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One Health Clinic starts with the pets but gives care to their people, too

There’s a scene that might be familiar to many people in the Pacific Northwest – someone sitting on the street, apparently homeless, with a loyal dog at their side. A group of volunteers and academics have found that keeping that dog healthy may be a way of keeping that person healthy as well.

Rowan is a 4-year-old chocolate lab who has been part of Amanda Richer’s life for the last three and a half years. Two of those years were spent on the streets of Seattle, including time under I-5.

“You have to be constantly cognizant of your environment. Is there danger?” Richer explained. “But some of that is relieved when you have someone, or an animal, watching your back.”

Richer was stunned to find herself homeless after emotional trauma and a brain injury. She now has a home. But when she didn’t, Rowan was her lifeline – an antidote to the tension of life on the streets.

“Rowan is my best friend,” she says. “She’s there through it all.”

Richer now volunteers at a unique twice-a-month clinic called One Health. It’s run by the University of Washington, Washington State University and Neighborcare Health. It’s usually at New Horizons, a young adult shelter in downtown Seattle.

Because of COVID-19, a recent clinic was held outdoors in Seattle's University District.

The free clinic is the brainchild of the dean of the WSU veterinary school, Bryan K. Slinker, and Peter Rabinowitz, who is a physician and a professor at the University of Washington.

“A lot of times people come and they say, ‘I need care for my animal because I know my animal needs care.’ And they may not emphasize right at the beginning that they actually could use some health care themselves,” Rabinowitz says.

He explains many people with housing issues avoid customary clinics, especially members of the transgender community who feel misunderstood medically.

Clients at the clinic come for their pets’ problems – and they just might share those problems too. For example, a dog might have a rash from sleeping in a wet tent.

“And by finding the problem in the animal, you can then suspect that maybe the person has the same problem, and you can provide sort of joint treatment, and ideally pick up that there’s an environmental problem that needs to be dealt with as well,” Rabinowitz says.

At the clinic, patients – pets and their people – are greeted by a volunteer, usually a medical student who gets a little bit of the pet’s history – and may ask if people would like some medical care as long as they’re there already.

Then it’s on to the veterinarian.

Katie Kuehl is an instructor with Washington State University. She sees a lot at the clinic.

“Dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets – I am supposed to be seeing some snakes and some mice today, but I don’t see that they’re here yet,” she says with a laugh.

Kuehl has medications and vaccinations for pets that need them.

The clinic also helps with mental health issues. Anxiety is a common problem for their clients.

“If we can help to intervene with that human’s anxiety but at the same time make the pet’s behavior easier for that human to deal with, so it’s less of a stressor and trigger for their own problems, then we’re going to have success on both sides,” Kuehl explains.

But if anxiety is high among the clientele, you wouldn’t know it by any barking. It was pretty quiet at the outdoor clinic. That’s no surprise to Rabinowitz – the pets are with their owners 24/7.

“These animals are so accustomed to their owners that they’re often really well behaved, and we have not had problems with conflict between animals at the clinic,” he said

After the pet's vet visit, people are offered the chance to see one of the doctors or nurse practitioners on site. At the recent clinic, King County offered vaccinations for people.

Toward the end of the day, Justin Howard comes in with a quiet, soulful tan-and-white dog, who looks to be part beagle, part pit bull.

“His name is Maximus,” Howard says.

Howard once had a partner and children – he lost them, he said, because he was a bad dad, with drug problems.

“I’ve lost a lot through my life,” Howard says. “Taking care of my dog is pretty much why I get up in the morning.”

Howard got a checkup. Maximus got vaccinations. Max is 11 years old, and Howard’s greatest fear is that something will happen to him.

He wants people to know just how important the clinic is to him and his dog.

“Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without Maximus.”

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.