The Community Health Project started with a single case of leptospirosis. The dog belonged to a resident of a camp, and its unhoused owner was accompanied by a volunteer advocate. Animal Emergency Care (AEC) veterinarian Dr. Kris Johnson was on duty that night.
“Leptospirosis is spread by rats urinating in water,” Dr. Johnson explains. “It’s a rapidly spreading infection that passes easily from dogs to humans; a significant zoonotic disease.”
Rats forage and urinate in garbage heaps, then it rains and dogs get infected when drinking from or stepping in the resulting puddles. Pups then pass the disease on to humans by direct or indirect contact with their urine. A camp without formal sanitation is the ideal environment for leptospirosis to thrive. The infection is often fatal in dogs — and sometimes in humans. The dog that came in that night was too sick to save.
Dr. Johnson knows that “lepto” does not appear in isolated cases; it spreads rapidly through contaminated water. This was just a warning of an outbreak to come. Could it be prevented? Johnson took swift action to head it off. First, she notified the Whatcom County Health Department, as required by law. Next, she contacted her practice manager, Bo Compton, who agreed they could — and should — get out in front of this threat.
Bo Compton reached out to AEC’s business partners and got companies to donate vaccines and supplies. Zoetis started by donating $5,000 worth of vaccines. Because they can only donate to nonprofits, not private clinics, the donation was made to the Zoe Fund, a service of a local nonprofit called Shadow’s Forever Friends, headed by Jason and Jennifer Sonker, who placed the donation under the custodianship of AEC. (The Sonkers regularly apply for grant money to support this and other animal care assistance for low-income people.)
Thankfully, other companies eagerly joined in. Elanco donated parasite medications, Virbac donated antiparasitic medications, and Purina donated “literally tons” of food. “Purina has been great,” says Compton. “Any time we ask, they come through for us.” AEC employees were eager to help too, and volunteer their time at the pop-up clinics. Nooksack Animal Hospital has also sent volunteer staff.
Because of the pandemic, the first pop-up clinics needed to be outdoors. “We vaccinate the dogs to protect the people,” says Dr. Johnson. She held the first free vaccination clinic in the parking lot of her church, First Congregational, and vaccinated about 30 dogs. It was a great day and she felt like it made a real difference — now, how could they keep doing it?
Dr. Johnson contacted downtown Bellingham’s Base Camp, which provided a location. “A reliable access point is so important,” Compton says. Getting the word out to people who need their services was a challenge. They distributed flyers at the Food Bank, the Opportunity Council, the Lighthouse Mission, and on social media.
Kevin Stray, Dr. Johnson’s husband, works for the Whatcom Dream, a nonprofit that helps educate low-income people about financial empowerment. “He knows the scene,” says Dr. Johnson, “and he was able to help make connections with other organizations.”
Many first-time vaccinations require a booster, so booster clinics are held 4 weeks after a vaccination clinic. Services have expanded to include other vaccines, such as rabies and parvovirus, and wellness care. They provide affordable prescriptions with donated GoodRX cards and flyers detailing where to find common medicines at the lowest price.
“It takes an unbelievable amount of stuff,” Dr. Johnson says about the pop-up clinics. “You picture a table with a box of vaccines, but there are boxes of medical supplies, different medications, animal carriers, food to give away…there’s even a camper for examining cats.” It takes all of this and more to treat an average of 28 animals per session. “We hope to do two clinics in spring and two in fall,” says Dr. Johnson.
Reliability is key. “We’re trying to build relationships,” she continues. “When you’re unhoused and your life is about day-to-day survival, out of sight is out of mind.” They want to be a consistent presence so folks who are unhoused can get regular care for their animals.
“The relationship with pets is so important,” Dr. Johnson says. “Perhaps even more so with unhoused people. Their life is full of struggle, and pets can be the only thing that keeps them going. We want to support those relationships and treat humans with the respect they deserve.”
“Our specialized knowledge doesn’t usually lend itself to community service,” says Bo Compton. “It has been so rewarding to be able to use it help these people.”
Between 5 and 10% of people who are unhoused have pets (Wikipedia 2023). Most of them had the animals before they lost their homes and, for many, it’s all they have left from their life “before.” Older animals don’t get adopted readily, and many people are unwilling to take the chance that their animals won’t find new homes.
“There are so many reasons why unhoused people don’t give up their animals,” Dr. Johnson says. People can be judgmental about it, but every relationship has its own story. People who are unhoused suffer from anxiety over their ability to care for their animals, fear that their animals will be taken away, and guilt for not being able to provide the life for them that they once did. Helping to care for these animals makes a huge difference in the quality of life for the unhoused and their pets, as well as improving public health and safety.
As you can see from the profusion of links in this article, a whole village has gotten involved.
“This started as an attempt to prevent an outbreak of one disease, and it grew into so much more,” says Dr. Johnson. The most gratifying result came as a complete surprise to her. After vaccinating the dogs of three clients, Dr. Johnson learned they all qualified for housing; having their animals comply with legal health requirements had been the final barrier for them. “It’s such a great feeling to know I helped make that happen.”