Knowing she would likely be homeless after moving back to Madison, Ray Straub was looking to board her two cats while she got back on her feet after years of medical problems.
She even considered euthanizing one of the cats, Roscoe, because he was extremely ill and needed veterinary care — treatment she knew she couldn’t afford while trying to pay for groceries and rent.
“Roscoe was very, very sick,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t afford the lab work to even figure out what was wrong with him, let alone probably the care.”
But thanks to the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education, and Social Services, the approximately 15-year-old Roscoe is back to his mischievous old self after being diagnosed with diabetes and receiving care to stabilize him.
The program provides free veterinary care coupled with some social services to homeless pet owners and those in precarious housing situations in Dane County.
“At this point, it looks like he’s never been sick a day in his life,” Straub, 53, said. “He’s into everything — he’s throwing things on the floor and tipping over water bowls.”
The clinic provides basic veterinary care for free to homeless pet owners and those in unstable housing situations. Human clients can also work with social workers and are offered information for linking up to other social services like housing and landlord assistance.
“We hear very frequently that if someone can’t afford veterinary medical care, they don’t deserve to have a pet,” said Amanda Arrington, director of Pets for Life, a Humane Society of the United States program that provides veterinary care and resources to low-income communities and those with a lack of care providers.
“What we have seen is people who are struggling financially and don’t have a lot, that pet means so much more to them,” she said. “That’s why there’s such an immense need for us to honor the love people have for their pets.”
Now in its third year of helping pets and their owners, WisCARES is planning to ditch the crowded Quonset hut it currently occupies on Fish Hatchery Road for a much larger building to increase the number of veterinary services it offers and expand its services to other low-income people who struggle to afford medical care for their pets.
“We’ve outgrown the space we’re in,” said William Gilles, director and co-founder of WisCARES. “It’s a big step for us ... for staff and volunteers, it cannot come soon enough.”
Although a lease isn’t finalized, Gilles said he expects the new space to be about 4,000 square feet — much larger than the 1,000-square-foot building the facility is in today — and will likely be near the South Side location the office currently rents.
for more people
The number of clients the clinic serves has increased since it started in 2014, jumping from 65 in the first year, to 225 the second and to about 450 today, Gilles said.
Services include a pet food and supply pantry, chronic disease management, basic diagnostics, check-ups, some vaccines, flea and tick prevention, rabies tags and certificates.
It also provides pet boarding for owners who need to access health care or go to a shelter. Social workers and students are also available to point owners to social services, health care and housing.
The program doesn’t offer emergency veterinary services and hasn’t done surgery or spay and neuter clinics.
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But with the planned expansion, the program hopes to increase its diagnostic capabilities and begin offering some surgical procedures.
The program hasn’t finalized eligibility requirements for its new low-cost or subsidized care, Gilles said, but they will be geared toward the estimated 40 percent or so of Dane County residents who don’t have discretionary income to pay for veterinary care.
That number is based on a 2016 United Way report, which found that 41 percent of Dane County’s residents lived either below the poverty line or just above it yet still below a basic household survival threshold of $28,608 a year for an individual and more than $69,000 for a family of four.
“There’s these just kind of invisible pet-owner populations that we really need to start working with because they very much care about their pets and they deserve access to that care as well,” he said. “So that’s one of the big things that a new space will bring us.”
WisCARES — which is funded through grants, donations and money from UW-Madison — also provides an opportunity for veterinary, pharmacy and social work students to gain work experience. Gilles said he expected the program’s current $200,000 budget to more than double under the proposed expansion.
The program has two full-time and nine part-time staff members and more than 100 volunteers, Gilles said. Most part-timers and volunteers are students.
A ‘vast need’
Although there are a few other rescue-based places in the Madison area where low-income pet owners can get some free or subsidized veterinary care, WisCARES is unique because it also focuses on social services and human health, Gilles said.
The program — a partnership between UW-Madison’s veterinary and social work schools, among others — was designed to keep owners with their pets while providing both with resources.
WisCARES and its staff is among a growing number of veterinary care providers offering free or low-cost care to owners who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
“It’s exciting to see that it’s starting to get some more attention,” Gilles said. “It’s a big cultural shift that we’re needing to make.”
As of 2016, an estimated 23 million pets live in families at or below the national poverty line, or $11,880 for a single person and $24,300 for a four-person family, according to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association. And 5 to 10 percent of homeless people own cats or dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Keeping a pet, especially during traumatic or difficult situations like homelessness, can be therapeutic, help encourage social interaction and may even decrease an individual’s likelihood to engage in substance abuse or criminal activity, Gilles said. Often, individuals choose to keep their pet over accessing social services like shelter and mental health or substance abuse treatment because those facilities often don’t allow pets.
While there are more options today for those who can’t afford medical care for their pets, there’s still a “vast need for low cost and free services,” Arrington said.
Without WisCARES and other low-cost care providers in Madison, Straub would have been one of those owners forced to choose between keeping pets and paying for food and housing.
Though Straub said she’s getting back on her feet after a few years of health problems, homelessness and less-than-ideal housing situations, she said it’s comforting to know she can at least count on getting help with the cats.
“My whole life seems like for the last couple years, is just upside down. The only stable thing I have is my cats. It’s my family,” she said. “It’s nice to know, if I ever get in that position again ... that they’re here.”