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December 01, 2020

Veterinary social work summit focuses on animals, poverty

Sessions covered topics of COVID-19, telehealth, animal welfare, access to care
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The sixth International Veterinary Social Work Summit, held virtually Oct. 8-10, focused on the theme “Animals and Poverty: How It Impacts the Human-Animal Relationship.”

Sessions during the summit also touched on COVID-19–related challenges, telehealth, animal welfare, and access to veterinary care. Many of the conversations involved tips and advice for veterinarians. The event was hosted by the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Social Work.

“Improving Access to Vet Care” presentation slide
This slide of the presentation “Improving Access to Vet Care,” a session at the sixth International Veterinary Social Work Summit, discusses several aspects of pets living in poverty, including how many live in households receiving benefits through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Access-to-care tips

The session “Improving Access to Vet Care,” focused on potential barriers to care and how to bridge them.

Emily Gelb, director of community solutions at the Asheville Humane Society in Asheville, North Carolina, suggested to first identify a community’s barriers and then to focus programming around eliminating those.

“I am not a veterinarian, but from my perspective, one of the pieces I’ve seen to be most important with veterinary clinics who partner with us is for the clinics to focus more on incremental care rather than the gold standard,” Gelb said. “Along with that is creating a clinic environment that is welcoming and a culture that doesn’t make assumptions or pass judgments about people and their love of their pet based on their socioeconomic level.”

Gelb and Pia Cash, a community solutions assistant at the Asheville Humane Society, suggested ways a veterinary clinic can improve access to care, including the following:

  • Starting a financial assistance program.
  • Partnering with a shelter to run vaccine clinics.
  • Setting up pop-up clinics in underserved neighborhoods and providing preventive or wellness care.
  • Selling at-cost flea and tick preventives at the clinic.

Animal welfare

“Is the animal loved?” asked Dr. Zenithson Ng, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, during “Enhancing Animal Welfare for Pets of People Living in Poverty.”

Dr. Ng discussed how to use the Five Freedoms, originally developed to establish animal welfare guidelines for farm animals, to help pets living in poverty. He said an animal living with a person experiencing homelessness, for example, may have different experiences.

“We have to recognize that every case is unique. We want to invite the owner to discuss,” Dr. Ng said. “Talk to them, ask them what their perspective is. What the owner sees might not be what the veterinarian sees.”

Dr. Ng said it is important to discuss ensuring an animal is well hydrated, especially for pet owners who are experiencing homelessness.

“Discuss where to shop for low-cost foods and free food delivery or food bank options. Supply a free measuring cup, and discuss access to fresh water at all times,” he said.


Multiple experts came together during the panel discussion “COVID-19—What is Essential?” The conversation focused on issues and concerns attendees were facing including curbside service, sheltering, and telehealth.

Dr. Meggan Graves, a large animal veterinarian and clinical assistant professor at the UT veterinary college, said telemedicine is fairly normal for large animal practitioners.

Although a large number of pets live in households facing barriers to care, many of those households do have internet access and could potentially benefit from more telehealth appointments.

Dr. Michael Blackwell, director of the Program for Pet Health Equity at UT, spoke about how telemedicine could solve some issues.

“I think it is important—even post COVID—if we are going to bridge access, our profession must get comfortable with telemedicine,” Dr. Blackwell said. “There are situations that demand in person, but I think we need to press for more use of technology. We need to be a voice encouraging, embracing telehealth.”

Current policies vary by state. The AVMA has a resource page on telehealth.