Animal Bonding

Giving free veterinary care to vulnerable pet owners helps keep them safe and healthy, too

“If they can’t afford a pet, then why do they have one?”

That’s the most common question asked of volunteers at Alberta Helping Animals Society, a non-profit organization ensuring that people living in poverty in Edmonton have access to free veterinary care for their companion animals.

The answer is simple, says Terri McCallum, the veterinary community co-ordinator for the society. “For the majority of our clients, their animal in the reason they wake up in the morning.”

Their pet is sometimes what stops them from feeding their addictions or taking their own lives, agree McCallum and Connie Varnhagen, the society’s president.

Supported by two grants totalling $102,030 from Edmonton Community Foundation, the society delivers animal care and pet food by vehicle, and also finds shelter for animals when necessary.

About 40 volunteers, including veterinarians, technologists and community members, keep the service running. Veterinarians provide examinations and spay/neuter surgery, and community members offer administrative support, pick up donations and help with the animals. While its focus is pet health, the program enhances the owners’ overall wellness, too, says Varnhagen.

“These are people at-risk for or suffering with mental health problems, addictions, devastating illnesses, extreme poverty, domestic violence — any situation where they have very low income — and they have this really important cat or dog for mental support.”

Approximately 100,000 people live in poverty in Edmonton, and people living in poverty are more likely to have poor mental health, according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

Since 2014, the society’s program has assisted 3,500 pets. This fall, it expects to open a clinic with the Edmonton Community Veterinary Clinic, a premise in the Calder neighbourhood that will house a full-service vet clinic and also be a resource for information about animal care for anyone who wants it, says Varnhagen.

“People need pets. We shouldn’t look down (at them) just because they are down on their luck.”