Pets for Life: Lending a Hand and Learning Skills in My Community

by Gwen Stair

November 27, 2012

The Pets for Life volunteer event was a beneficial opportunity for me to give back to the community. It gave me a chance as a veterinary student to step away from the large amounts of book work and actually put my academic and clinical knowledge into practical use. The people of East Los Angeles were so appreciative of the help they received from the volunteers, and it was a humbling experience to be able to work alongside other volunteers. The Pets for Life volunteers really want to improve animal health and husbandry of the East Los Angeles community and I am happy to have been part of that.

-Anthony Paden, Second year Veterinary Medical Student, Western University of Health Sciences CVM

As a student of veterinary medicine, it is easy to get caught up in due dates and midterms or differentials and diagnostics. Many of us cling to the winter holiday or summer break to keep us going, hanging in front of our nose like a carrot, with coffee as our lifeblood.

Pets for Life tents in Los Angeles
The Pets for Life program brings accessible and affordable pet care to underserved urban areas, and provides opportunities for veterinary students to gain client-interaction and hands-on experience.
John Reynolds/Maricopa County Animal Care & Control

I received an email early this semester, back when I was feeling charitable and ambitious, asking for volunteers for a “Pets for Life” vaccine clinic. “Pets for Life” is a community outreach program of The Humane Society of the United States, which utilizes volunteer veterinarians and veterinary students to provide health care for pets in underserved communities. Residents from these communities receive vaccines and spay/neuter surgeries for their pets, along with a bag of pet food and friendly pet health advice – all completely free of charge.

Waking up at 7 a.m. the morning of the clinic – a Saturday – I hit the snooze button and wondered why on Earth I volunteered to help. I arrived at Hollenbeck Park in Los Angeles at 9 a.m. that Saturday, clad in scrubs and sunscreen along with my friend Dana, who also happens to be burdened with haphazard bouts of altruism.

I slouched out of my car that brisk morning and decided if there wasn’t coffee provided, I was going back to bed. We strolled down the hill, passing an abandoned brick building, a chanting aerobics instructor, and children laughing on the playground. We made our way around the asphalt-rimmed lake towards the tents on the other side of the park, scattering ducks back into the brown water. From far away, we could see the long line of people with their dogs – some leashed, some running free, and some with their owners tightly gripping thick metal chains around their necks. With a sinking feeling, I knew it was going to be a long day. I also noticed, with little surprise, a few cats who calmly looked out from their owner’s arms.

Student and veterinarian examine a dog at a Pets for Life event in Los Angeles
A veterinary student works alongside a veterinarian to examine one of the many dogs brought to this Pets for Life event.
John Reynolds/Maricopa County Animal Care & Control

What started out as a day of regret began to take shape as a day of hope, camaraderie, disappointment, amazement, and with my greater understanding of the people from underserved communities, a growing sense of respect for them. Even though a high number of shelter dogs come from this zip code, the owners truly seemed to care about their animals. I was assigned to the “fractious dog team”: we saw dogs that were too aggressive (to people or other dogs) to wait in line with everyone else. I am happy to say no one got bitten, though the day did involve a lot of “bear hugs” (a restraint method), snarls, yelps, and sometimes MacGyver-style vaccine administration. Many people in this community only speak Spanish, so the language barrier was tough at first, but it soon became a fun challenge to see who could remember their high school Spanish the best. The animals seemed happy, protective of their owners, and usually well fed, even though not all were in the best of health. The only thing missing from the equation was education about basic medical principles. To my dismay, many people did not know that there were benefits to spay/neuter besides keeping an animal from breeding. There were also many misconceptions about the genetics of dog breeding, such as the ability of dogs suffering from conditions such as hip dysplasia to pass it on to their puppies, or why it is bad to let two dogs who are brother and sister have puppies. I thought I would spend the day giving shots, but it turned out I spent most of the day chatting with owners and educating a populace who had never been taught anything about animal care and good stewardship.

I enjoyed the camaraderie that I was able to establish with the owners once we began discussing their beloved pets, and I am thankful to them for - providing me a glimpse into their lives. I was grateful to The HSUS for providing these people with free healthcare for their pets, and hopeful that the owners will return for their pets’ scheduled spay/neuter surgeries. I was amazed at the devotion of some owners to their pets, but also amazed by owners who opted to forego the free spay or neuter. I was disappointed with one owner for allowing her demodectic, stunted, less than a year old pit bull to become pregnant, and then opt out of the free spay, but hopeful because Pets for Life follows up with phone calls to all their clients. Maybe this pit bull will have her litter of puppies, but Pets for Life will be there to sterilize the puppies and the female when the owner is ready. That is the beauty of Pets for Life. They are in the community for the long haul and eventually, with time, they will get every pet fixed.

Gwen Stair

Gwen Stair is a second year veterinary student (Class of 2015) at Western University of Health Sciences. She began veterinary school believing she would focus on equine medicine, but that quickly changed her mind as she discovered a love for small animal medicine. Gwen initially wanted to use her DVM to aid in creating her own equine rescue and rehabilitation non-profit, but as she learns more about animal welfare issues, she is learning she wants to be involved in helping ALL animals.