In a North Philadelphia rowhome, four students from the School of Veterinary Medicine are examining Pebbles, a friendly cocker spaniel. She’s a little overweight but otherwise healthy. “She has a great hairdo,” fourth-year student Hannah MacAyeal tells Billy, Pebbles’ owner.
The group then initiates another conversation about Billy’s other cocker spaniel, a male named Mr. Earl, who isn’t neutered, and points out the benefits of neutering Billy is initially unsure, by the end of the visit he is more comfortable, and arranges for Mr. Earl to have the surgery.
The students’ visit was a part of the Pets for Life program, an initiative of the Humane Society of the United States that provides free spay/neuter and wellness care for pets in underserved communities. Penn Vet has partnered with the program since 2013, an arrangement that enhances the education of veterinary students while providing animals with care they need—but their owners may not be able to afford.
The program is representative of an expanding notion of what shelter medicine entails. Rather than focusing just on animals in shelters, Pets for Life shares information and provides resources for owners to keep their pets healthy at home.
Philadelphia is one of the core locations for Pets for Life and has become a model of success; the program has since expanded to 30 cities, concentrating in pet service “deserts.” In Philadelphia alone, more than 13,000 pets have been seen as part of the program.
“Over three-quarters of the clients in the program have never been to a veterinarian,” says Brittany Watson, director of shelter animal medicine and community engagement at Penn Vet. “We’re able to be this link for these individuals to trust veterinarians and understand why this care is so important.”
As part of their shelter medicine rotation, Penn Vet students in their third or fourth year do neighborhood outreach with Pets for Life each Thursday of the spring semester. Sometimes it’s to check up on pets who have been neutered or vaccinated; other times it’s pure door-to-door canvassing, striking up conversations with residents about their pets.
These visits give the students real-world experience in primary veterinary care. In one outing earlier this spring, they encountered ear mites, skin diseases, behavioral problems, and undiagnosed masses.
Also important, Watson notes, is that the students learn how to communicate effectively so they earn clients’ trust and help them understand how to best care for their pets.
“We not only see them fostering this veterinary medical relationship,” Watson says, “but also creating an emotional connection to another person. It’s really special to see that vet-client-patient relationship grow.”
Ashley Mutch, manager for Philadelphia’s Pets for Life program, says a common reaction when potential clients first learn about the program is skepticism.
“They’ll say, ‘What’s the catch?’ We say right away there is none, but it still often takes multiple visits for them to believe us.”
Occasionally, to help build a relationship, the team will start by offering a free collar or leash, and only later work up to a conversation about spaying/neutering, a practice that can improve animals’ health and reduce shelter populations, but which often is an unfamiliar procedure for Pets for Life clients.
“If we can have that cultural shift where it becomes normal to spay and neuter your pet and we can provide the resources to do that, the pet stays healthier and then the human-animal bond becomes stronger,” Mutch says.
In the course of a morning, in addition to meeting with Billy and his dogs, the Penn Vet and Pets for Life team visited three other homes, checking on pet fish, administering vaccinations for rabies and parvovirus, conducting physical exams, providing preventive flea medication, setting up appointments for animals to be neutered at a local clinic, and encouraging pet owners to spread the word to the community about the program.
Penn Vet provides Pets for Life formal veterinary consulting and care, which has allowed the program to improve animal outcomes and expand its impact.
“The partnership with Penn Vet has been amazing—I want to say life-changing,” says Mutch. “We’re able to serve so many more pets in such a huge way.”