Student-run vet clinics offer free pet care

Jody Graves considers Izzy, her young Chihuahua dachshund cross, a part of the family.

As a single mother on a fixed income, Graves was grateful to be able to take part in a pilot program where Izzy received veterinary care at no cost.

“It was great, you could ask them all kinds of questions,” says Graves. “They teach you how to feed your pet and how to take care of them so they have long healthy lives. Not a lot of us can afford to take our animals to the vet, so to have them come in and look at all our animals and give them their shots, it was really wonderful.”

The University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) partnered this spring with the Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) to host six free veterinary clinics for pets of people living below the poverty line. The new service learning program gave third-year students the opportunity to take what they learned in the classroom out into the real world. Students interacted directly with clients and their companions while under the close supervision of UCVM and community veterinarians.


Benefits for both students and clients

“It’s been a great initiative for the students,” says Dr. Serge Chalhoub, who, along with fellow UCVM faculty member Dr. Jack Wilson, championed the project. “They have been practising their professional and communication skills and gaining experience with clients. There’s a veterinarian coaching them, and the students do preventive medicine, deworming, vaccines, nutrition education and wellness education. Our first six sessions were highly successful.”

The participants in the pilot program were CUPS clients. Thirty-two cats and dogs and their owners, who were once homeless or at high risk of becoming homeless, took part. In fact, the pilot project was so successful that starting this fall it will be a regular part of the third-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine curriculum. The program provides benefits for both the student and the client, creating a win-win situation.


Love of a pet can help counter social isolation of poverty, homelessness

“For those who have experienced poverty, homelessness and the social isolation that often accompanies it, the role of a pet becomes all the more critical,” says Amanda St. Laurent, with CUPS. “Caring for a pet can provide a sense of normalcy, responsibility, stability, unconditional love and a reason to face a new day.”

Chalhoub says in addition to the services offered at the clinics, 11 pets were spayed or neutered as part of third-year surgery labs at UCVM.  “The students ended up operating on the pets they’d seen at the clinics, which is really neat.”

Amy Larkin and Jen Wheeler were among the third-year students involved in the program.

For me, it’s really about the chance to practice what we’ve learned in the classroom in a real setting but still under the supervision of our professors... So you’re dealing with real clients, with a real case where the decisions you make actually impact them.

Jen Wheeler, 3rd year student

Both students found it a fantastic opportunity to hone their professional skills and at the same time serve the community.

“It’s not only great for them, it’s also great for us,” says Larkin. “It’s a nice stepping stone from the classroom into the real world. And it’s really rewarding to know that what we’re learning is making a difference.”

UCVM is grateful for the support from industry and the local veterinary community — including Associated Veterinary Clinics, Boehringer Ingelheim, the C.A.R.E Centre Animal Hospital, Calgary Academy of Veterinary Medicine, Horizon Veterinary Group, Purina and Vétoquinol —  support that helped make this program possible.