Cal Poly veterinarian student clinic offers free healthcare for pets

Feb 5, 2018

San Luis Obispo County has a significant homeless population, many of whom own pets. A program offered by Cal Poly veterinarian students helps many of these pets receive health care. 

Many of us are familiar with nail trimming, flea and tick prevention, deworming, and vaccinations for our pets in the context of a veterinarian’s clinic. White walls, licensed practitioners, and a bill on the way out. But for some pet owners in San Luis Obispo County, that kind of care and treatment can be near impossible to afford.

As a part of the Cal Poly Animal Science Department, pre-vet students can enroll in a class known as the Veterinary Clinic Enterprise. This class is meant to help students gain clinical experience working with real people and animals.

The curriculum requires students to run a monthly program called Doggy Days that provides free medical care services to pets of low-income and homeless people. The Prado Day Center hosts the program in their garden, where dozens of people bring their cats and dogs to be treated.

On a recent Saturday, Cal Poly Animal Science student Andie Jones worked the clinic.

“Alright so I’m first gonna have you sign these for me. And this is just a consent form to say that you’re allowing us to administer bordetella to your animals,” Jones said to one client, as she was in charge of walking every pet owner through the various forms and paperwork required before vaccinations could be given to their animals.

“Talking with them, it’s one of those things that it really just brightens their day and makes their whole world because their pets are their family,” Jones said.

Dr. Jennifer Staniec is a licensed veterinarian and teaches the Veterinary Clinic Enterprise. She supervises Doggy Days each month and says the students really benefit from the program.

“They’re doing public service of course. They’re interacting with individuals and that’s a really important skill in veterinary medicine,” Staniec said. “They’re learning about physical restraint on animals, some basic health issues on animals. They’re learning how to use critical thinking.”

Cal Poly’s Animal Science Department provides the vaccinations, tools and treatments, and the department takes donations from the public. Dr. Staniec says she works very closely with the students during Doggy Days and encourages them to make practical decisions about how to move forward with each animal.

[She asks the students] “okay, what do you think’s going on? What do we need to adjust here? What do you think we should do?“Is it time for a vaccine now? So we go over those sorts of things so they learn a little bit of just basic protocols,” Staniec said.

When Doggy Days started in 2014, the intention was to foster a learning environment for students while helping out the surrounding community. The program has since grown considerably and, at the last event, treated 29 dogs and three cats.

Lynnae Harmon is living homeless with her four dogs. She ended up with her animals by happenstance and then found herself unable to afford the care for them. The Doggy Days program has provided basic treatments a few times to keep Harmon’s pets healthy. She says being homeless is alienating and has resulted in the loss of many friends and relatives. But these dogs, Harmon says, are the only ones who don’t judge her.

“There’s very little help out there. To us, our dogs are everything,” Harmon said. “We don’t get a lot of human contact. People don’t come up and hug the homeless, they just don’t. They don’t. This is my family. These guys are here for me every minute of every day.”

Dr. Staniec says that she was initially skeptical to get involved in Doggy Days. As a veterinarian, she had concerns about the homeless having pets. But through the program, she says she has realized the impact these animals have on the wellbeing of their owners.

“These individuals need these animals for a lot of different reasons,” Staniec said. “The ladies may have animals as a sense of security for them. Some of them are there just for companionship. I think that’s good for their emotional and mental health.”

Treating these animals not only benefits the homeless and the students, says Staniec, but it keeps other pets in the community healthy as well. Doggy Days will continue every month at the Prado Day Center.