Helping the Pets of the Homeless
Staff and students at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies are helping to ensure that dogs of the homeless are getting the treatment they need.
For many homeless people, owning a dog provides not only a sense of purpose and source of stability but also invaluable companionship that helps prevent feelings of isolation. Yet, ensuring that their animals receive the right veterinary care is not straightforward.
After the University received a generous bequest, which came with a specific instruction to support the pets of homeless people, Dr Andrew Gardiner, senior lecturer at the School, started visiting homeless hostels in Edinburgh in 2009 offering treatment and equipment for dogs. Since then, the service has gone from strength to strength with students showing a keen interest in getting involved.
This year, All4Paws clinics have started, which run every month at the Fort Kinnaird Community Centre in Leith and provide general health checks as well as microchipping, vaccinations and worming for the animals of the homeless and vulnerably-housed.
Set up by students Calla Harris and Biana Tamimi during the fourth year of their veterinary degree, the clinics are aimed at those living in homeless hostels, sleeping rough, using night shelters, sofa surfing, or in other temporary or supported accommodation.
Biana explains: “All4paws has been one of the most incredible things to get involved with. To be able to understand the human-animal bond that exists between someone living with next to nothing on the streets and their companion and best friend is really incredibly rewarding.
“A client told me that several people told him that as he was homeless he shouldn’t have a dog, but the people that we have seen are really incredible owners. They are hyper-vigilant and know every detail about their animals as they are constantly with them. Equally, as well as companionship, looking after their animals gives them a real sense of purpose.
One of the aims of the clinic is to encourage clients to sign up for the Dogs Trust Hope Project Veterinary Scheme, which provides homeless people with assistance towards the cost of veterinary care. Any fourth-year student at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies can sign up to help with clinical examinations at the All4Paws clinics, where there are qualified vets on hand to supervise, while students from other years can also get involved in fundraising and outreach.
“The aim is to make the clinics as friendly as possible,” says Calla.
To be able to understand the human-animal bond that exists between someone living with next to nothing on the streets and their companion and best friend is really incredibly rewarding.
“When people arrive they are given a cup of tea and the students make cake as well. We want to put people at ease and build up a relationship with them so they feel they can come back and we have already had repeat clients. We also ask them if there is anything they need, like collars or winter coats. Getting them to sign up for the Dogs Trust Hope Project Veterinary Scheme also means that people who may otherwise fall through the cracks, for instance who may not be getting benefits, can get financial help if further veterinary care is needed.
Calla continues: “The strong community involvement also helps get students out of that student bubble and shows them that there is so much more to studying veterinary medicine than just getting the grades.”
The clinics were initially set up with a £600 donation from the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and a £2,000 Innovation Initiative Grant from the University, which included buying supplies and equipment such as a microchip scanner.
This has been supported by fundraising events and donations, including involvement from the Just Dogs shop in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh, while Fostering Compassion – an organisation that teaches foster children the importance of the human-animal bond – has provided boxes made by the children containing dog toys, blankets and treats.
The strong community involvement also helps get students out of that student bubble and shows them that there is so much more to studying veterinary medicine than just getting the grades.
The work of the All4Paws clinics was also part of a submission by the Easter Bush Campus (where the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is based), along with other public engagement initiatives, which led to the campus being awarded the Community Engagement prize at the 2016 Scottish Life Sciences Awards.
Future plans include increasing the frequency of the clinics, as well as potentially providing more services, if facilities can be found that would enable this. Having just started their fifth year, Biana and Calla are also keen to pass on the mantle to current fourth years to ensure the long-term sustainability of All4Paws, and are currently receiving applications to set up a committee.
For Dr Gardiner, continuing to develop the service is welcome news. “While over the years we have probably seen hundreds of dogs at hostel-run clinics, there are only a small number of hostels that enable homeless people to stay with their animals,” he explains. “The All4Paws clinics means that the veterinary checks can be expanded to those who may not be able to access hostel accommodation. Also, because only one or two students are able to attend the hostel-run clinics due to space, All4Paws means that many more students can get involved providing them with great experience.”