Vet SOS, SPCA Keep San Francisco’s Homeless Pets Healthy

[Editor's Note: Hoodline is participating in this week's SF Homeless Project, in which more than 80 area publications are each covering homelessness issues in their own ways.

While we already write about these issues often, we hope that our stories will add more neighborhood context to this very complicated topic, and to the great work being published elsewhere. You can read more about the project here.]

An emergency vet visit in San Francisco costs approximately $100. Spaying or neutering a dog: $375. Monthly flea medication: $30.

For the average pet guardian, these costs are significant; for a homeless pet parent, they are downright crippling.

Even though most homeless shelters do not allow animals indoors, caring for a pet provides many homeless people with a primary source of stability and strength, the assurance of a constant companion in an uncertain life. It also means that many homeless pet guardians would rather give up access to basic services, like a bed and hot meals, than be separated from their loved ones.

This anxiety also keeps many homeless people from entering Animal Care & Control or visiting a veterinarian—unless their pet is in crisis and needs emergency veterinary attention.

A group of homeless men and their dogs in the Upper Haight. | Photo: ranco Folini/flickr

Fifteen years ago, SF SPCA veterinarian Ilana Strubel noticed this trend. “Homeless pet owners had a real fear that if they came in, they would be judged or discriminated against because of their status and have their animals taken from them,” she says.

In 2001, with the support of half a dozen community partners, including the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium, Strubel established Veterinary Street Outreach Services (Vet SOS) to provide the pets of homeless San Franciscans with free basic care.

Vet SOS’s monthly mobile veterinary clinics are held in parking lots and open spaces in areas with large homeless populations, are staffed entirely by volunteers, and all medications, food and connections to other services are donated.

A Vet SOS mobile veterinary clinic | Photo by Mark Rogers/Shared courtesy of Vet SOS.

Ironically, one of the latest homeless hot spots is situated on the north end of "Rescue Row," a block of Alabama Street between 15th and 16th streets in the Mission that houses four animal shelters. Vet SOS held its first clinic there this year and is planning others for 2017.

Vet SOS provides healthcare to around 800 pets a year and connects many of their human guardians to human health services. The organization's veterinarians treat dogs, cats and the occasional rat, rabbit or snake for a variety of conditions.

Skin issues are common, says Alana McGrath, the current coordinator of Vet SOS. “Sleeping in suboptimal conditions and having a hard time accessing hygiene resources” impacts the health of both pets and their guardians, she says. 

Vet SOS client Daniel with his cat Samantha. | PHOTO: MARK ROGERS/COURTESY OF VET SOS

Some of Vet SOS' most important work is to administer vaccines and health certificates for pets whose guardians are staying at animal-friendly shelters, like the Navigation Center, or preparing to transition to more permanent housing.

Long a supporter of Vet SOS, the SF SPCA’s Community Cares Initiative has recently expanded from working primarily with pet guardians in low-income neighborhoods to assisting homeless San Franciscans to vaccinate and spay or neuter pets. Their first clinic will be held December 12th at the Navigation Center #2 (at 12th and Market). There, coordinator Erin Kerley says a dog trainer will also assist residents with any behavioral issues and provide basic dog supplies, such as leashes and collars.

Vet SOS client Rawnie with her dogs Chuck and Absinthe | Photo: Mark Rogers/courtesy of Vet SOS

While these resources are limited, both organizations are striving to provide homeless pets with the highest level of preventative care possible to help build trust between owners and veterinarians before health emergencies arise.

"That dog is all they have left,” Strubel says. “It’s the only thing left that has meaning in their lives.”

The schedule of Vet SOS's upcoming mobile vet clinics is available here.

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Vet sos spca keep san francisco s homeless pets healthy