This inaugural event provided free veterinary care, pet grooming, supplies—and hope—so at-risk women and their pets can stay together.

By Tracey L. Kelley
April 02, 2021
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Credit: Courtesy of The Women's Center

We love stories about companion animals finding their forever homes. But what if there's no home to go to? For the hundreds of unsheltered and at-risk individuals who rely on the crisis intervention and day services of The Women's Center in Raleigh, N.C., giving up their pets simply isn't an option—they're bonded with them for comfort, security, and love. 

Nora Robbins is the philanthropy and communications officer with The Women's Center. She says more than 90 percent of the women it serves are sexually traumatized, and 85 percent have persistent mental health conditions. Staff members first try to stabilize someone new to the center by meeting their basic critical care needs, such as clothing, food, and hygiene. 

"The ultimate goal is healing. And to engage a woman where she'll meet with a case manager or the clinical director, you have to ease her fears and have her trust you," Robbins tells Daily Paws. "Women coming in with pets are very fearful their animals will be taken from them."

Instead, she says, they'll choose to sleep in an abandoned building or curl up in the bushes if they can't stay in a shelter that accepts pets. But this isn't without additional risk. "It's a known fact that where there are vulnerable women, there are predators," Robbins says. "Having a pet creates a sense of security, acting like an alarm to keep their owners safe." 

So when the Center was contacted by April Gessner, DVM, an ER veterinarian and founder of the non-profit DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care, about hosting a care clinic, its staff was more than enthusiastic. "They have been trying to start some sort of pet program for the homeless for years now, but never had a veterinarian," Gessner says. "So it really seemed like it was meant to be."

‘No Pet Shaming Zone’

"Some have shared the logic that homeless pet owners would do their pets more good by giving them up, and that it's unfair for their animals to live unsheltered, hungry, dirty…" Robbins says. "We go out of our way to let homeless and at-risk individuals know that we make no judgments. We have a 'No Pet Shaming Zone' because shaming the vulnerable, abused, and homeless causes them further isolation." 

She also believes that individuals without access to basic critical care could actually result in more harm to their pets, who might starve, become sick, and not receive the treatment they need, either. Robbins says the Center never turns someone away if they have an animal. In fact, it's common for a staff member to foster a person's treasured companion just so they have peace of mind.

DEGA arranges approximately three clinics a month for pet owners who can't afford preventative care. Their free care checklist includes vaccinations, deworming, canine heartworm testing, flea/tick prevention, heartworm medication, ear cleanings, nail trims, and treatment of minor illnesses. Gessner says she and her husband, DEGA assistant director Bennett Deddens, DVM, a veterinary radiologist, are bolstered by a cadre of volunteer vets, vet technicians and assistants, and others at each clinic.

"When I originally created DEGA, I intended on helping only homeless pet owners. I quickly realized that low/no income pet owners could very well be on the brink of homelessness and that I needed to broaden my scope," Gessner says. "By helping those in need as well as those already homeless, we would not only give them a sense of fulfillment in their lives by being able to keep and care for their beloved companion(s), but also reduce the number of unwanted pets in the shelters."

Celebrating Community and the Healing Power of Animals

Robbins says that as soon as the Center scheduled the clinic event for March 27, her phone simply blew up with large and small businesses donating everything from free grooming services and pet food and supplies to breakfast and lunch for attendees and raffle prizes.

What started off as a small event turned into a half-day celebration, not just for the women of the Center, but for people in neighboring areas, too. "It truly was the community coming together for good," Robbins says. Approximately 35 dogs and cats received free checkups and a bounty of other things.

The Center's intention now is to hold biannual events with DEGA and the support of donors who see the value in this endeavor. It will also become a regular site for people in need to get pet food and other supplies. 

Robbins is a pet parent to a miniature Chihuahua named Leroy, who has been a true healing presence in her family. She feels the unconditional love animals provide is often a turning point for many women at risk. 

"When you become homeless, you feel like a non-person. You live in the shadows. If you sit on the bus, people pull their children closer and turn their backs toward you. When you walk into a restaurant or a store, people treat you differently because you're homeless," Robbins says. "So to be needed and respected—all the things humans want and deserve—these women get that and unconditional love from their pets."  

Gessner agrees. "I believe providing free veterinary care not only helps the pets in need, but also improves the mental health of the owners." She just started DEGA in February and is completely overwhelmed with gratitude at the response from supporters, sponsors, clients, and the community. 

And making special memories. At The Women's Center event, she says the last patient checked was a dog named Shiloh. Outfitted with a new harness, leash, and treats, she only lacked a toy but they appeared to be all gone.

"I finally found some, and there were only a few left. Both dog and owner were so very grateful. It was obvious how much the owner loved this dog, and I was so happy we were able to help them both medically and non-medically," she says. "When they were leaving, the dog was just trotting along on the leash with the new toy in its mouth. It was so sweet and cute it brought tears to my eyes."