Providing free veterinary care can be a good way to bring homeless and marginally housed people into contact with health care, harm reduction and other services, according to a presentation at the 25th International Harm Reduction Conference (HR17) this week in Montréal.
Individuals who are homeless or precariously housed can face numerous barriers to accessing health and harm reduction services, including lack of trust in the medical system or the government. Although pet guardianship can be difficult for homeless people because most shelters do not allow animals, having a pet can offer many benefits for this population.
Judy Hodge, a veterinarian with a Master's degree in public health who works as the One Health operations veterinarian for the Manitoba government, presented an overview of an initiative to embed human health services within preventive veterinary clinics. The One Health approach aims to integrate human, animal and environmental health to address public health threats at their source.
Up to 19% of homeless individuals and families are pet owners, according to Hodge. In addition to unconditional love, pets also provide motivation to avoid incarceration, hard drug use, and other risk behaviour, she said.
The Community Veterinary Outreach programme, based in Ottawa, provides no-cost preventive veterinary care for pets of homeless and marginally housed people. Programme clients are highly motivated to seek access to veterinary care, and once this has been delivered they are often open to accepting services for themselves, Hodge said.
Community Veterinary Outreach has held clinics at 10 locations throughout Canada, providing care for a total of 630 pets and 480 people.
Services for pets, provided through local partners, include vaccines, deworming, microchipping, grooming and pet supplies. One Health services for people include vaccines, oral health care, smoking cessation assistance, harm reduction services and primary care. Not all services were available at every clinic.
From 2015 to 2016, 63% of programme clients received flu vaccines, Hodge reported. Just over half (55%) sought oral health care and were referred for dental care. A similar proportion (54%) received nicotine replacement therapy to help them stop smoking tobacco.
This model is "a unique way to build trust and provide healthcare to an often overlooked population," Hodge concluded. "Providing veterinary care to the pets of those in need can improve the health and welfare of both animals and those who care for them."
Hodge J et al. Connecting homeless and marginally housed populations to health care services through their pets: a One Health approach. 25th International Harm Reduction Conference, Montréal, abstract 1396, 2017.