Brookie, a 4-year-old chihuahua-terrier mix, sat shivering in his owner’s arms. It was the first time he had been to the vet in ages, and he looked frightened. But veterinarian Dr. Geoffrey Ball was unfazed, coaxing Brookie with treats.
This was a typical vet experience, in a very atypical environment: a large van in the parking lot of Valencia Park Elementary.
That vehicle, outfitted with everything from an ultrasound machine to a mini-laboratory, serves as the San Diego Humane Society’s mobile veterinary services clinic, and Brookie is among its first patients.
It’s part of a new pilot program aimed at making veterinary services more accessible in some of San Diego’s underserved communities, where essential care is lacking or hard to access.
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Barriers to accessing veterinary care can have serious consequences for owners and for animal shelters: About 20 percent of the animals surrendered to the San Diego Humane Society are given up because their owners can’t afford their medical care, Ball said.
By traveling to the communities in greatest need to provide on-site care, the Humane Society hopes to relieve the strain on its shelters, while further meeting the needs of animals and pet owners.
Taking care of the basics
This is the Humane Society’s first medical team to serve exclusively pets owned by members of the community, rather than shelter animals.
At its San Diego campus on Thursdays and Fridays as well as the mobile unit that travels to various neighborhoods on Wednesdays and Saturdays, clinic staff provide pet exams, vaccinations, flea medications and other basic sick care for conditions ranging from ear infections to dermatitis.
Thus far, they’ve done everything from give months-old puppies and kittens their first shots to care for a 15-year-old cat diagnosed with cancer years earlier.
The program also provides low-cost spay or neuter services, along with vouchers to help owners defray the cost of veterinary care at partner clinics.
Services are intended to be affordable to pet owners in need of support, but to reduce barriers to access, proof of need isn’t required.
“It’s very convenient, especially for people that can’t afford care because it’s expensive,” said North Park resident Michael Felley, who brought his two dogs to the clinic for shots and wellness exams. He said he had called numerous private clinics to inquire about pricing but found no other affordable options.
With the program, the organization is targeting lower-income neighborhoods, as well as areas where its intake data show many of the animals in its shelters are coming from.
“The two biggest reasons people don’t get veterinary care are, No. 1, finances and, No. 2, accessibility,” Ball said. “A lot of the neighborhoods that are under-resourced — with food, with medical care, with anything — are also under-resourced with veterinary care. When you go outside, just look around and see where the next veterinary clinic is. The short answer is there is none.”
In the program’s initial rollout, the mobile clinic will primarily travel to neighborhoods in and around southeastern San Diego, such as Barrio Logan, Lincoln Park and Valencia Park, twice a week, as well as to nearby communities in Mexico once per month.
The program will gradually expand to other areas where the Humane Society identifies a need, including to San Ysidro next month, Hedge says.
Gabriel Galbraith took a taxi to the Valencia Park mobile clinic from San Ysidro to bring his 4-month-old kitten Ruby to get her vaccinations.
“I think it’s wonderful,” he said of the program. “To get a discount as a low-income senior is really quite appreciated.”
Galbraith said it’s extremely important to him to ensure Ruby is cared for properly. “I’m very attached to her,” he added. “She’s quite special.”
Already, the Humane Society expects the program, started with the help of a $100,000 grant from PetSmart Charities, to help 10,000 pets and owners.
But Ball said that’s just the beginning. He aspires to add two or three veterinarians so they can expand the program to more areas.
He also hopes it will serve as a model for how shelters nationwide can create a more humane world by providing low-cost veterinary services directly to those who need them most.
With all the essential supplies needed to care for animals and relatively low overhead costs, the mobile clinic can provide treatment at a much more affordable rate than traditional veterinary clinics, Ball explained. He also wants to provide care that relies on experienced veterinarians’ judgment before jumping to more expensive diagnostic tools.
But like a brick-and-mortar clinic, his staff is committed to the communities it serves, building trust and relationships between pets, owners and vets. His goal: to become people’s regular veterinarian.
“We’re going to the same communities over and over, so when people need to find us, they know where to go,” Ball said. “It’s not just one-time care — we want to be here for people all the time.”
Meanwhile, the Humane Society is reducing adoption fees this month for dogs, cats, kittens and small pets during a nationwide campaign to “Clear the Shelters.” Now through Aug. 31, dog, cat or kitten adoptions are $20, and small pets are $5.
To learn more about the Humane Society’s new community veterinary program or make an appointment, visit sdhumane.org/cvp or call (619) 299-7012.