Pets for Life

giving a dog a check up
Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Improving the health of a community isn’t always a black-and-white endeavor. Some initiatives require a thoughtful look at the benefits weighed against the resources on hand. Others might come with negative baggage to consider. So when the rare opportunity comes to take part in something that boosts people, animals, and the environment in tandem with no adverse side effects, extra effort taken by those involved to make it sustainable must be matched by the community in awareness and support if it is to survive. Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) has found such a gem in their year-old program, Pets for Life.

Abbi Middleton, CVT and Pets for Life program coordinator for DCHS, explains the platform. “Thanks to a grant through the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), we provide free wellness care, spay and neuter, support services, pet supplies, and information—resources to help keep pets in their home.” Oh, one more detail: Pets for Life focuses heavily on home visits, bringing pet care to the homes of its clients. Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Intern at DCHS, Bridget Holck, DVM, says, “People and animals tend to be more comfortable in their own surroundings, so for us to be able to come to them provides a little bit less stress for the whole visit.”

Photograph by Abbi Middleton

I went on a ride along with Abbi and Dr. Holck to see how the program affects those living in the 53713 zip code, the only place Pets for Life is currently available in Madison. Abbi tells me we’re going to meet Nitro Cody Grapes, a black cocker spaniel who was referred to Pets for Life from WisCARES, a DCHS partner offering subsidized-cost veterinary care for low-income individuals, when he was having severe difficulty walking. Both of Nitro’s owners are on disability and aren’t medically able to drive, so paying for Ubers and cabs along with their vet bill was putting them in a position where they had to start asking themselves some tough questions no pet owner wants to consider.

When I met Nitro, he was actually doing a good job getting around, though he definitely wasn’t at 100 percent. But that wasn’t the case a few months ago. “I was more than convinced that I was going to lose him,” says Ashley Grapes, one of Nitro’s owners along with her husband, Gene Grapes. “I am very grateful to these people for everything that they’ve done.” Pets for Life paid for medications and tests and provided x-rays. Dr. Holck tells me they believe Nitro has an intervertebral disease or slipped disc in his back, but it’s hard to see evidence of those conditions on an x-ray.

Photograph by Abbi Middleton

Nitro’s shy demeaner went away when Abbi and Dr. Holck began working to update his vaccines. Ashley tells me, “They basically saved our dog. … It helps a lot when you come across these kinds of clinics that can first help you out with medicines and tests and stuff that otherwise you’d be responsible for. And secondly, they come to us. That is just wonderful.” Ashley fondly brings up the walks she used to take with Nitro and looks forward to seeing more improvement so that, hopefully by the time you’re reading this, the two of them are back at it, taking in the warm summer air together.

The increasing number of stories like Nitro’s are working to shift some misconceptions about the role of DCHS in the community. Marissa DeGroot, public relations coordinator with DCHS, laments that people often see the humane society as the end of the line when it comes to life’s hardships involving pets, like being unable to afford a vet bill. “Our goal is to keep pets in homes where they are wanted and loved. We want community members to know we are a resource to help make that happen, whether it’s directing people to pet food pantries DCHS donates to, troubleshooting behavior issues, or connecting them with partners offering low-cost veterinary services.”

And getting residents to see firsthand the role DCHS can play in the community is just one facet of Pets for Life’s potential. The Institute for Human-Animal Connection (IHAC) is partnering with DCHS and HSUS on an in-depth study to measure the impact of the Pets for Life program and better understand the link between animal welfare and the holistic health of communities. The goal is to study how community outreach and pet ownership support programs can benefit not only animals, but also humans, the environment, and society as a whole.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Through these studies and the experiences of program coordinators like Abbi, IHAC is quickly discovering that the needs of different areas are, well, different. “If you look at Pets for Life programs in other cities,” Marissa says, “their highest need may be spay/neuter services, while in the 53713 zip code we’re finding they have others.” Here in Madison, spay/neuter rates are fairly high. Perhaps we have a considerable viewership of The Price is Right . Whatever the case, the Pets for Life program is designed to allow participating humane societies to allocate funding toward whatever need is most prevalent in terms of improving animal, human, and environmental health. For Abbi, this means she can customize care for the pets she’s serving.

Currently, Pets for Life is focused on building trust in the community. It’s a newer initiative, and people don’t know the name. Abbi, who makes up the entire staff of the Pets for Life program, has been going door to door. “I’ve noticed that when I first meet someone, maybe all they want to give me is their first name. That’s fine, I’m a weirdo at your door asking if you need help with your pet.” But this necessary first step builds person-to-person relationships, which are what DCHS believes to be fundamental to the program’s success. Through these relationships, Pets for Life can shape a reality that embodies the core of DCHS. “No matter what their resources are, everyone deserves the love of a pet,” Marissa says.

For more of Abbi’s success stories, see below.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Abbi’s success stories

Story #1


Nisa, a Pets for Life (PFL) client, called us shortly after we had picked up her dog Roscoe for neuter surgery. Her other dog, Peaches, was suffering from dystocia (a difficult birth) and had been in labor for almost 14 hours without producing a puppy. When PFL received the phone call, we knew we had to act as quickly as possible. We were able to reach out to Stoughton Veterinary Service Animal Hospital (SVSAH) and they agreed to help us in any way possible, including an emergency C-section if needed!

While waiting to hear back from SVSAH, Nisa took peaches to Veterinary Emergency Services (VES), where they performed an ultrasound and radiographs. They found one puppy stuck in the birth canal that was blocking the others from being born and three other puppies still waiting patiently. VES removed the blocked puppy, and Peaches immediately gave birth to a puppy!

Since Peaches was now stable, we decided to transport her to SVSAH, where they gave her a nice quiet room and a shot of oxytocin (to induce contractions) to help her with birthing the final two puppies. The oxytocin worked, and Peaches delivered the last two puppies safely at SVSAH. After their eventful day, Peaches and Nisa are back at home, and all of the puppies are doing well! When the puppies are old enough, PFL will be there for Nisa to spay/neuter and vaccinate them to keep them healthy when they find their new forever homes.

Story #2

BeBe – the most manly and macho Chihuahua

Bebe was reached thru door-to-door outreach. We came across him and his owner, Lynn, on a hot Monday afternoon. To escape the heat, we went inside Lynn’s house to meet Bebe when we noticed he seemed to be limping on both of his front paws. At the time, Bebe did not want us to touch or look at his paws—after all, we were strangers! It became clear to us that Bebe needed to be seen by a veterinarian in order to determine what was wrong with his paws. WisCARES was contacted, and we were able to schedule an appointment with their veterinary staff for the following day.

Once at the veterinary clinic, Bebe did not hold back on his macho-ness, proving to everybody that he was the boss. The vet staff worked with him calmly as to not stress him out too much and were able to visually assess his paws. They prescribed antibiotics, special foot baths, and—Bebe’s favorite—an e-collar in order to control and treat an infection they had found on his toes.

With the love, support, and care at home from Lynn, armed with a course of antibiotics, Bebe is now all healed up and ready to continue his long walks and strut his stuff up and down the street!