CSU student volunteers at Pets Forever help low-income elderly and disabled keep their pets

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When Fort Collins resident Donna Davenport suffered a stroke two years ago, she had trouble taking care of her little dog and despaired that she would have to find a new home for the shih tzu that had been her constant companion for nearly a decade.

That’s when she discovered Pets Forever, a unique community-service program that pairs Colorado State University student volunteers with low-income elderly and disabled people who need help caring for their pets. The program plays a critical role in the lives of homebound pet owners by allowing them to keep the dogs and cats that are an important source of comfort and companionship.

Davenport found in Pets Forever the support she needed to keep her dog, Kelso. Student volunteers provide services including dog walks, pet hygiene, yard and litter-box cleanup and administration of pet medication. The students even help with pet-related errands, such as buying pet food and supplies, and transporting pets to veterinary appointments.

Pets Forever is much more than a dog-walking service: It benefits limited-income elderly and disabled people by maintaining and nurturing the human-animal bond.

“I was relieved to hear about it and learn that, with a little help, I could keep Kelso,” Davenport said. “I couldn’t imagine life without him.”

Pets Forever, run by the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, assists about 80 Larimer County residents at any given time.

Volunteers commit to a minimum of four client visits per week. Students earn one academic credit toward their degree requirements by attending weekly meetings that include class discussions and presentations by local non-profit organizations.

In this way, Pets Forever serves another important role: The nonprofit helps connect clients with other community resources that provide a variety of support services.

“Students report that the biggest rewards are the relationships they build with the clients,” said Lori Kogan, an associate professor in the CSU Department of Clinical Sciences and director of Pets Forever. “Students realize that something as small as walking someone’s dog makes a tremendous difference in people’s lives.”

Michelle Albright, who is pursuing a master’s degree in toxicology, helps client Lori Beldo care for her 12-year-old Chinese crested, named Minnie. Beldo learned about the program two years ago from Disabled Resource Services of Larimer County; since then, Albright has visited multiple times a week to help with Minnie.

In the process, the two women have become close friends.

“I have a hard time getting out and around, so it’s nice to have someone take Minnie on walks, drive her to vet appointments, and groom her when she needs it,” Beldo said. “It’s the nicest thing someone could have ever done for me.”

Beldo needed the help after she was thrown from a horse, an accident that led to multiple surgeries, arthritis and physical limitations. She has recently been hospitalized for several bouts of pneumonia.

Albright said it has been gratifying to help Beldo and her dog. In return, the student said, she has envisioned career opportunities she had not earlier considered, and has developed valuable skills in client interaction.

“It’s become more than just a volunteer program for me,” Albright said. “I’m applying for vet school, and Pets Forever has given me skills in client communication and has opened up my mind to all the career opportunities there are to work with animals.”

This fall, Pets Forever has expanded to include a course in graduate studies designed for students enrolled in the professional master’s program in the CSU Department of Biomedical Sciences.

“The experience students gain through Pets Forever really helps develop skills they need to be a successful vet or medical-school applicant,” said Christianne Magee, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and instructor for the new master’s program. “These skills are in service, communication, and community giving.”

For more information about Pets Forever, contact director Lori Kogan, lori.kogan@colostate.edu.