PALS program brings veterinary care to seniors’ pets

Dorothy Brown’s papillons Mojo and Pocket are happy to greet any visitors to their home. Their tails wag with their whole rear ends following them. They dance on their back legs. They look up with big smiles, tongues unrolling from their mouths.

They can’t wait to jump in their dog stroller or get their leashes on to go for a stroll.

Brown used to take care of people as a home health attendant, but now the 57-year-old is not able to work. She has seizures, high blood pressure and a bad back. “I’m breaking down all at once,” she says.

Brown has been a client of Meals on Wheels Central Texas since 2008, and Mojo and Pocket also have received their meals from the Meals on Wheels program Pets Assisting the Lives of Seniors, which began in 2009. Shortly after PALS teamed up with Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation in 2012 to provide veterinary care for pets, Mojo and Pocket began receiving annual exams, vaccinations and heartworm and flea prevention.

“For one thing, it saves me a lot money, and then they bring me food, that helps me a lot,” Brown said. “I don’t think I’d be able to do all that without them. I would end up being short on my bills. … They help take them to the doctor. I couldn’t afford that, that would be way too much.

“I love them. I appreciate them,” Brown added about the program volunteers.

About 200 people and 400 pets are served by the PALS program. In addition to receiving monthly food for their pets, clients can receive medical care for their pets, too, through the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation, which matches their pet up with a local veterinarian whose office is within 10 miles of their home. Last fiscal year, 270 pets received about $18,000 worth of care through the foundation. More than 80 percent of veterinary care donated is through the foundation, although PALS also uses Emancipet and Thrive Affordable Vet Care.

“They are providing gold standard vet care for folks who normally couldn’t provide even the simplest vaccinations for their babies,” says Heather Allard, who manages the program for Meals on Wheels. “This program means so, so much to our clients.”

When pets need to get checked out, a volunteer comes to their house, picks them up and takes them to the office of the vet who has volunteered to see them. They receive a physical as well as heartworm and flea prevention and all their vaccinations.

If the vet finds something more serious that needs to be done, the PALS program puts it on a list based on seriousness and then checks off the list as funds are available. “The generosity that has come from our doctors is above and beyond what we’ve asked of them,” says Leah Ann Tibbitts, director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation.

Dr. Chad Harris, who sees Mojo and Pocket and even trims their nails, has been able to give both papillons dental care. That’s one of the most common needs for pets, especially those that haven’t been to a doctor in recent years.

“It is probably the most rewarding part of my job,” says Harris, of North Austin Animal Hospital. “A lot of these pets may not have ever been to a veterinarian in their entire life before they came into my program.”

The veterinary foundation was looking at starting a program that would provide direct assistance to pets in Texas when it approached Meals on Wheels to form this partnership. Texas Veterinary Medical Foundation originally approached Meals on Wheels with the idea of providing food to pets, but Meals on Wheels already had that program. Instead, the foundation was told, “What we really need help with is veterinary care,” Tibbitts says.

Meals on Wheels and the foundation began collaborating on unrolling this expansion of the PALS program.

It has since grown from the Austin area to Bryan/College Station in 2014 and Dallas in 2016. This month, the program was supposed to expand to the Houston Meals on Wheels, but cleanup from Hurricane Harvey may delay that. The foundation, however, has been working in Houston after the storm by helping funnel funds to veterinary offices that were out of supplies and couldn’t get new supplies in. They were able to buy supplies at grocery stores instead, using money that the foundation received from around the country in the days that followed Harvey.

Once the veterinary staff in Houston is able to launch the program there, the foundation will fund it. “The goal is to have it in as many cities as possible,” Tibbitts says. The stipulation is that the community has to have a partner Meals on Wheels program with the staffing to handle it.

Most of the time the veterinarians never meet the pets’ owners, but occasionally veterinarians have to make house calls. Harris has one such client, who is a Korean War veteran in his 90s and is blind. He isn’t comfortable leaving the house or letting his dog go without him. “He’s there by himself,” Harris says. “His dog is his family.”

Harris and the staff have developed a relationship with the veteran. When his first dog died, the clinic worked on finding him a new dog that would be a good fit.

Traditionally, once volunteers leave the vet’s office they bring back information about the animal’s health and any medication that needs to be given. The volunteers and doctors are careful to make sure that a client can handle giving pills or ointments or whatever needs to be done. If not, doctors will find a different solution, or sometimes a volunteer will help give medication.

Harris thinks of the PALS program as not just himself donating his time but the clients giving as much to him. “In a warm and fuzzy sense, they are donating their time to us because of the response we get,” he says.

“The fact that we get to make sure that (the pets) are healthy and happy before they get to go back to their homes is absolutely heartwarming, but also the fact that these are probably family members for these people that may be on their own and may not have somebody else in their life,” Harris says. “If we can extend their life, that is what makes it all tick. So we’re very happy for it.”

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