young man and dog

Holistic Approaches in Addressing Complex Health Disparities at the Intersection of Pets and their People

The Veterinary Treatment Outreach for Urban Community Health, or VeTouch, is a student-led clinic that provides free veterinary services for Minneapolis pet owners who navigate physical disabilities, domestic violence, mental health and substance abuse challenges, homelessness, or precarious housing. VeTouch empowers people to care for their non-human family members in a supportive environment. In some situations, both clients and their pets share similar health limitations such as lack of mobility, chronic diseases, exposure to secondhand smoke, or barriers to healthy food options. Not only do animals impact clients' abilities to access health and social services, they also serve as untapped motivators for making health changes.

“In the clinic, we see firsthand that when animals are not a part of safety-net services, owners are forced to choose between caring for themselves or their pets,” said Emily Walz, DVM, MPH, faculty advisor for UMN-VeTouch. “The same barriers that influence public health outcomes also influence animal health and pet owner health and wellbeing."

The daily systemic challenges that clients identify surpass the bounds of traditional veterinary care alone. Walz leads the expansion of Community Medicine-related education at the College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM). Through an innovative partnership with the School of Social Work and School of Nursing, the multidisciplinary team aims to address important health disparities among resource-limited pet owners in Minnesota. Co-investigators include Megan Morrissey, PhD, MSW, and Cheryl Robertson, PhD, MPH, RN.

While veterinary training acknowledges the interconnectedness of people, animals, and the environment, responding to the social determinants of health is new to veterinary medicine. Few veterinarians feel adept to support the entire household's wellbeing, whereas nursing and social work practitioners are highly skilled in this practice.

CVM hosts one to two clinical veterinary social work interns annually. With the support of Athena Diesch-Chham, clinical supervisor at CVM, interns are currently piloting a collaboration with VeTouch clinics.

To ensure a person-centered, dignified experience for pet owners, Morrissey and faculty from the School of Social Work will support and advise social work services at VeTouch. These collaborators will align community resources and prepare for expansion to other clinics in high-need areas, like the new low-cost Animal Humane Society Veterinary Center in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood, and with tribal communities through the existing CVM student group, Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services.

Additionally, nursing student engagement will legitimize the connection between the health of a pet and its person. Through collaboration with Robertson and the undergraduate and graduate nursing programs, the team will screen clients for common conditions; connect clients with care providers; and define joint health goals for people and their animals. Doing so will mitigate health disparities for clients who find support from and health motivation in caring for their pets.

The multidisciplinary team values the importance of the human-animal bond, equitable care, and accessible services, and shares a commitment to holistic approaches in addressing complex health disparities.

This initiative received funding from the Office of Academic Clinical Affairs BOLD Ideas Grant program which supports interdisciplinary teams seeking to tackle the complex issues inhibiting the health and wellbeing of our communities.

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