Pets are Wonderful Support organization benefits students, community

Students use fear-free techniques to trim a patient's nails

Students Bailey Carroll and Brenna Maikranz, both from the Class of 2026, use Fear Free methods to trim the nails of a patient. (Photo by Alex Avelino)

By Alex Avelino

In the evenings, you may expect to find veterinary students studying in a library, focused on their rigorous curriculum. However, on one night per month, you’ll find them in the Primary Care & Dentistry building at UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine, caring for pets of disabled and socioeconomically disadvantaged individuals in Alachua County.

Pets Are Wonderful Support, or PAWS, is a completely student-run organization, funded solely by donations, with the mission to provide free health care and food to pet owners from marginalized populations. This is a one-stop-shop for wellness checkups, vaccinations and husbandry services like nail trims, along with diet management, acupuncture and diagnostics from bloodwork to X-rays.

Amy Stone, D.V.M. (’99), Ph.D. (’02), a clinical associate professor at UF and chief of the primary care and dentistry service, serves as the faculty advisor for PAWS. Stone credits the success of the organization to the students. Her role is to teach, advise and support — the students do the “heavy lifting.”

Stone’s involvement with the college started in 1997 as a veterinary student. She attributes her passion to access to health care to her mother, who was a huge supporter of equity and accessibility to healthcare for human medicine.

“I feel like my way of helping is to teach students to help these people who need access to care,” she said.

There are a handful of veterinarians and even a veterinary pharmacist who participate in the monthly clinic to oversee student success, providing insight in challenging situations and mentorship for their future colleagues.

“We are truly in it for them to learn. The students take the lead on cases, and we advise them,” Stone said.

Olivia Smith from the Class of 2024 jots down notes as Cydney Babione, Class of 2025, performs a physical exam. (Photo by Alex Avelino)

Olivia Smith from the Class of 2024 jots down notes as Cydney Babione, Class of 2026, performs a physical exam. (Photo by Alex Avelino)

Veterinary students are competitive, passionate and eager; they take any opportunity to “put their hands on something,” she added.

A well-oiled machine, PAWS is the only veterinary extracurricular opportunity that allows students to do it all. From start to finish, students are in charge. From spreadsheets to emails, PowerPoints and manuals, veterinary students learn the value of organization, delegation and leadership. Without teamwork and dedication from students, PAWS wouldn’t work.

Devon Otero, D.V.M. (’22), chose to complete his Master’s in Public Health special project and internship through PAWS during veterinary school. Otero evaluated PAWS as a community veterinary clinic to identify the inputs and outcomes, as well as its impact on clients and students.

Otero’s research -revealed extraordinary findings. From 2020-21, PAWS provided more than $85,000 worth of veterinary services to clients but ran on a budget of less than $15,000 per year. While the hands-on opportunities for students are unparalleled, the community is reaping just as many benefits. For some clients, their pets are all they have. Fully 100% of PAWS clients do not meet the Average Household Income for Alachua County, 44% do not meet basic costs of living for single adult households and 70% have multiple disabilities. Almost unanimously, clients agree that being a part of PAWS enables them to engage in pet ownership and supports their access to pet healthcare, reduces financial burden and allows them to pursue physical, social and emotional wellness.

“PAWS has gone above and beyond for my service animals,” said one client. “Without PAWS, I would honestly have a poor quality of life. The care my dog receives allows me the freedom to live my life and leave my home.”

Otero credits PAWS as one of the largest reasons he was able to transition and work in a general practice setting with some sense of ease.

“Working with PAWS gave me a lot of familiarity in terms of real-world medicine,” he said. “It put me on the front lines of medicine and healthcare working directly with clients and patients who have been very much historically underserved by the health care system.”

Human diseases of poverty are often mirrored in their pets, with the most common issues being diabetes, obesity and dental problems. Anecdotally, the PAWS team chats with the clients about similarities between their own health issues and their pets. These conversations create a more well-rounded veterinary practitioner who is part of an interdisciplinary healthcare team.

Dr. Amy Stone chats with future veterinarian Kylie Cahill-Patray ('24), about the evening's clinic. (Photo by Alex Avelino)

Dr. Amy Stone chats with future veterinarian Kylle Cahill-Patray (’24), about the evening’s clinic. (Photo by Alex Avelino)

“We’re going for that middle group of people that don’t have money to really care for their pets, but they aren’t entirely out of work and entirely out of the system,” Stone said. “It’s those groups that often get forgotten.”

There are many facets of the veterinary profession. One of the most misunderstood is that it is a people profession first. Communication and empathy are just as important as surgical skills and administering vaccines. Through PAWS, students are provided with the unique opportunity to engage with folks with life circumstances they may never have experienced. In doing so, students learn the values of empathy and respect.

“We are working with people who are inherently disadvantaged, who don’t have access to tertiary services and who have real, common issues,” says Otero. Students agree that PAWS provides them with positive attitude changes toward disability and poverty after working in these clinics.

The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is a top 10 veterinary program and PAWS is certainly part of that legacy. More than 25 years after its inception, PAWS continues to provide high-quality, no-cost care that would otherwise not be possible to the pets of people who rely on them for emotional support.

What’s next for PAWS? Stone hopes to invest in more technology, such as a machine for blood analysis, portable ultrasound and anesthesia monitoring equipment for dentistry. This new equipment would allow for more advanced services, benefiting the patients and veterinary students’ exposure to these modalities. All supplies and equipment are funded through generous donations from friends of the college and corporate donors.

Stone is confident the veterinary students are receiving comprehensive training.

“We are helping students get real-world experience right off the bat,” she said. “They’re not just getting ‘ivory tower’ exposure; they’re in the trenches.”

To learn more about PAWS or to donate to this mission, visit their Facebook page @ufpaws, follow them on Instagram @uf_paws or contact our development team at 352-294-4256.

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