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A haven for four-footed patients

June 21, 2013


Dog at VETouch clinic.

A dog gets an exam at a clinic operated by VETouch, a student-run program to bring free veterinary care to low-income pet owners in the Twin Cities.

Vets and future vets hold clinics for pets of low-income clients

It looked like a routine visit when a father and daughter brought their cat to a free veterinary clinic in South Minneapolis.

But their reason for coming has always stuck with Dr. Vicki Wilke, the clinic founder.

"In order to get into permanent housing they had to have their cat vaccinated," says Wilke, an assistant clinical professor in the University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine. "We see that periodically—people waiting [for housing] who have to prove their pet is vaccinated."

In December 2008 Wilke and U veterinary technician Kelly Noyes started VETouch (Veterinary Treatment Outreach for Urban Community Health), a student group that offers free veterinary clinics for pets of low-income Twin Cities residents on the first Sunday of the month at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. It enlists veterinarians from the University and elsewhere, as well as the U's veterinary and veterinary technician students, and serves about 45 animals each month.

Besides vaccinations, the monthly clinics provide other routine care, referrals for more advanced treatment, and pet food. "A lot of people come in just for the food," notes Wilke.

She began VETouch "due to the economic crisis that was going on," she says. "Friends who worked at the Humane Society told me about the increased number of animals being left or brought [there]. And it was also about bringing new experiences to our students."

The derm dog and other stories

Last summer Rosie, a golden retriever with allergies, constant itching, a severe ear infection, and other woes came to a clinic with her concerned owner, who had lost his job and could no longer afford the $500 yearly cost of allergy shots. 

Joint care

VETouch also collaborates with its sister organization, SIRVS (Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services), which serves Native Americans living on reservations. Last year    Dr. Vicki Wilke won the Community Outreach Excellence Award from the Student American Veterinary Medical Association in recognition of her exceptional work with VETouch and SIRVS.

"We prepared a detailed treatment schedule, which included anti-fungal medication, antibiotics, ear cleaning, ear medications, topical ointments, and baths," says Carrie Robbins, a third-year veterinary student and president of VETouch. "[The owner] stuck to the schedule religiously and has brought her back for numerous recheck appointments. We recently saw Rosie at our March clinic, and she looks fantastic."

VETouch has been working with a veterinary dermatologist on a maintenance treatment plan for Rosie, who still loves playing ball every day with her owner.

Robbins also fondly remembers Star, a cat with severe dental disease.

"We collaborated with the U's Pre-Dental Club and Pet Crossing Animal Hospital to provide radiographs, extractions, and a dental cleaning," says Robbins, who adds that Star received $500 worth of treatment and is feeling much better now that a painful abscessed tooth has been removed. "We're hoping to make 'Dental Day' an annual event and continue to offer this service to our patients who need it."

About two months ago, Brett Rabe talked to a grateful mother and daughter.

"The mom had tears in her eyes as she thanked me and told me that if it weren't for our help they would have had to surrender their dog," says Rabe, a third-year veterinary student and a VETouch vice president. "Rabies vaccination is legally required, and she simply couldn't afford it. Our ability to provide it at no cost is all it took for her to keep her pet at home."

Spay and neuter, please

This year VETouch had enough funds to buy a microscope to aid in diagnosing disorders, especially of skin, blood, and ears. The group hopes to find funding to offer spaying and neutering services, for both population control—one of VETouch's biggest pushes—and individual pet health.

"Owners don't always understand the cancer risk of having hormonal cycles continue," says third-year veterinary student Nikko Poulos, who just ended a term as treasurer of VETouch. "They must spay or neuter their pet within a year to continue coming to our clinics."

For him, the best part about VETouch is learning how to communicate with clients. In one case, he says, a client spoke no English, and Poulos had to explain to her why it was a good idea to abort the family dog's pregnancy and spay her—all via translations by the client's 7-year-old daughter.

The clinics seem to fulfill Wilke's desire to help students acquire new perspectives by working with low- and no-income clients.

"I see that in most of these situations, even though their life isn't the happiest, their pets bring them a lot of joy and emotional support," Poulos observes. "A lot of people may not be financially wealthy, but are emotionally wealthy."

"Our clients often wait four hours for a physical exam and vaccinations for their pet," says Robbins. "They care deeply about their animals and are doing everything possible to take care of them despite difficult financial circumstances. I learn something new at every clinic and love having the opportunity to share my education with others."

Contact the writer at morri029@umn.edu

Tags: Academic Health Center

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