MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Dr. Jean Rabinowitz

4 R Friends Sponsors Neighborhood Dog Days

About 4 R Friends
Founded in 2010 by Dr. Jean Rabinowitz, 4 R Friends is a Sacramento, Calif.-based non-profit, all volunteer, organization dedicated to providing life-saving emergency medical care to stray, sheltered, and owner-relinquished pets, and to providing essential care and sharing information to insure that all pets in our community can live safe and healthy lives. Learn more about 4 R Friends»

December 19, 2014
by Jean Rabinowitz, MA, DVM

It started as a campaign to stop the epidemic of parvoviral enteritis in a Sacramento neighborhood. Each time another unvaccinated puppy – whose owner could not even afford the $98 emergency exam fee – came in during my emergency clinic shift, I would tell the technicians that my desired super-power would be to put an end to parvo. I would even promise to wear a spandex suit and a cape in public, if I could just figure out how to achieve that monumental feat.

After all, why should it be so hard? We understand how the virus is transmitted, and we have an excellent safe and effective vaccine against it. At less than $2.50 a dose, it’s not even a costly tool. The shelters and various pet stores in the Sacramento region hold free and low-cost vaccine clinics regularly. why was I seeing puppies with parvo nightly in the late summer? Why were our shelters seeing dozens of cases weekly? With the cost of treating parvo patients in the hospital potentially surpassing $2,000 a case, and with its incredible potential for contagion, the most common outcome for these poor creatures was euthanasia—or even worse, a slow and painful death at home.

A Clear Need for Outreach

An exercise in mapping vaccine clinic locations was enlightening. I found that – including those held at the three Sacramento animal shelters and all the low-cost vaccination clinics – 252 events were held within the area each year. When plotted on a map, however, they told a stark story of inequity that mirrored so many others nationwide. Whole swaths of Sacramento were completely unserved by any clinics. Those were the same areas of the community where parvo was rampant. Not surprisingly, they also represented the greatest per capita intake of stray, injured, and aggressive dogs, and the greatest intake of stray or injured cats and orphaned kittens. A look at the outcome statistics for our shelters, sorted by zip code, showed that pets from these neighborhoods have a markedly lower-than-average return-to-owner and live-release rate.

A look at US census reports helped fill out the story of the neighborhoods where pets are at a so much higher risk of preventable death, whether it be by parvo, vehicular trauma, or euthanasia at the shelter. These neighborhoods share the common traits of high rates of poverty and recent immigration, and low rates of home ownership and educational achievement. In other words, they are the areas where low-cost and accessible basic care for pets is most needed. They are communities in which our typical standards of responsible pet care may be entirely foreign to the residents. Taking a ride around these neighborhoods, I saw broken-down gates, bent chain-link fencing, and young men riding bicycles equipped with lawn-mower engines for transportation. I saw dogs running loose on nearly every block, wearing no collars or tags. Young women, barely beyond childhood themselves, were walking with their own babies past houses where litters of kittens tumbled out from under porches. Syringes and needles littering the ground told a story of degradation and pain that is hard to fathom from the safety of my office at the emergency clinic.

A Sacramento resident brings a box full of puppies to a clinic.
4 R Friends

We can discuss ad nauseam the long history of oppression and inequities that has led to this current state of affairs. But saying that people who cannot afford to care for their pets should not have them, when we know that the average cost of pet care can be $500 a year and more than $8,000 over the life of a pet1, does not help the dog who may be the best thing a neighborhood kid has going for him. It does not help the dog stuck in the shelter who is going to be euthanized tomorrow because his owner has neither the government-issued ID nor the $45 impound fee required to get him out of the shelter. It will not change the fact that dogs and cats will continue to multiply, and will continue to be bought, given, adopted, and loved as members of many families. And as long as access to care is limited and puppies and kitties are a dime a dozen, pets will continue to die for want of care. It is not within our power to change that, and no amount of moralizing or righteous indignation will help these animals.

However, it is not hard at all to bring $2.50 vaccines, collars, and that all-important ticket – an ID tag – back home for stray dogs, and the information people need to keep their pets happy, healthy, and at home, to these neighborhoods. So that is what we do.

Making Connections and Filling the Gap

In 2012, 4 R Friends held our first series of three Neighborhood Dog Days – free clinics in south Sacramento – and we have increased our range and frequency annually. We recruit participation from the neighborhoods by hitting the streets with flyers, stopping in at local barber shops, corner stores, beauty salons, bodegas and churches. In so doing, we help ensure we are reaching the intended recipients of our program.

A 4 R Friends volunteer gathers information from clients about their dogs.
4 R Friends

4 R Friends gathers 80 or so skilled and enthusiastic volunteers – including veterinarians, veterinary technicians, advocates, and community leaders – to erect a tiny temporary village at the local library each clinic day. We handily leverage our $5,000 per-clinic budget with donations, discounts, and borrowed equipment, and collaborate with every willing shelter and community organization. We provide rabies and DAPP vaccines, flea prevention, and deworming. Every dog leaves with a leash, a collar and an engraved ID tag around their neck. We offer information on protecting puppies from contracting parvo. We dispense tips on house training, and leash training, to help people live more harmoniously and happily with their pets. We take contact information from every client interested in spaying or neutering their dogs and cats, and work to get them signed up through every free or low-cost surgery program available in the county. When possible, we borrow a mobile surgery trailer, and perform spays and neuters on-site.

As we continue to perfect our process, we have increased our services to include addressing more general medical problems. In addition to treating myriad ear infections and cases of flea-allergy dermatitis, we treat wounds, fox-tail abscesses, demodectic mange and parvo. We enlist students from the nearby University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine to help at the vaccine stations and in the medical tent, offering them invaluable experience handling animals, further developing their client communication skills, and providing them with a taste of a kind of real-world practice they might never see otherwise.

For the majority of the dogs served, we are the only veterinary professionals they will ever see in their lives. And our services are all free. We make no requests for client identification, and no requirements to supply evidence of government assistance. We convey no shame to the owners of unaltered pets. And no requests for city or county license fees arrive in the mail soon after our clinics. We simply communicate admiration to our clients for their beloved pets, and gratitude to them for placing their trust in us to care for their furry family members.

HSVMA member, Dr. Sarah Buckenberger, talks to a family about their dog at a 2012 event.
4 R Friends

A Successful Endeavor

Our approach works. The attendance has been unprecedented. Since our first field clinic, we have been serving between 400-500 dogs at each of our events. They have all been distinguished by a spirit of joy, gratitude, and cooperation, and we have had an unblemished safety record. The greatest compliment and affirmation that our strategy is working is that numerous clients have joined with 4 R Friends as steadfast volunteers, not only assisting with outreach and recruiting within their own neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces, but also working at each event as translators, dog handlers, and in intake reception roles.

In 2015, we will be holding our Neighborhood Dog Days clinics monthly in Sacramento, and we are on course to serve 6,000 dogs next year by providing the essential resources needed to keep them happy, healthy, and at home, off the streets and out of the shelters.



Editor’s Note: The Humane Society of the United States operates a program to provide services, resources, and information to people and pets in underserved communities through in depth community outreach. Many HSVMA veterinary and veterinary student members have participated in this program. To learn more, visit the Pets for Life webpage»

Dr. Rabinowitz (second from right) with a few happy 4 R Friends clients.
4 R Friends

Jean Rabinowitz, MA, DVM, is the founder of the Sacramento, Calif.-based non-profit animal rescue and outreach organization, 4 R Friends. She practiced general and emergency medicine in private practice for ten years before joining the County of Sacramento Animal Care and Regulation as their second veterinarian, and head of their new community outreach program.

Dr. Rabinowitz obtained her veterinary medical degree at the University of California Dean Pritchard School of Veterinary Medicine at Davis. Before that, she contemplated problems of the body and pain in late antique and medieval history at the University of California, Berkeley and at Yale University.

When she is not vaccinating dogs, she can be found digging in the dirt of her back garden, playing with her herd of parvo-survivor pit bulls, and baking cakes.