Located in an unassuming two-story building on Madison’s south side, the Wisconsin Companion Animal Resources, Education and Social Services clinic serves a growing need for low-cost veterinary care for financially struggling or housing insecure pet owners.
Known as WisCARES, the clinic is a hybrid social and veterinary services clinic that targets its care to people below the poverty line. Started in 2014, the clinic is affiliated with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s veterinary and social work schools, but stands as its own entity.
Fourth-year veterinary students and social work students intern at the clinic under the supervision of experienced professionals. The clinic has a small staff including two veterinarians, two veterinary technicians, a social worker, a receptionist, and a boarding and foster care coordinator.
This small staff has a big job: providing veterinary and social services to low-income and housing insecure pet owners to keep pets and families together. To this end, the clinic offers subsidized vet care for low-income pet owners and further subsidized or free vet care for owners experiencing homelessness, as well as a free pet food and supply pantry.
Clients waiting while their pet receives care can meet with an on-site social worker who will connect them with organizations that provide resources such as immediate shelter, food or clothes. WisCARES also offers short-term pet boarding and long-term fostering for owners temporarily unable to care for their pet — for example, if an owner undergoes in-patient care at a hospital.
On a typical day, staff at the clinic see between 10 and 15 patients, though the number fluctuates throughout the week. Thursdays, which are reserved for surgeries, tend to be quiet while Fridays tend to be busy. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinic asks pet owners to wait in their cars during appointments, and staff will come to them to check in and offer resource information if requested. Pet owners who walked to their appointment are allowed into the reception area to warm up as temperatures turn cold.
In addition to in-clinic appointments, WisCARES also offers care through its boarding and foster program. Carys Abramson, boarding and foster coordinator, estimated that they have six to 12 animals in their foster program at a given time. This number also fluctuates as the availability of WisCARES’ foster network of more than 20 homes changes, particularly in the holiday season.
The clinic’s care is targeted to a traditionally underserved population of pet owners. While there are a handful of low-cost vet clinics in Madison, like Precision Veterinary and Wisconsin Community Veterinary Center, WisCARES is the only one that offers social services as well. This hybrid model allows staff to meet people where they are.
“This is a community that is experiencing at least poverty, and oftentimes poverty and homelessness or housing insecurity,” said Jennifer Brooks, director of social work and outreach at WisCARES. “They may not be hooked up with the formal social services system already. So sometimes we can get them hooked up with that, or sometimes they don't want to be, but we can help them find services at nonprofits that aren't state-sponsored services.”
It’s not just social services that WisCARES’ clients might not have access to without the clinic’s help, but veterinary services as well. The cost of veterinary care has risen 10% in the last year. Dog owners spent an average of $367 on vet bills in 2022 and cat owners spent $253, per a report by the American Veterinary Medical Association. These costs are significant for some owners.
A 2018 study out of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville found that 27.9% of surveyed pet owners faced barriers to veterinary care — the vast majority listed affordability as the biggest hurdle. Locally, vet care costs in Madison are comparable to nationwide averages — but are about 16% higher than surrounding cities like Sun Prairie and Middleton.
Low-cost vet clinics help reduce this financial burden, but even low prices can be prohibitive.
“Our prices here are about 50 to 75% lower than prices out in [for-profit vet clinics],” said Lyn Empey, doctor of veterinary medicine and clinical instructor at WisCARES. Many of the clinic’s clients receive low- or no-cost services based on their financial need. “So that's very, very different. Most clinics don't do that, it's, ‘Here's our prices. If you can't afford them then you have to go somewhere else.’”
While WisCARES makes some money from providing services like X-ray imaging, that money alone is not enough to fund the clinic’s operations. The work WisCARES does is made possible through outside support.
In early November the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, a partner organization, announced WisCARES is set to receive two grants from PetSmart Charities. A $10,000 grant will go toward covering the clinic’s operating costs, while a $125,000 grant will fund the clinic's work to keep pets and owners together through periods of homelessness.
WisCARES does not have a staff member solely dedicated to strategizing funding sources. Instead, grant research and writing is a team effort.
“We do spend a lot of time doing the grants. I mean they just have to get done,” Empey said.
Grant funding isn’t WisCARES only source of support. The clinic also receives support from UW-Madison, in the form of money and labor, and it receives donations from companies and community members.
“I don't know how this model would work unless it was tied into a university. Because, think about it. A lot of our staff are fourth year students that we're not paying [because they’re interning as part of their program]. So our full time staff is actually quite small,” Empey said. “And the university still has to subsidize us. The only way we exist is because companies like Purina and Hill’s [Science Diet] and B.I. [Boehringer-Ingelheim] give us so much for free.”
These factors may limit a mainstream adoption of WisCARES’ business model by for-profit vet clinics or in areas without universities that could subsidize clinic operations.
However, it may be better to understand the clinic as one part of a greater constellation of vet care services offered to low-income or housing insecure pet owners.
“We're one model for dealing with that need,” Brooks said. “And we pair the veterinary work with social services and the foster and boarding. But there's plenty of need for just the veterinary care out there for folks who can't quite afford it.”