Published January 12, 2023

Back in 2009 when Isabelle Gullö co-founded C.A.R.E.4Paws, she knew there was a desperate need locally for programs that reduce pet overpopulation and intervene before animals suffer and/or end up homeless among the low-income, senior, disabled, and unhoused pet family population in town. As a volunteer at the Santa Barbara County Animal Services shelter, she’d seen firsthand the issues that happen when their owners aren’t able to properly take care of their beloved pets. The concept of C.A.R.E.4Paws was to offer an array of free or low-cost pet services and provide resources that keep pets healthy and with their families for life.

Among the nonprofit’s offerings are programs that include free spaying or neutering, assistance with veterinary care including vaccines, distribution of pet food and supplies, extra support for pet families exposed to domestic violence, and a youth education program called Paws Up For Pets. More than 7,000 families per year were receiving the services by 2019 as the organization closed the gap, largely through its well-equipped pair of mobile veterinary clinics.

But what Gullö didn’t realize was just how extensive the problem would become when the pandemic hit.

When COVID closed things down and made life even more challenging for those already living in poverty or otherwise challenged to take care of their pets, the 7,000 families C.A.R.E.4Paws was already helping ballooned to more than 20,000 by the end of 2022.

“We’re growing every year because there is such a huge need in the community,” Gullö said. “A lot of people just cannot afford going to their vets. We ended up having to run both of our mobile clinics much more often to meet the demand and it’s just so important.”

The mobile clinic units travel to regular locations where the staff is able to provide a record number of free and low-cost spay/neuter surgeries, vaccines, and other veterinary care that would likely otherwise be inaccessible to the pet owners. Indeed, the two mobile clinics altered 2,300 dogs and cats last year, an increase of 300 surgeries from 2021 and 1,000 from the pre-pandemic year 2019. There’s been a huge increase in providing low-cost veterinary care, as well, which Gullö said could include anything from dental cleanings to mass removals to basic wellness exams, flea treatments, deworming, implanting microchips, and help with skin, ear, and eye issues.

“It’s a great outreach tool that really benefits the community,” Gullö said.

Spaying and neutering doesn’t just help to prevent overpopulation through unwanted litters of puppies and kittens that often end up in shelters, it’s also beneficial for the pets themselves, Gullö said. “It helps keep them healthier because you reduce the risk of cancers and infections and there are also behavioral benefits to the pet and the family because the dogs and cats tend to calm down when they are altered. That also helps keep them in the home because they’re easier to take care of.”

To meet the ever-increasing demand that shows no signs of abating, C.A.R.E.4Paws is investing in a third mobile clinic, a brand-new, 37-foot veterinary vehicle that will vastly increase kennel capacity and the ability to carry more types of vital equipment where they’re most needed. This will allow the organization to more efficiently help additional animals over a larger geographical footprint, including San Luis Obispo County, where the nonprofit recently added service. C.A.R.E.4Paws is currently about $65,000 shy of the $350,000 price tag for the vehicle, and donations are gladly accepted.

But the organization is also expanding its services in other ways, including its innovative Safe Haven program, which collaborates with Domestic Violence Solutions and other social welfare agencies to aid pet families exposed to domestic violence.

“There was no safety net for pet owners who were stuck in abusive situations because they couldn’t bring their pets to the human shelter to seek safety for themselves,” Gullö explained. “Pets are often used as pawns in abusive situations to control someone from speaking up or from leaving. So they would stay an average of two years longer in an abusive relationship or eventually have to leave their pets behind. Now we are able to kind of bridge that gap with this free, anonymous program so that the human family members can go seek shelter while we take care of their pets until they’re ready to be reunited.”

The program is largely funded by the organizations’ new annual Walk Against Abuse event at Elings Park that debuted last fall to great success as it featured a dog walk through the beautiful park grounds as well as fun activities for both pets and their owners, music, food, and more.

Earlier on the calendar is C.A.R.E.4Paws’ Happy Tails Celebration & Fundraiser, which moves from the virtual world to the Music Academy on Sunday, May 21. The event highlights its work in the community and features heartfelt Happy Tails from some of the many pet owners whose animals have been kept healthy and in their homes. Sponsorships and tickets will be available soon.

Those who want to help other than financially can also give of their time and talents as a volunteer by visiting the C.A.R.E.4Paws. Either way, the nonprofit offers a big bow-wow of gratitude.