The Wisconsin Companion Animal Resource, Education and Social Services clinic recognized a recent surge in requests for veterinary services for owners experiencing financial hardship.
WisCARES is a specialized outreach program that supplies basic veterinary care, housing support and advocacy for members of the Dane County population. Support services are offered specifically to low-income Dane County pet owners experiencing — or nearing the risk of experiencing — homelessness.
Individuals who cannot pay for veterinary medical services necessary for access to housing are also supported through WisCARES, according to the program’s website.
Three UW schools — pharmacy, veterinary medicine and social work — collaborated to develop the WisCARES program.
WisCARES was founded at the university in 2014. In 2019, WisCARES helped aid 2,500 pets, and over 60 pets entered their boarding and foster program, where 90% of pets were reunified with families.
“We are finding that especially in the last six to nine months, we have seen an increase in our number of clients, many of whom may not have needed a service like WisCARES prior to COVID,” Veterinarian and Curriculum Director Elizabeth Alvarez said in a press release.
Homelessness and financial hardship pose extreme difficulties for affected individuals, and WisCARES recognized this continued difficulty.
“What we have seen is people who are struggling financially and don’t have a lot, that pet means so much more to them,” Amanda Arrington — director of Pets for Life, a Humane Society of the United States program that provides veterinary care and resources to low-income communities and those with a lack of care providers — said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “That’s why there’s such an immense need for us to honor the love people have for their pets.”
Dr. William Gilles, a local veterinarian who earned his doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from UW–Madison, told InBusiness that studies have shown that the homeless and indigent population are less likely to engage in socially unacceptable behavior if they have a pet to care for. Homeless pet owners often will put their pet’s care above their own, Gilles said.
“We’re concerned with both parties, but we try to treat the bond. We believe very strongly that these animals already have homes, but the whole family unit just isn’t housed,” Gilles said to InBusiness. “Animals tend to make their homes with the people they’re sharing their time with.”
That is why creating and fostering trusting relationships with their clients is a WisCARES mission priority, according to the program.
The WisCARES emphasis on building relationships became apparent when Ray Straub, a WisCARES client, sought after boarding two cats while getting back on her feet after years of medical problems.
“Roscoe was very, very sick,” Straub said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “I knew I couldn’t afford the lab work to even figure out what was wrong with him, let alone probably the care.”
The then-15-year-old cat Roscoe was able to go back to his old self after WisCARES diagnosed him with diabetes and gave proper care to stabilize him. This is just one example of how WisCARES fosters community and relationships with the surrounding community.
WisCARES relationships develop between the owners, as well as between the animals themselves. Veterinarians and employees who work with animals are able to see the impact of daily human-animal bonding.
Consistent exposure and care is a great way to provide therapeutic effects for humans and animals, from decreased stress for humans to increased healing and resiliency for animals, according to The Human-Animal Bond Research Institute.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has affected many personal relationships and constant exposure has significantly decreased.
“Before COVID, we spent a lot of time with clients and their pets all in the room together, discussing if they have any other social service needs that we can help provide for them,” Alvarez said in a press release.
With COVID-19 restrictions, clients cannot enter the WisCARES building, and the majority of the trust-building conversations take place through masked social distancing in the parking lot. Despite these setbacks, WisCARES is still dedicated to providing care for pets regardless of the financial situation the owner is facing.
More information can be found on their website at wiscares.wisc.edu.