Pooches and people receive low- to no-cost care from traveling vet, medical clinic

This story was originally published by PublicSource, a news partner of Kidsburgh.org. PublicSource is a nonprofit media organization delivering local journalism at publicsource.org. You can sign up for their newsletters at publicsource.org/newsletters. In the photo above, James Lee holds his dog Minnie Lee at the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh mobile clinic in Braddock on June 20, 2024. (Photo by Jess Daninhirsch/PublicSource)

Minnie Lee squirmed in her owner’s arms. The light-brown yorkie terrier mix had received vaccinations on an unusually warm Thursday at a mobile health clinic parked for the morning into the afternoon in Braddock.

“I am getting her checked out, making sure she’s healthy,” said James Lee, Minnie Lee’s owner of five months. “It’s my baby.”

Lee traveled from the North Side to get his playful pup some needed medical treatments, including being microchipped. He wasn’t alone.

Other participants had signed up to come to the bi-monthly, low- to no-cost, traveling vet clinic — called M.O.V.E.S or Medical, Outreach, Veterinary, Essential, Support. It was formed as a partnership between the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh (HARP) and Allegheny Health Network (AHN) called the Humane Health Coalition.

Moonstone the cat purrs at the Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh mobile clinic in Braddock on June 20. (Photo by Jess Daninhirsch/PublicSource)

A gray cat named Moonstone was described as “mischievous” by his owner. Coco Chanel, a tiny chocolate brown puppy, chased a stuffed green toy when tossed across the gravel before dutifully dragging it back to her owner.

The furry friends weren’t the only beings serviced. The coalition also focuses on health care and support services for pet owners. The clinic focuses on helping individuals facing financial hardship and other social challenges, such as housing instability and limited access to care.

“We provide the human care and HARP provides the animal care,” said Dr. Elizabeth Cuevas, division chief for the AHN Center for Inclusion Health. “We bring those two populations together and try to capture people who really need some assistance.”

Coco Chanel the Dachshund mix. (Photo by Jess Daninhirsch/PublicSource)

The mobile clinic was parked outside The Hollander Project, a co-working space in Braddock run by For Good PGH, a group co-directed by Gisele Fetterman. Tents shaded the sidewalks and cold water sat on ice in coolers and in a dog bowl as the clinic served pets and humans during a heat wave unlike one Pittsburgh has seen in the past 30 years.

“I believe that addressing poverty, addressing food insecurity, it all has to be a holistic approach,” said Fetterman, wife of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman. “An event like this, bringing together two, what some would say are very different organizations — HARP and AHN — addressing not only their pets, but their parents is really innovative and different and bold and important.”

Inside the air-conditioned mobile clinic, which is housed in a mid-sized, white truck decorated with images of cats and dogs, pets are provided with exams, vaccines, microchipping and spay/neuter vouchers to be used later at the rescue.

In a back room of The Hollander Project, tables were lined with items for owners to take like Narcan, condoms, granola bars, water bottles and pamphlets. AHN caregivers talked with pet owners to discuss their health and social needs.

The mobile clinic made its public debut last September. Since then, the coalition has hosted more than a dozen mobile clinics, including the one on June 20 in Braddock.

The history of the program goes back further than last fall. It was bred from the Street Dog Program geared toward helping pets of unhoused people in Pittsburgh.

One day, while Kim Holmberg, a HARP board member, was listening to a presentation about the Street Dog Program, she proposed turning it into a mobile veterinary unit where they could hold more medical supplies rather than just lugging totes around the city.

Kim’s husband, David Holmberg, who is president and chief executive officer of Highmark Health, secured a mobile unit and then brought on the health network as a partner.

“A lot of times people will do for their pets what they won’t do for themselves,” Kim said. “They’ll feed them, they’ll make sure they’re taken care of, but they won’t necessarily take care of themselves. So, the fact that we can encourage the owners to get their blood pressure checked or have an eye exam … It makes for a healthier community.”

The clinics are pretty full, Cuevas said.

Minnie Lee the Yorkie mix poses for a portrait at the M.O.V.E.S mobile clinic on June 20. (Photo by Jess Daninhirsch/PublicSource)

“Definitely the number of people we are seeing and pets we are seeing has continued to grow.”

The coalition is based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “One Health” model of care, which recognizes the health of people is connected to the health of animals.

“There are other programs like this in the U.S.,” Cuevas said. “But I don’t think it is as common as we would want it to be. I don’t know of other programs like this in Pittsburgh, so I think the fact that we’ve grown as quickly as we have is a testament of how much need there is.”

How do people learn about this program? Right now, Cuevas said a lot of it is word of mouth along with some advertising through other local, community-based organizations and other partnerships AHN has with other members of the community.

The coalition also has a project coordinator on the ground signing people up for clinics.

Pet health care can be expensive, Cuevas said. And, if someone is experiencing financial issues, it can be a challenge to prioritize how to get the pet care while juggling other expenses.

“Do you get that pet care or do you get yourself care?” Cuevas said. “So a lot of times, the pet is the draw, to be honest…It is a fantastic opportunity to start to look at that person and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing for yourself? How can we help you?’”

Brianna Kaufman, assistant director of medical services, had helped with the Street Dog Program for about two years, and said when there were plans of branching out and getting a mobile unit, she was all in.

“I was all on board because the more people you can help, the better, in my eyes.”