Imagine for a moment that your beloved animal companion gets sick. You rush him to the emergency hospital, where he is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.
Fortunately, you are able to afford the care he needs to survive. You also have the support of friends and family to see you through this difficult time. For many people, this is not the case, which is why I helped found Veterinary Street Outreach Services (VET SOS).
Since our first clinic in June 2001, VET SOS has been conducting outreach clinics and serving the companion animals of homeless San Franciscans. Modeled after and operated under the umbrella of the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium’s (SFCCC’s) successful Street Outreach Services (SOS) Healthcare for the Homeless Program, VET SOS is a vet clinic on wheels. Our team is comprised of Americorps outreach workers, volunteer veterinarians and vet techs, and other dedicated volunteer members of our community.
Once or twice each month, we set out in our signature blue van to create our free “vet clinics without walls” on the streets of San Francisco, at homeless drop-in centers, under freeway overpasses, and in city parks – anywhere homeless people are likely to be found. We provide homeless companion animals with important preventative veterinary care and educate their human guardians about responsible pet ownership, as well as offering referrals and transportation for free spay/neuter surgery or more urgent veterinary care through one of our community partner agencies. Additionally, we make direct referrals for homeless pet owners to obtain free human health care services in a local, community-based clinic. Our goal is to improve the quality of life for these most vulnerable members of our community, people who are living on the streets. Many of them these days are homeless youth.
During the winter of 2008, VET SOS saw an alarming increase in demand for our veterinary outreach services in Golden Gate Park. We learned that there was a Parvovirus outbreak in that part of the city and were concerned and eager to help prevent tragic illness and loss among the pets of homeless youth living there.
Parvo is a very hearty virus that attacks the stomach and intestines of dogs. Puppies less than 4 months old or unvaccinated dogs of any age are at the highest risk of infection. The virus is spread through direct contact with infected dogs, contaminated clothing, feces, or the environment (including soil). The virus can easily be transmitted from place to place on a dog’s feet, people’s shoes, or objects such as kennels, and can survive in the soil for months or even years. We had to get the word out about how important it was to keep sick dogs away from healthy dogs and to keep healthy dogs away from people who have touched sick dogs.
In response to the outbreak, VET SOS created educational fliers about Parvovirus and how it can be easily prevented with a complete series of vaccinations. We posted the flyers in key locations around the park and distributed them to local homeless service providers.
It was then that we first met Nina Willer, Program Coordinator for the Homeless Youth Alliance (HYA), a drop-in facility for youth as young as 12. HYA’s mission is to provide non-judgmental support and empower homeless youth to live healthier lives. HYA shares our philosophy of reducing harm through education and counseling and holds various educational workshops, as well as providing for the healthcare needs of homeless youth.
Many of HYA’s young clients had asked questions and expressed concern about the risk of their dogs contracting Parvovirus, so Nina invited us to conduct an educational workshop at the HYA drop-in center. This was the beginning of an amazing collaboration.
At that first HYA event, we shared information about Parvovirus and provided plenty of time for questions and answers. We also discussed the many health benefits of spay/neuter surgery, common behavior problems, and many other important topics. We offered vaccines and other wellness care to attendees’ dogs and arranged for free spay/neuter surgeries when needed. In short, the event was an overwhelming success.
During these hard economic times, demand for VET SOS services continues to increase, as more and more people find themselves facing homelessness. With the continued support of dedicated volunteers and generous financial donors, we hope to continue our monthly outreach clinics, bringing compassionate veterinary care to homeless San Franciscans.
VET SOS is currently recruiting veterinarians, vet techs, and other skilled animal handlers to join our team and seeking donations of new or gently used pet supplies, especially leashes, collars, harnesses, and muzzles – which allow our homeless clients to travel with their dogs on public transportation.
To learn more about VET SOS and find out how you can help with this important work, please visit www.sfccc.org/vetsos/index.htm or www.vetsos.org. VET SOS is operated by the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium, in partnership with: Pets Are Wonderful Support, Pets Unlimited, SF Animal Care and Control, SF Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and SF Veterinary Medical Association.
Ilana Strubel, DVM is Founder and Project Coordinator of VET SOS. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also works full-time at Linda Mar Veterinary Hospital in Pacifica. Ilana lives in Bernal Heights with her partner, Michelle, kitty Tuli, and three rescue pooches: Pinky, Jodi, and Roxie.
Why I Volunteer for VET SOS
As a VET SOS Volunteer, I spoke to homeless youth at the second Homeless Youth Allicance (HYA) outreach event about how they can reduce health risks for their pets while they are living together on the streets.
As I entered the doorway to HYA on Haight Street, I overheard a young woman with a puppy in her arms say, “Thank god today’s the vet van because he’s got worms in his poop.” Fortunately, parasites were precisely what I had planned to speak about.
Parasites are a potential problem for any dog, whether living on the streets or not. Providing treatment early in the infestation can prevent chronic health problems sometimes caused by parasites, as well as preventing the parasites from affecting human care-takers.
I reviewed the most common types of parasites we see in dogs, starting with common skin parasites like fleas, mites, and ringworm, emphasizing prevention and treatment. We also talked about common gastrointestinal parasites, such as roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and giardia.
I explained that scabies, ringworm, certain types of roundworms, and giardia are especially important to recognize and treat, because they can be spread from pets to humans. We also covered heartworm, which is spread by mosquitoes, a special concern with animals who live outdoors.
We talked about why it’s important to vaccinate all animals adequately, and I emphasized the fact that Parvo virus is spread through feces that an animal might encounter.
After the talk, I examined the puppy I had seen coming in and treated him for tapeworms and roundworms. I gave him a dose of flea medication, and a first DHPP vaccination.
This pup’s homeless mom was so relieved to know that his worms would soon be gone, and that he was now on track to remain a healthy companion and friend for years to come.
To say that the day was rewarding for me would be an understatement.