Your Veterinarian: A Community Health Leader


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John Teeter and CVO-USA minister to the health care needs of homeless people and their pets.

Every day, veterinarians work with clients who just love their pets. Yet there’s a segment of pet owners they see less often, but who love their pets just as much – people experiencing homelessness.

It is estimated that anywhere from 5% and 25% of those who are homeless have pets. They obtain them in different ways. For example, young people who have left home because of domestic violence or abuse may take their pets with them. Others may obtain pets through street bartering, or they may encounter and adopt stray animals.

A 2016 study of homeless youths in Los Angeles found that 23% had pets, with most reporting their pets kept them company and made them feel loved. But nearly half reported that owning a pet made it more difficult to stay in a shelter. In fact, homeless people face several challenges to pet ownership that others do not, including:

  • Barriers for essential health care services, as most clinics, public transportation and housing services do not permit pets, and homeless people usually lack a secure location in which to leave their pet even for a short period of time.
  • Negative comments from others about their ability and/or right to care for an animal.
  • Criminalization issues related to animal neglect and public health violations.

CVO’s One Health model calls for collaboration between human and animal health leaders.

Community Veterinary Outreach

John Teeter, DVM, has learned a lot about veterinary care for the pets of homeless people – and the veterinarian’s role in helping to improve the health of their owners – as co-founder of Community Veterinary Outreach-USA, an organization which provides veterinary care and human health care to the homeless population in the Kansas City area.

Its parent organization – Community Veterinary Outreach, or CVO – was founded in 2003 by Michelle Lem, DVM, of Ottawa, Ontario. Working with a local homeless shelter, Lem set up a clinic to provide care for pets of the homeless so they could have access to shelters. Realizing that any veterinarian could play a similar role by collaborating with social service agencies, she built a model of care for marginalized individuals via free mobile veterinary clinics. She also worked with local veterinarians to encourage their role as community health leaders.

CVO’s One Health model calls for collaboration between human and animal health partners, with an understanding that the health of humans and animals and the environment (social and physical) are interconnected, according to CVO. Pet fairs provide animal-related services, such as pet health education and home care, nail trims, grooming, and microchip placement, as well as pet food and supplies.

Human health services are offered at the pet fairs as well. CVO maintains partnerships with mental health, public health, and community health agencies and health programs at academic institutions. Services include smoking reduction and cessation, primary health care including flu vaccination, dental care, harm reduction (naloxone kits, safe injection supplies), and healthy living/exercise advice.

Dr. Teeter met Michelle Lem several years ago at the NAVC conference in Orlando. “She is pretty amazing,” he said. “She’s so passionate about what her organization is doing that it’s hard not to get caught up in it.”

He returned home from Orlando with the intention of bringing CVO to Kansas City, but it wasn’t until three or four years later that he contacted Lem about it. “The timing couldn’t have been better, because at the same I was trying to reconnect, another veterinarian in town – Lara Plass – was speaking with Michelle about the same thing.” Dr. Plass is a general practitioner in Olathe, Kansas. “She is the driving force behind Community Veterinary Outreach USA,” he said. “Without her efforts and dedication, it just plain wouldn’t work.”

Teeter himself was raised in Hutchinson, Kansas. “There were four boys in my family and fortunately, my parents were very understanding when it came to having pets – lots of pets. We had dogs, cats and kittens. Also turtles and snakes or whatever else we caught.

“We also had a family friend who was a veterinarian in Hutchinson,” he said. “I got to work for him scooping poop, walking dogs, changing litter boxes, etc. It was wonderful and I was hooked. I was one of those lucky people who knew at an early age what I wanted to do. And it actually worked out.”

Veterinarians have an opportunity to restructure their role from health care provider for animals to community health leaders for people.

Monthly clinics

CVO-USA holds monthly clinics at the facilities of Metro Lutheran Industries, an organization that works with disadvantaged people in the Kansas City area. “They get the word out to the people they help and so far, the response has been very good,” said Teeter. “The people I have met have been wonderful. They love their pets and do their best to take care of them. They are very appreciative of the help they get.

“Most of the pets we see are pretty healthy,” he said. “We provide basic care – vaccines, flea and tick prevention, heartworm testing and prevention. We certainly see and can handle some of the basic problems, such as ear infections, pyodermas, etc.” Services are free to the pet owners, thanks to donations from pharmaceutical and pet-food producers, as well as volunteers.

Recently, CVO-USA partnered with the Kansas State University outreach program, which is headed by Brad Crauer, DVM, associate clinical professor, shelter medicine. “I felt like we won the lottery when Lara was able to put this together,” said Teeter. “They bring a surgical mobile unit. Now we can also provide spays and neuters – a huge upgrade. The vet students who come also get a lot of experience.

“We are seeing more and more pets now that we’re gaining a little traction,” he said. “But that’s not all these clients need. So far we have been able to provide STD testing and counseling, a dentist, and domestic violence counseling – all volunteer. We hope to expand services in the future.”

For Michelle Lem, veterinarians have an opportunity to restructure their role from health care provider for animals to community health leaders for people. She believes in building non-traditional networks to facilitate the social inclusion of isolated populations, including those who are homeless.

Said Teeter, “I would like to think that all veterinarians are community health leaders. We improve the quality of people’s lives as well as animals’ lives.”

Photo of Dr. John Teeter's services are free to pet owners thanks to donations.