Pet project

Area veterinarian heads organization to improve human and animal conditions.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Veterinarians and those who work with animals see the magic of the human-animal bond every day. The relationship has been proven to provide therapeutic effects for both species, from lowered blood pressure in humans to a better sense of security for both.

After working in private practice for just over a year, Dr. William Gilles, a local veterinarian who earned his degree from UW–Madison, realized that his interest in the care of animals was trumped only by his desire to make a bigger difference. “I found private practice to be engaging work, but my passion is doing more systems-oriented work to figure out how the veterinary medical profession can address the growing gap that we have in the number of pets in our country that are unable to access veterinary medical care.”

Gilles is the director of WisCARES, a collaborative program between the university’s veterinary and social work schools that offers free medical care to dogs and cats while providing resources for the homeless and indigent people who love them.

For just over a year, WisCARES has operated a non-urgent veterinary clinic for pets on a monthly basis, but the program does so much more. It offers first- through third-year “vet” student volunteers a unique opportunity to develop clinical and hands-on competencies earlier in their education, while social work student-volunteers learn communication skills working as housing advocates for homeless pet owners. Were it not for WisCARES and the love the pet owners have for their animals, their paths may never have crossed.

“It’s a less embarrassing environment,” Gilles says. “We’re not here to patronize and be critical. We’re here to help. We’re all in this together.”

Gilles says studies have shown that the homeless and indigent population is less likely to engage in socially unacceptable behavior if they have a pet to care for. In fact, homeless pet owners often will put their pet’s care above their own.

“We’re concerned with both parties, but we try to treat the bond. We believe very strongly that these animals already have homes, but the whole family unit just isn’t housed,” Gilles explains. “Animals tend to make their homes with the people they’re sharing their time with.”

Since first opening in July 2014, WisCARES had treated 147 dogs and 77 cats through October 2015. In general, the animals they’ve treated have been in better shape than one might expect, Gilles notes, with most ailments being advanced cases of fleas, ear infections, or heart or kidney issues.

The program currently operates under the university’s umbrella. Gilles and two part-time students are paid. Another 30 students from the veterinary medicine and social-work programs volunteer their time, as do five community veterinarians.

“This is a step in the right direction,” Gilles says, “but the problem is so vast.”

In fact, he notes, there are 23 million pets without access to veterinary care nationwide, not including those living on reservations. Homeless pet owners often forego the safety of shelters simply because many do not allow pets.

“There are just so many barriers preventing people from getting access to care,” he says.



Currently, all vet care services at the WisCARES walk-in clinic are completely free, including vaccines and parasite prevention. The program also has an in-house pharmacy, thanks to grants it has received, while pharmaceutical companies and medical suppliers have been providing other necessary pet supplies.

The cat’s meow: WisCARES is attempting to address a large and unmet social need — veterinary care for dogs and cats belonging to the homeless or indigent — with modest clinic facilities and supplies.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul donated the program’s main, 1,000-square-foot space, where WisCARES’ exam rooms are modest with just a microscope and some very basic tools. “We won’t be offering anything that would have a fee,” Gilles insists. “You’d be surprised what you can do with just the basics.”

In the future Gilles would like to see a WisCARES hub where people can find access to multiple social services including some human health care fields or a nonprofit dental clinic. “Their animals will be welcome there,” he says.

“That is the most exciting thing because it opens the door for veterinary medicine, medicine and pharmacy, nursing, and social work to work side by side. There’s not a lot of opportunity to be exposed to an entire health team.”

WisCARES helps the homeless by offering housing resources, pet boarding, free pet food and supplies, animal and human case management, and education. The organization could broaden its scope in the future but housing and pet care will always remain its core focus.

Meanwhile, Gilles envisions a special clinic epitomizing the one-health philosophy — that if you affect, either positively or negatively, the health of humans, animals, or the environment, your actions will affect the other two components.

“I believe very strongly that you could burn out resources by helping a few or lay a foundation for others.”

Thanks to the university and area community partnerships, Gilles has chosen the latter.

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