.”
Located in 40 cities across the country, The Street Dog Coalition remains committed to protecting the human-animal bond, regardless of the human’s living situation. For those at the Pruyn Veterinary Hospital, giving back with “compassionate care” helps both the pet and their human counterpart.
“In our setting, unfortunately, finances do play a part,” said Gavin. “A lot of times there’s things owners want to do or we want to do for the pet, but finances stop us from doing that. This is a situation where we can do everything that’s best for the pet without finances dictating the outcome.”