It is often said that a pet becomes part of the family: a companion, a friend. For many for homeless and vulnerably-housed people, animal companions are often the most significant other for their owners – a strong example of the human-animal bond and a source of stability and continuity in often-difficult lives.
All4Paws is a new, student-led community project in the Vet School providing ‘pop-up’ vet clinics for homeless and vulnerably-housed people and their animals. This service is aimed at people who are:
- In homeless hostels
- Sleeping rough on the streets
- Using night shelters
- ‘Sofa surfing’
- In other temporary accommodation
- In supported accommodation where animals are permitted
Previous experience with vet clinics in hostels, such as those running at Dunedin Harbour Hostel in Leith, has shown that the animals, usually dogs, live good lives and are well cared for. But there is also a population of people and pets who, for various reasons, cannot easily access hostel provision and all the support services on offer there. The Edinburgh vet students want to reach out to these people too through All4Paws.
The students are using a service model that has been shown to work elsewhere in the UK and in some North American vet schools, but which has been tailored to suit the local conditions of Edinburgh.
The students are supported by academic staff for the clinical work, but all other aspects of service provision, and all decision-making, are made by the student management group for All4Paws. To date, this has included:
- Basic feasibility research
- Deciding on the scope of the service
- Finding suitable community venues and liaising with managing staff
- Fundraising and publicity
- Soliciting donations from pharmaceutical companies and others
- Financial planning and record keeping
- Grappling with the ethical issues surrounding this type of work.
Vet clinics supported by the Vet School have been run in Edinburgh homeless hostels since 2008, but All4Paws is a new and more ambitious idea. It arose from within the student Shelter Medicine Society in the School, and is one aspect of a range of activities broadly centered around the theme of ‘community animal health and welfare’ and exploring various public good aspects of veterinary medicine.
Other activities, already taking place or planned, include working with young children and animals through the East Lothian charity Fostering Compassion, and helping promote the work and welfare message of the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home. The group also raises funds for an animal shelter in Portugal.
Delivering primary care within the community provides rich learning experiences for students and research in veterinary education shows that students are highly engaged by such ‘service learning’.
When students get involved in actually designing and initiating the services from the outset, their collective energy, creativity and vision can be used to great effect. This is what is happening with All4Paws and other activities.