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MADISON, Wis. — When Duane Daniels heard through a local veterans group, back in 2018, that pet owners in his south side neighborhood could get free pet supplies and veterinary care, he was skeptical, but he called the number he'd been given.

The number belonged to Abbi Middleton, coordinator of Dane County Humane Society's Pets for Life program, who explained what she could offer, including in-home vet visits, flea medication, antibiotics and food.

"I kind of questioned at first," Daniels told The Capital Times. "I was like, 'No one does all that.'"

With that call, Daniels became one of the first clients of the local Pets for Life program. The Humane Society of the United States supports such programs in more than 40 communities across the country to help those with limited financial resources care for their pets.

"Deep connection with pets transcends socio-economic, racial and geographic boundaries," reads the national Pets for Life homepage. "No one should be denied the opportunity to experience the benefits and joy that come from the human-animal bond."

In 2018, the national organization awarded the Dane County Humane Society a four-year grant to launch its own program. It's open to residents of Madison's 53713 zip code and Allied Drive neighborhood, areas which were identified because of their comparatively lower average median income and because they are "pet service deserts," areas without large pet stores or veterinary clinics.

The goal is simple, Middleton said: "Just to help make people's lives easier taking care of their pets."

"A godsend"

For Daniels, the help came just in time.

He'd recently taken in a former street dog after nearly 20 years without a dog. But Chutki, a tan and white mutt of around 30 pounds, had gotten sick, and he wasn't sure he could pay to get her checked out.

Middleton, a registered veterinary technician, suspected the dog might have pyometra, a potentially life-threatening infection of the uterus, so she arranged for an emergency spay surgery and antibiotics.

It was "a godsend," Daniels said.

Standing the stoop outside his trailer, Daniels contemplated what would have happened without the help. "I don't know what I'd have did," he said, as Chutki enjoyed the morning sun.

"I saved the dog, but Abbi saved me."

It was the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day, with Middleton helping Daniels solve pet problems as they come up, like when Chutki started wandering around the mobile home park.

He gestured toward his neighbors homes to indicate those he's talked to about the program.

"I tell everybody that has a pet," he said.

Pandemic ups demand

Today, when Middleton takes her black SUV out for deliveries, she wears a mask and keeps hand sanitizer close by.

The novel coronavirus has changed just about everything about Middleton's work. Spay and neuter surgeries, deemed elective procedures, are on hold due to stay-at-home orders, and veterinary interns now do telemedicine consults instead of home visits.

"The human-animal bond is so important, especially in these stressful times, that we really want to make sure we are here to provide families with resources to keep animals in their loving homes," Middleton said.

She estimates that since the pandemic began, she's been making at least 10 deliveries each week. Before, she'd tend to deliver things like medications and food bowls, but now clients need new kinds of help. One person texted Middleton to say he'd run out of dog food a week ago and had been feeding his dog people food since then.

"I was like, 'All right, I'm on my way,'" Middleton recalls.

In 2019, she delivered pet food only twice, but this year, she's already delivered more than 2,000 pounds of pet food. Her clients tend not to have their own transportation, so with the city buses reducing trips and limiting the number of riders per bus, buying pet food has gotten yet more difficult.

Before the pandemic, Middleton would knock on strangers' doors to explain the program and ask if they had pets. Now the door-knocking has been replaced by a Facebook ad targeted to eligible neighborhoods, which has already brought in about 15 new clients.

"I'll get text messages or phone calls all day, all night," Middleton said.

Hundreds served

Middleton, who previously worked as a veterinary technician at the county's humane society, learned about Pets for Life when she joined her shelter's veterinary interns on a visit to clients of the Pets for Life program run by Milwaukee's Wisconsin Humane Society.

"I just remember coming home and being like, 'This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,'" Middleton said.

Eight months later, her shelter received a grant to implement the program. "They were looking for somebody to start it, and I was like, 'Yep, sign me up,'" Middleton recalled.

To date, the program has served 257 households with a total of 379 pets. Eighty-one animals have been spayed or neutered through the program, and Middleton has delivered more than 800 medications. Forty-four percent of the clients served by the program have never seen a vet with their pets.

While the program offers treatment for short-term conditions, such as urinary tract, skin or ear infections, it doesn't treat long-term conditions like diabetes. It also doesn't provide emergency care, though Middleton will call local clinics on her clients' behalf to see if they can offer free or discounted emergency treatment.

Help keeps pets out of shelters

When residents of the Pets for Life service area call the Dane County Humane Society saying they need to give up their pets, Middleton tries to call them to see if they might instead need her help.

"Just from personal experience, I'd say about 90% of the time, people are lying about why they want to surrender," Middleton said, and she understands why.

"Let's say you can't afford cat food anymore. You might feel like a bad person for being unable to get that food, and so you might say something like, 'Well, I'm moving.'"

In other cases, an owner might not realize that a cat who's stopped using the litter box could be suffering from a urinary tract infection treatable with antibiotics.

"A lot of times, it's a simple fix," Middleton said.

The Pets for Life approach, she believes, might be the future of animal shelters.

"Instead of bringing animals into a shelter, and paying to keep them here and support them this way, we can proactively support those animals in the home that they have, so they should never have to be surrendered."