Magazines 2020 Sep - Oct Pets of vulnerably housed people

Pets of vulnerably housed people

16 September 2020 By Alex Newman

Beloved pets offer purpose, and need attention and care

YOU’VE SEEN them on street corners, and park benches, and they’re often very well behaved. These are the pets of vulnerably housed people, dogs off leash in step with owners, or cats perched in backpacks.

These pets, says Sandra Seaborn, director of community and support services at Yonge Street Mission (, "give those who are vulnerably housed a reason to get up in the morning. They will often go without food to feed their pets."

Being responsible for another creature provides "a sense of purpose," Seaborn adds. "God made us that way, to see our purpose when caring for someone else."

Living on the street, though, takes its toll on the health of both pet and owner. Which is why veterinarian Michelle Lem started the One Health program in Ottawa in 2003 – to provide food and health care for both.

The program came to Toronto in 2012, as Community Veterinary Outreach, when One Health partnered with YSM, the Toronto Humane Society and the city’s Animal Services and Public Health departments.

About six times a year, the clinic sets up at YSM’s Gerrard and Parliament location. YSM provides administrative support – recommending clients, booking appointments – and space for the clinic.

The clinics are unique in going beyond vet services to also offer health care to pet owners. Programs include smoke cessation, immunizations, dental/oral care, sexual testing and naloxone kits.

At last November’s clinic an entire family was immunized. Without the dog Lem says that wouldn’t have happened.

"It’s allowing us to achieve higher immunization rates." Now with Covid-19, YSM distributes pet food through its food bank. The temporarily suspended vet clinics will provide temporary boarding for pets when an owner is hospitalized, quarantined or in a shelter due to Covid-19.

Until fairly recently animals weren’t allowed in shelters. That’s changing as authorities recognize that the many street-involved people with pets will not take shelter if it means leaving their animals outside in the cold.

This allowance is especially important in domestic abuse situations, says Lem, since some women will choose to stay in a violent situation if the family pet is threatened. "Often it’s the children’s pets being abused as a means of coercion and manipulation."

Lem, who has degrees in social work in addition to being a vet, says "Animals are sentinels. What we see is vulnerable individuals and that’s a measure of how we’re doing as a society." – ALEX NEWMAN