LEETOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Pet owners know the comfort and companionship having a dog or cat provides, but to some veterans, especially those with physical or mental wounds, owning a pet may be the difference between life and death.
Recently, Jefferson County Animal Control entered into a partnership with Pets for Patriots, a nonprofit organization that matches veterans — active duty, reserves or retired — with at-risk shelter pets.
Animal Control Officer Elaina Maze helped get the Pets for Patriots program started in Jefferson County, adding West Virginia to a list of participating states that tallies at least 35.
“There was nothing else like it in the state, and being seven miles from the VA hospital, that blew my mind,” Maze said.
Maze said “at-risk” shelter pets are the dogs less likely to be adopted. She said small breeds and puppies get adopted relatively soon after coming to the shelter, but larger breeds and older dogs are hard to adopt out.
The requirements for a dog to be eligible for the Pets for Patriots program are based on the dog’s age, weight and background. The dog must be 2 years old at minimum, weigh more than 40 pounds or come from a background of previous abuse or neglect.
“For the veterans who participate in the program, we use the same adoption form as we would use for any other member of the public,” Maze said. “Basically, we are an open shelter. We ask the applicant to do a veterinary background check, we check with Animal Control to make sure they don’t have previous issues, and after that, it’s up to the personal preference of the adopter.”
According to Denise Lambiotte, Jefferson County Animal Control supervisor, persons who participate in the program and rent an apartment may need to clear the adoption with their landlord.
According to Maze, there are two fees for animal adoption in Jefferson County. One is a fee to the county, and the other fee covers the cost of spaying or neutering a pet, which is required by state law.
Since Jefferson County Animal Control does not have a veterinarian on staff, Maze said spaying and neutering is done in partnership with Spay Today, a local organization that offers low-cost procedures.
A veteran participating in Pets for Patriots would have to pay for the spay or neuter procedure, but the regular adoption fee would be waived for program participants, Maze said.
In addition to the waiving of the adoption fee, Pets for Patriots participants will receive a 10 percent discount on veterinary care for the life of the pet. Hillside Veterinary Hospital in Charles Town has agreed to this arrangement and is a partner in the program, Maze said.
“The application process for the veteran, with Pets for Patriots, takes about one to two days. It’s not a big, drawn-out process,” she said.
Maze said she has reached out to local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. She has also contacted the VA hospital, and is awaiting a response.
According to Sarah Tolstyka, public affairs specialist with the VA hospital, there is no official VA involvement in Pets for Patriots at this time, but social workers are spreading the word about the program to veterans.
Tolstyka said studies have shown that pet ownership can have significant benefits to veterans.
“Dogs bring out feelings of love, they’re good companions, can reduce stress and are a good reason to get out of the house and spend time outdoors,” Tolstyka said. “Currently, the VA has many registered therapy dogs that are brought in under the recreational therapy program to visit and socialize with our veterans.”
According to Maze, a report released from the VA in the spring, based on information gathered from 12 states, states that 22 veterans a day are committing suicide.
“If you do the math, that’s roughly the population of Ranson and Jefferson County combined each year. There are so many studies that have shown pet ownership doesn’t just help mentally, it helps veterans physically as well. If there’s a veteran on the verge of suicide, if they think, ‘Who would take care of my dog if I died?’ and that stops them, then mission accomplished,” Maze said.
According to Lambiotte, dogs adopted in the Pets for Patriots program may be eligible for training as an aide dog or therapy dog.
“There are programs, especially for people with PTSD, that can provide service dog training to help a veteran with their daily life. If the veteran is physically disabled, the dog can turn off lights, open doors or get something from the refrigerator in addition to providing that emotional support,” Lambiotte said.
According to Lambiotte, apartment complexes with a no-pets-allowed policy are required by law to let someone own a dog if a doctor has recommended it as a therapy or aide dog.
Maze said a couple, both of whom are veterans, came to the Animal Control office in late August looking to adopt a pet. She said the man has severe PTSD and was looking for a comfort or therapy dog to replace one that died. Maze told the couple about Pets for Patriots, and she said she hopes they come back ready to try the program.
In addition to posting information about Pets for Patriots on the Jefferson County Animal Control Facebook page, the animal control office will be hosting an open house from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26. Both Maze and Lambiotte said they are eager to tell people who attend the open house about Pets for Patriots.
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