Keeping people and pets together

Pre-veterinary students volunteer time and knowledge to help vulnerable people care for their animal companions.

Ring the doorbell at Jill's home and a happy, barking chorus erupts as her three toy poodles say hello.

Nicolas, Isabella and Kopper waggle their bottoms and offer wet-nosed kisses to any willing guest, then collapse in a snoring, curly bundle on Jill's lap. There's not much space in her cramped bachelor suite, but room enough for lots of puppy love.

"They fill my heart full of joy, they make me feel so much love," she says, planting a kiss on a furry head. "They love me unconditionally."

That makes all the difference when Jill is ill, too exhausted to get out of bed. As her closest family, the cheerful trio sustains her in her darkest moments as she grapples with chronic depression and several debilitating health conditions including fibromyalgia; Cushing Syndrome, a condition affecting the adrenal glands; and diabetes.

Nicolas, especially, has been her rock, Jill says. She's had the 13-year-old dog since he was six weeks old, and their bond runs deep. "If it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't be here. If I get sick, he won't budge. He won't leave my side. He knows my moods, my feelings inside and out."

Though at one time she was healthy, had a house and was able to work, Jill no longer can. She lives on a disability pension of $1,600 a month, which makes it impossible to do much more than feed Nicolas and his five-year-old daughter Isabella-friends she's had for their entire lives. Kopper, 11, joined the family four years ago when Jill rescued her off a farm. Like any aging pet, all three animals have had health issues-some of them serious. But while a vet bill might be manageable for an average wage-earner, it's unthinkable for someone on social assistance.

To surrender her companions because she can't afford a vet fee is also out of the question, she said.

"Should someone have to give up or go without love because they don't have tons of money? And there are so many animals out there who need to be saved and loved. Just because you don't have money doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to love and take care of a pet."

That's why Jill is keenly grateful to University of Alberta animal-science students, who for the past several years have used their classroom knowledge and volunteer time to power programs that assist vulnerable people to care for and keep their animal companions. Led by Connie Varnhagen, academic director of the U of A's Undergraduate Research Initiative, students in various pre-veterinary classes in the U of A's Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES) have researched the companion-animal bond and developed programming now at work in Edmonton and area.

"It's important that we train students not just to get jobs, but also to be community leaders," said Varnhagen, a psychology professor and animal lover who also earned a distance degree as a veterinary technician.

The Community Service-Learning component in Varnhagen's classes took root in the companion-animal world, with students using their brainpower to develop key programs aimed at keeping vulnerable people and their pets together.

The newest initiative, launched last June, is the Alberta Helping Animals Society (AHAS), the first charitable veterinary service in the province. It provides Jill and other vulnerable people with basic no-cost pet care. Services range from the basics like nail clipping, vaccines and delivery of pet supplies to transportation to vet clinics for more crucial need of diagnosis and treatment.

The house-call service is funded by donations and manned by volunteers-including Varnhagen-and U of A students who get hooked on the cause during their course work and pre-vet club activities, and remain active volunteers after graduation. They find themselves doing everything from serving on the board to delivering cat litter to needy pet guardians.

"This is not just an experience for vet school, it is something they grow to deeply care about," Varnhagen said. "As students with backgrounds in animal health and welfare, in psychology, they get it, and they want to be part of developing this model for Alberta, Canada and the world. AHAS is one of the first clinics of its kind in the world."

'This is the reason they wake up in the morning'

Meghan Senger, a third-year animal-science major, worked with a team of fellow students in a second-year business communications class last year to develop a promotional video for the AHAS website. They spent their term crafting an emotional story, told through animated drawings, about an unemployed man, his sick dog and their journey with AHAS. The video includes an appeal for donations.

The storyline was designed to pluck at the heartstrings and the true-to-life subject matter made it easy to do that, Senger said.

"We wanted people to realize how devastating it would be for this man to lose his pet after having lost everything else. It struck our hearts, knowing how important these animals were to these people, how key pets were to survival, mental health and happiness through that animal-human bond," she said.

The video won a class award for Senger and her teammates, who were honoured to work on the project. "It felt good to help a real-life organization and to know our hard work is going to a worthy cause."

Preserving an uncommon bond

The first pet-friendly initiative powered by Varnhagen and U of A students was in 2011, when they researched and developed recommendations that helped start PALS (Prevent Another Litter Subsidy), a program that gives low-income people the opportunity to have their pets spayed or neutered at a reduced rate. PALS became a launchpad for AHAS when the students realized that pet owners in the program often needed additional financial help in caring for their animal companions. They interviewed clients of Edmonton's Inner City Pet Food Bank about what they could afford and what services were needed, and soon realized that "the pets needed everything and the clients could afford very little," Varnhagen said.

Next, the students "started talking to veterinarians about vulnerable people," Varnhagen said. The profession, she said, tends to question the idea that low-income people-including everyone from seniors to oilfield families out of work, to people like Jill on disability pensions-have a moral right to be pet guardians if they can't afford to care for the animals. But a survey conducted by U of A students in 2013 showed that this population was just as devoted to their pets as middle- and higher-income clients using vet clinics.

"The scale rating we used found that, in fact, PALS clients were more highly bonded with their pets. Our clients almost topped the scale," Varnhagen said. "We found that these animals are their sole sources of social support. This is the reason they wake up in the morning."

The students' foundational classwork provided the impetus for AHAS and today the organization works with three vet clinics to provide needed services.

"AHAS would not exist without student research and development," Varnhagen noted. "And the effect the students are having in educating others, talking to vets and even to their own families, shows how they are becoming our future leaders and citizens."

For Jill, the caring work of U of A students has made it possible to keep her precious family together. Nicolas, Isabella and Kopper were fixed through the PALS program and received crucial medical attention through AHAS.

"I can't thank the students enough," she said. "I believe they are making leaps and bounds with this program, and I think it will make a huge difference for the care of animals."