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Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Integrated Health Care for People and Their Pets

At a special clinic for people experiencing homelessness and their pets, access to medical care takes a whole new approach.

Giuseppe sits nervously while Dr. Justin Lamb gently examines his teeth. “He’s in really good health for a 14-year-old chihuahua.”

Heather, Giuseppe’s human, beams back across the table.

“We should get his teeth looked at. I’m going to see if we can get him in to see a specialist,” says Dr. Lamb, describing the scarcity of canine dental care and that getting in to see someone can take months.


Heather talks with Dr. Lamb about Giuseppe's health

Dr. Lamb partners with Dr. Biana Tamimi to run the New York City chapter of the Street Dog Coalition. Their office for today is Breaking Ground’s Seafarers Safe Haven, located near Union Square. Seafarer’s is a transitional residence serving 100 people who had been living unsheltered along with, in many cases, their pets and support animals. The volunteer veterinarians and technicians are here for the One Health Clinic, a model developed in Seattle that approaches human and animal health from a unified perspective.

According to John Betts, Breaking Ground’s Assistance Vice President for Program Development and Innovation, this is the first of its kind in NYC. “We were inspired by a presentation at the National Healthcare for the Homeless Council conference in 2022. Bringing pet and human healthcare together, in one location, was a bit of a lightbulb moment. And we know we had the relationships here in NYC to make it happen.”


The Breaking Ground, Janian Medical, and Street Dog Coalition NYC teams

By taking a more holistic view of health for people experiencing homelessness and their pets, One Health Clinics prioritize access to care. Typically, unsheltered individuals are among the most disconnected from regular preventative care, perhaps utilizing emergency rooms only when a health problem becomes a crisis – or when the temperature dips to dangerous conditions.

At the One Health Clinic, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are referred through street outreach teams and across our safe haven programs. To get care for a pet, each person agrees to at least have a conversation with a primary healthcare professional from our partners at Janian Medical (an affiliate of the Center for Urban Community Services). Often, an initial conversation is all it takes to build a level of trust that leads to more comprehensive medical and psychiatric care for the people we serve. And the promise of care for a furry friend can be powerful.

“A common misconception is that people experiencing homelessness must have pets who are in rough shape. But we hardly ever see that” says Dr. Lamb. “For people on the streets, their animal might be the thing that is literally keeping them alive, keeping them going, so we find that they take exceptional care of their pets.”


Dr. Tamimi and Snow White become fast friends

The Street Dog Coalition (SDC) was founded by veterinarian Jon Geller in Colorado in 2014, and has grown to serve pets and humans in more than 50 cities across the country. Dr. Lamb and his wife helped form the SDC New York City group in 2018, holding their first clinic at Graffiti Church in partnership with My Dog is My Home and the Mayor’s Office of Animal Welfare.

An all-volunteer effort, SDC-NYC has assembled a cadre of folks who are willing to give back. “If everyone can give back a little - you don’t have to be a superhero. I have a day job, and I’m able to take a day off from work to do this. I keep our supplies in my basement. Little things add up, and we’re able to help people who otherwise would not be able to access care for their pets.”

This is their first clinic for unsheltered people and pets since the pandemic began. Along with common medicines - dewormers and antibiotics, among others – they are able to offer core vaccines that all pets need.

“A big focus for us is follow up care,” said Dr. Lamb. “For instance, we saw a dog this morning that really needs to be sedated to do a full exam, which we can’t do here, of course. But through connections at City Vet and the ASPCA we can help people access that care at very low cost to ensure their pets are thriving.”

And of course, the SDC-NYC team looks forward to checking up on patients at the next One Health Clinic. Improving health outcomes for people and their pets begins by building trust, and an integrated care model can make all the difference.

One Health Clinic is a trademark of the University of Washington and Washington State University. Learn more about their toolkit and hosting a One Health Clinic in your community at https://www.onehealthclinic.org/.

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