SafePet Program

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

I believe it is very difficult, for anyone who has not been there, to imagine how terrible it must be to live in an abusive home. For a woman, living daily in fear for her own safety and that of her children, there must be few more terrible existences. Despite the tragic circumstances of such a plight, most of us are aware how awfully difficult it can be for the abused to summon the courage to leave their home. Often, this departure is made even more difficult for the mother and children because it will mean leaving behind a pet, abandoning it because the pet cannot come with them to a shelter.

Those are feelings, I believe, most pet owners can imagine. They can understand that indeed you might ignore risks to your own safety simply for fear what might befall an innocent pet left behind. This is the concern that has led to the creation of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association's (OVMA) SafePet Program. It is an attempt to ensure that when someone must enter a women's shelter for their own protection, there will also be a safe haven for their pet.    

The original SafePet program was introduced by the OVMA in 2003. The program enables volunteering veterinarians to take in animals that belong to women at risk of abuse who are seeking to enter a women's shelter. Volunteering veterinary clinics provide the pet with shelter, food, water, appropriate exercise and necessary vaccines for up to two weeks while the pet's owner arranges for alternate care.

Due to space limitations, many veterinary clinics that would like to assist women at risk of abuse, their children and their pets, were unable to participate in this program. Also, since an essential part of this program is to keep the whereabouts of the pet confidential, to prevent the woman's abuser from seeking retribution by harming the pet, it was difficult for veterinary clinics to fully promote the program and their participation in it.

In an attempt to address these issues, last fall the OVMA and the Ontario government partnered to create the Expanded SafePet Program. It is not intended to replace, only enhance the original program through the use of pet foster parents.

Here's how the Expanded Program works. Access to the program is only available through women's shelters, on behalf of a woman accepted into their shelter, not directly from the pet owner. The veterinary clinic contacted will determine from a Master List of pet foster parents on file, if they have someone qualified to care for the type of animal needing a temporary home. This information is given to the women's shelter and arrangements are made between them and the pet foster parent for transfer of the pet which will take place at the veterinary clinic.

When the pet arrives at the veterinary clinic it is given a health examination and a determination is made as to its suitability to spend the necessary length of time in the foster home. It is also the time to ensure there are no medical problems that require treatment before the pet can be placed in foster care. If the pet requires non-elective medical or surgical treatment, application can be made to the Farley Foundation for funding to cover the cost of treatment. In veterinary hospitals with at least one OVMA member, the foundation will provide up to $700.00 per veterinary practice per year to subsidize the cost of veterinary care for pets owned by low income seniors and people with disabilities, as well as women whose pets are participating in the SafePet Program.

SafePet is administered by the OVMA and funded in part by the Ontario Women's Directorate, Government of Ontario. Volunteer foster homes are needed throughout the province. For anyone interested in learning more about becoming a pet foster parent or other details of the SafePet Program, contact your veterinary clinic or the OVMA at safepet@ovma.org or 1-800-670-1702.