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Once a month, hundreds of pets and their owners break the Saturday morning quiet on Ahern Street. Dogs bark and pace, cats meow in travel cases and owners talk to one another to pass the time. Many will wait up to six hours to be seen at the Loaves and Fishes’ location for free veterinary care for the homeless by UC Davis’ Mercer Veterinary Clinic.
The clinic has been coming to Loaves and Fishes for more than 15 years to help the animals of the homeless clients. They visit the second Saturday of each month from 8 a.m. - 3 p.m.
On Sep. 11, 148 animals were brought to Mercer to be seen.
Client Lisa Lafont of Sacramento brought her three dogs, Muffin, Missy and Sam, to be vaccinated, spayed and neutered.
“The population of everybody here is the homeless,” Lafont said. “Homeless pets are still family members. It gives them a little bit of health care, too.”
The number of clients and patients varies. Some Mercer volunteers said they believe it depends on the weather. Dogs are the primary patients, followed by cats.
“(The homeless treat their animals) really, really well,” said Dr. Laurel Gershwin, UC Davis veterinary school professor and chair of the Mercer board. “I’ve been incredibly impressed with how well they follow directions when you give them medication to give, and you get results.”
Mercer consists of first-, second- and third-year veterinary students. Preveterinary students assist as aides. Up to three UC Davis veterinarians are on-hand, depending on availability.
The clinic is funded by grants, donations and fundraisers. Its policy requires that its patients be spayed or neutered, and clients be confirmed as homeless by Loaves and Fishes.
“You have to realize for these people that have very little, that (an) animal is something solid and stable in their life,” Gershwin said. “It provides companionship, love, and it’s a very important part of their life. I’ve even seen our clients go out and save an animal another homeless person has been mistreating.”
Most patients receive general preventative care including heartworm medication and vaccines. Many clients rely on Mercer for pet food. The clinic provides and treats nearly everything a general practice would on-site, except surgeries.
“The only difference is sometimes we see things that most veterinarians would’ve seen sooner,” Gershwin said. “So the dog that was itchy and had a couple spots of hair missing, and would go to a normal clinic will come to us and have practically no hair because the owner didn’t know they could come in for free, and they couldn’t take it to a veterinarian.”
A UC Davis trailer comes the Sunday after each clinic visit for scheduled spay and neuter procedures. About 10 to 12 patients are seen per visit.
“It provides a lot of good for people who, basically without their homes, need their animals to protect them,” client Tosha Roach of Sacramento said. “And I don’t have any kids, so (my dog, Kaleah) is my baby.”
Loaves and Fishes requires the clinic to be finished by 3 p.m. Any clients left after that time must be turned away.
Patients are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. They are taken into a warehouse where the clinic has temporarily set up equipment and supplies. Large containers of donated pet food sit on one side, and folding tables acting as examination tables sit opposite. There is a small tent in one corner so vets may examine cats without the possibility of them running away.
“It would be nice if we ultimately had a more dependable space where we don’t have to worry that if they decided to do something else with the warehouse, we wouldn’t have a space to do our clinic,” Gershwin said.
If a procedure is unavailable on-site, Mercer will often have the animal transported to the UC Davis veterinary teaching hospital or referred to a private practice veterinarian Mercer is associated with and pays.
“If our clients feel enough love and caring to sit out here for six hours in the hot sun to see a vet or vet student to get medication, you know they care,” Gershwin said. “Most people wouldn’t do that.”
1) A kitten is seen by veterinary students.
2) Clients and patients wait to be seen.
3) Mercer's warehouse interior.
4) A table with supplies for Mercer veterinary clinic.