FORT COLLINS, Colo. – A fun-loving schnauzer named Pocket is stroke survivor Dorothy Kiser's closest companion. But Kiser almost had to put Pocket to sleep when her pet developed diabetes: Kiser feared she wouldn't be able to take care of the dog alone.
Aspiring veterinary students at Colorado State University stepped in to visit the 83-year-old Kiser and Pocket twice a day, giving the dog insulin shots and checking his blood-sugar levels.
The students are taking a class called Pets Forever, which pairs social work and pre-veterinary students with elderly and disabled pet owners who need help keeping their pets at home. Students walk dogs, clean litter boxes and drive sick animals to the vet for homebound owners.
It's a chance for vets-in-training to care for animals in a home setting — and helps the elderly and disabled keep companion animals, which studies show can prevent depression and even lower hospital admission rates.
"I don't know what I would have done with Pocket if they didn't come help," said Kiser, a widow who lives alone and has limited use of her left arm. She shook her head as she watched 21-year-old student Lauren Gould take Pocket, 9, to the back yard for a morning urine sample.
"I couldn't do this alone. I probably would've had to put her to sleep," Kiser said.
Pets Forever was created in 2008 by Lori Kogan, a CSU psychologist who works with the College of Veterinary Medicine. Entering a third semester, Kogan has had to cap enrollment in the program at 35 students and hopes to see it replicated at other universities, not just those with a large number of pre-veterinary students.
"I would hear these really sad stories about people who had to give up their pets because they couldn't walk the dog anymore, couldn't clean the litter box," Kogan said. "And there are cases where the relationships people have with their pets are sometimes the only relationships they have left, because everyone else is gone."
Other charities help needy pet owners take care of their animals, but Pets Forever is the nation's first program affiliated with a university. It is similar to the well-known PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support) charity in San Francisco, which started serving HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s when food bank workers noticed some of their clients were using food donations for their pets before themselves.
PAWS has 500 volunteers who visit sick owners, not just AIDS patients, and provides foster care for animals during their owners' hospital visits.
Companion animals can reduce depression and anxiety, alleviate dementia and help people recover more quickly from injury. Even the simple act of petting a dog or cat can promote well-being and help seniors feel independent.
"For many of our clients, it's why they get up in the morning, that they have another life to take care of," said PAWS vice president Joanne B. Kipnis.
Kogan envisions including non-students in CSU's Pets Forever program. She's seeking grants to help cover veterinary care for animals owned by needy clients. Pets Forever recently won $25,000 through an online contest sponsored by Heska Corp., a Loveland, Colo., veterinary supplier.
For Gould, the CSU junior who gives Pocket her insulin shots, the program helps future veterinarians as much as pet owners. Veterinary school is too demanding for students to spend much time with pets in a home setting, and Gould says her work with homebound pet owners gives her valuable insight she can use later, when she has a small-animal practice of her own.
"I learn something new every day, interacting with people and their pets," Gould said. She spent a few minutes playing with Pocket before heading off to pick up her next client, a Shih Tzu in need of a trip to the groomer his disabled owner couldn't handle.
"Even if I'm having a bad day, when I leave here I'm in the best mood," Gould said.
Pets Forever: http://csuvets.colostate.edu/petsforever.html