The Street Dog Coalition: Serving the Pets of the Homeless

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Veterinarian Dr. Jon Geller founded the Street Dog Coalition — a nonprofit operating in 35 U.S. cities and counting — to provide free medical care and related services to pets of people who are homeless
  • Pets of the homeless tend to be generally healthy and well-socialized; common challenges their owners face involve a lack of homeless shelters that accept pets, and transportation issues
  • Veterinarians who volunteer with Street Dog Coalition teams around the country find the experience freeing and therapeutic; they’re practicing very personalized medicine and serving a population of pets and humans who are often alone and forgotten
  • The next phase of Dr. Geller’s vision is a One Health approach to street clinics in which both homeless humans and their pets can get medical, dental, emotional and behavioral health care services

Today I'm talking with fellow veterinarian Dr. Jon Geller, founder of the Street Dog Coalition, a wonderful organization committed to protecting and honoring the special bond between all humans and their animal families by providing free medical care and related services to pets of people experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Following are the highlights of our discussion. You can download the full transcript at the link above.

Dr. Geller Was a 'Late Bloomer' Veterinarian

Dr. Geller didn't take the traditional route to becoming a veterinarian, which is typically high school to college to vet school to joining a veterinary practice in your mid-to-late 20s.

"I really didn't have veterinary medicine on my mind until I was about 35 years old," he explains. "I was a building contractor and I could see it wasn't going to work out long term.

So, I sat down and made a list of possibilities and decided veterinary medicine made the most sense. I lived out in the country, I enjoyed being around animals, and I also enjoyed science. At age 38 I went back to school, did all the prerequisites and started vet school at age 40, and it's worked out really well."

After graduating from vet school, Dr. Geller worked as a large animal veterinarian. Like most large animal vets, he went to his patients rather than the reverse, and eventually realized he was spending too much time on the road going from appointment to appointment.

"To earn a little extra income," he says, "I started doing emergency shifts as a relief doctor and I loved it, so I spent the next 20 years involved in emergency veterinary medicine."

General practice veterinarians like me are very thankful there are vets like Dr. Geller who are passionate about emergency medicine. That job would put me into adrenal failure the first week — that's how stressful it is. Emergency veterinarians save animals on the brink of death every single day. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

How Emergency Medicine Opened the Door to Street Medicine

I asked Dr. Geller how the Street Dog Coalition came to be. He explained that he eventually evolved from emergency veterinary medicine to street medicine, which he describes as a "combination of emergency medicine, house calls and shelter medicine."

"In emergency medicine, I was getting worn down by seeing the economic stress of pet owners struggling to pay for our services," he explains. "A lot of emergency vets experience it. The unfortunate result is sometimes economic euthanasia when folks can't afford to pay for treatment, and we have to euthanize their pet."

While practicing as an emergency vet, Dr. Geller also became aware of pet owners in the homeless community.

"I remember seeing a fellow on a bridge in Nashville back in 2014, just sitting there with this pit bull. His pit bull looked really great, well behaved. The guy seemed very accepting of what was going on in his life, but he also looked at me with a kind of hopeful optimism. I saw it as a sign that perhaps there was something we — the veterinary community — could do to help out pets belonging to the homeless."

Dr. Geller began to do some research and realized there are probably about 50,000 to 100,000 pets owned by homeless people across the U.S. He saw that number as manageable and thought the veterinary community could probably provide them with a basic level of care to help them live on the streets and continue to be dedicated companions to their homeless owners.

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The Street Dog Coalition Is Now in 35 U.S. Cities

"One of my personal values is try to do something when I see a need," says Dr. Geller. "I guess my mantra is, 'do something, even if it's wrong.' I lived in northern Colorado — Fort Collins. I decided the first step would be to do a little street clinic as kind of a prototype and see how it goes."

In 2015, Dr. Geller and a small team posted flyers in local homeless shelters and held a small clinic in a Fort Collins parking lot. They treated about 20 or 30 pets that day, and it went really well. They worked through the inevitable start-up issues, and soon the concept took off as a growing number of veterinarians and vet techs got involved.

Soon, Dr. Geller and his team were not only holding their own local street medicine clinics but were also setting up teams in other cities around the country. As of this writing, they have teams in 35 cities, and each one has a veterinarian who serves as the team leader. Folks rotate through as volunteers on the teams.

About every week or two, Dr. Geller gets an inquiry about starting up a new team, and he's receiving international inquiries as well.

In both human and veterinary street medicine, getting the homeless and/or their pets to local clinics is challenging due to transportation issues. In Fort Collins, Dr. Geller and his team hold clinics at a homeless shelter that is also on a bus route. But some of the homeless living on the street have large dogs, which can present an additional challenge.

"We saw a guy the other day whose dog has to run next to his bike everywhere he goes," says Dr. Geller, "and the dog had some foot pad injuries. So, we got the dog set up with some booties and we got a trailer the man can pull behind his bike so his dog can ride in the trailer."

Dr. Geller's team tries to find the most convenient places to hold clinics. Sometimes they set up right in front of homeless encampments and work up and down the line of tents.

Pets of the Homeless Tend To Be Healthy and Well-Socialized

It seems to me, whenever I see a homeless person with a pet — typically a dog — that the animal is quite healthy looking and also well-socialized. I asked Dr. Geller what types of medical and behavioral issues he sees most often, perhaps as a result of living on the street. He replied that in general, he sees a very healthy population of well-adjusted dogs. It's actually quite rare to run across a very sick animal.

"I think it's somewhat a situation of survival of the fittest for dogs living out on the street," he says. "If they weren't healthy and socialized, they couldn't survive for long in that environment. Probably the main issue we see is parasites — mites, lice, ticks, fleas, scabies, and occasionally, intestinal parasites. It's probably just a product of living outside 24 hours a day — their exposure is greater."

Since it's extremely challenging to stay in touch with people who are homeless, Street Dog teams try to treat everything they can right on the spot, "because follow-up usually doesn't happen, even if we set it up," explains Dr. Geller.

Their lives are often in turmoil, so when you say, 'Hey, come back in two weeks on this time and date,' it's probably not going to happen. If we see an animal that we suspect has mites or ticks or fleas, which are a huge problem in certain locations, we're going to give them something like Bravecto, which is a really high end product that will cover them for three months and hopefully take care of the problem."

I asked Dr. Geller if his organization receives products free or at a discount from veterinary pharmaceutical companies. He said he does receive some donations and discounts, but most of the funding the Street Dog Coalition receives goes to supplies.

Next, I asked Dr. Geller how he handles serious cases, for example, situations that require surgery or even euthanasia.

"Those are really tough," he answered. "We did a street clinic in Denver last year or the year before last, and a pet was brought in who was agonal, meaning it was having difficulty breathing and was going to die within a few minutes. In that case we were able to comfort the owner through the pet's death.

But if we see a pet with an untreatable problem and the animal is really suffering, we arrange for the pet owner to go to a local veterinary hospital for the euthanasia and we cover the cost. We're working hard to create a safety net fund to cover medical care we can't provide on the street. We're calling it, 'Oh Romeo' in honor of a cat whose owner made a donation to the fund."

Current Programs and the Future of the Street Clinic Movement

A problem Dr. Geller and the Street Dog Coalition are working to solve is a widespread lack of acceptance of pets in homeless and domestic violence shelters. Very few facilities even allow dogs on the property, much less let them stay overnight with their owners.

Dr. Geller's team is creating a program so that more of these facilities will be able to take people with pets, including helping them set up kennels and cat condos and do health checks on animals before they're allowed to stay.

Another project they're working on is partnering with pet food pantries so there's food available at street clinics.

To any veterinarians watching or reading here today who might want to get involved with the Street Dog Coalition, Dr. Geller points out that running street clinics isn't as time consuming as you might think. You can do an event once a month or even once a quarter — whatever works best for you. He and his team have also put together some best practices learned through trial and error.

"Veterinarians tend to have a great time doing this because no money changes hands," Dr. Geller adds. "It's very freeing. It's therapeutic. It's very personalized medicine. We don't worry about having large numbers.

Sometimes we'll spend half an hour or even an hour with someone and their pet working through a behavior problem or just finding out more about the challenges they face being homeless and also caring for a pet. It's an eye-opening experience.

Many of these folks' lives would be without purpose without their pets, and they would just lay on the sidewalk, and no one would care whether they got up. If they have a pet, their day starts with finding some food and taking the dog for a walk. They spend their days taking care of their pet, and that may be their only purpose in life at this point while they kind of figure things out."

According to Dr. Geller, the next phase — and it's actually happening now in cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and Pittsburgh — is a One Health street outreach in which the Street Dog Coalition teams up with medical personnel at street clinics to serve both pets and their humans.

These clinics will be staffed not only with veterinary professionals and volunteers, but also with, for example, social workers, medical students, nurse practitioners, mental health professionals, addiction counselors, and dentists.

"I think that's where the future is," says Dr. Geller. "The way I see it is, let's provide as much care as we can. Let's take advantage of the opportunity."

How to Find Out More About the Street Dog Coalition

Dr. Jon Geller is a real inspiration, and I appreciate all he's doing and his vision for the future. I plan to volunteer at a local Street Dog Coalition clinic as soon as I can! To learn more about this wonderful organization, visit The Street Dog Coalition for information on their various programs, upcoming events, and how you can get involved or make a donation.

"We welcome anyone who wants to help in any way," says Dr. Geller. "We can usually figure something out."