05 June 2014

Prairie Innovation Showcase Spotlight—Alberta vets helping pet owners with ‘Tails of Help’

Terri Perrin 
InfoStream Staff Writer 

Calgary veterinarian and former president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, Jennifer Willans presented an unique program to 2014 Urban Animal Regional Conference delegates as part of the Innovation Showcase in April. Tails of Help provides financial support for veterinary care to companion animals belonging to Albertans with financial need. 

Infostream staff writer Terri Perrin caught up with Dr. Willans, owner of Landing Animal Clinic in Calgary, to learn more about Tails of Help and the inspiration and goals behind this Innovation.  

Infostream (IS): As a veterinarian, your clients’ Pet Experiences are part of your everyday work and life. But we would love to know something about your own personal Pet Experiences. What inspired you to become a veterinarian?

Dr. Jennifer Willans (JW): The easy answer is that I love working with animals and I always had dogs growing up. They were very much part of my family. That statement is true, of course, but to have a successful career in veterinary medicine requires more. You need to have excellent communication skills, as well as love science and continuous learning. As a teenager, I looked at possible careers in human medicine and psychology but veterinary medicine seemed the best choice for me.

IS: Tails of Help was launched in November 2013.  Can you tell us what was the inspiration behind the project?

JW: When I was president of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) two topics kept coming up over and over again: public access to veterinary care and member wellness.

Access to vet care means the ability of the public to afford our services. The public demands high quality care – as pets are now part of the family – so vet clinics are investing in high tech equipment and trained personnel. But having these services and equipment comes at a cost. The ABVMA wanted to create an organization that would assist those people who may not be able to afford these veterinary services.

Member wellness – psychological and physical health of staff – was also a big concern. Veterinarians, Animal Health Technologists and clinic support staff want to help animals and it is devastating when we can’t because an owner can’t afford the treatment. As a result, most vets provide a significant amount of pro bono work. This type of stress is hard on the whole team. Some individuals even leave the professional because of the stress.

Tails of Help was registered as a charity to address these two concerns. It operates at arm’s length to the ABVMA. We have a number of representatives from the veterinary community as well as several public members. The public members have a variety of skill sets different from the vets, so we were pleased to be able to partner with them.

IS: The program’s vision is: A future where essential health care for companion animals is available to all Albertans. Why is this so important, not just to pets and pet owners but to vets, their support staff, shelters, etc.?

JW: If a pet owner can’t afford illness and injury care the pet will suffer. The option is then to euthanize or surrender the animal. This causes emotional distress for both the pet owner and the veterinary team. It is an annual problem estimated at over $1.3 million. Our goal with Tails of Help is to keep pets in homes and with their families, to avoid surrender. This reduces the burden on animal shelters and everyone involved in the pets’ care. We are working to help families, pets and communities.

IS: What challenges do you foresee in managing this innovative program?

JW: I think the primary challenge will be to have enough resources to meet the need. We are a volunteer-driven registered charity. We rely on donations from corporations and individuals to fund the program, but also on volunteers who donate their time. We are fortunate to have a dedicated team of volunteers. We have a three-year communication and fundraising strategy and I am confidant we can meet our goals.

IS: What are your short and long-term goals?

JW: In the short term, the challenge will be to build awareness with the public and the veterinary community province-wide. The basic premise of the program is that applications for funding must come from the vet, not the pet owner. There will be a financial means assessment for the owner and a medical means assessment for the pet — the vet has to have a reasonable expectation of a quality outcome. Decisions are made quickly and funds are dispersed to the vet providing care and the vet does provide some pro bono services as well. The whole premise of the program that we want to keep pets in Alberta with their families by increasing their ability to access veterinary care.

In the long-term, the challenge will be to achieve our three-year fund raising goal and truly creating a sustainable charitable organization that meets our vision.

IS: How is it that you came to present this topic at the Western Region Conference?

JW: It was launched to the veterinary community at the 2013 CanWest Veterinary Conference in Banff, Alberta. In my role as founding president, I was present at that conference and I spoke with Dr. Drew Van Nierkirk and he nominated us.

IS: Tell us about your Summit for Urban Animal Strategies experience. What was the most important thing you took away from the Regional conference?

JW: I thought it was great! As an owner of a veterinary practice where I work full-time, most of my volunteer efforts are in my profession, so it is easy to develop tunnel vision. The Conference opened my eyes to the depth of those in the urban animal industry and how we share common goals.

IS: What do you hope to achieve by being an Innovation Showcase presenter at the national Summit in October?

JW: In Ontario, they have the very successful Farley Foundation to help people with financial costs of vet care. Now, in Alberta, we have created Tails of Help. I hope to inspire similar programs across Canada. All they need to do is change the word in our vision from ‘Alberta’ to ‘Canada’! Obviously, the need for financial assistance is everywhere and the benefits of the Pet Experience occur regardless of financial means. We want to help motivate and lead others to do the same thing. I am very appreciative of the opportunity and I am excited about it!

For more information, visit: www.tailsofhelp.ca

ABOUT THE INNOVATION SHOWCASE: The Innovation Showcase was launched in 2013 to discover innovative projects that could be replicated across the Urban Animal industry. The 2014 Urban Animal Regional Conferences presented the second annual Innovation Showcases. Across the continent, 20 local Innovators were given the opportunity to share their stories and successes with Urban Animal subscribers. From those, eight were selected to present at the 2014 Summit for Urban Animal Strategies, October 22–25 in beautiful Lake Louise, Alberta.

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