Diamond dogs: superpets and Britain’s hero vets

Across the country an army of heroes are helping homeless people keep their four-legged friends fit and well. Here, we meet the vets who bring care to the canines of the street.

For many, a pet is an integral part of the family. And that’s no different for anyone who’s homeless or vulnerably housed.

In fact, for many of our vendors – and countless homeless men and women across the country – their dog is a lifeline. Having a loving pet by their side, and experiencing that special bond and companionship, can have an overwhelmingly positive impact in rebuilding an often-fractured life.

Veterinary care can often prove difficult to access and impossible to afford for people living on the street, or with no steady income. However, recent years have witnessed a significant rise in the number of projects and charities that offer outreach and drop-in schemes free of charge.

The Big Issue 1284 cover

Here, we go behind the scenes with volunteer vets and students to bring heartwarming tales from the street of the paw-sitive power of the Big Issue pooch…

STEVE AND SKY, HOMERTOWN, LONDON

A builder by trade, 48-year-old Steve Taylor has turned to selling magazine during his darkest times.

“I’ve worked on building sites all across London,” Steve explains. “Unfortunately, the work hasn’t always been there but The Big Issue has always kept me afloat. It’s put food on the table, helped buy clothes for my kids, and keep a roof over their heads.

Steve and Sky.

“I’ve had my time sleeping rough, from Victoria to King’s Cross to Oxford Street. Never again. I’m in a much better place now.”

If Sky’s not with me, you’d lose count of people that stop to ask where is Sky, is she OK?

Today, Steve is selling The Big Issue at Homerton station with his sidekick Sky – a beloved little East London celebrity.

“Everyone absolutely loves Sky,” he says. “I swear, my head could be rolling down the road and no one would notice but if Sky’s not with me at my pitch, you’d lose count of the amount of people that would stop to ask where is Sky, is she OK?

Sky the staffy gets a check-up from a Blue Cross vet at one of the organisation's mobile clinics.

“Seriously, though, she’s as good as gold,” laughs Steve. “I was there the day she was born and I’ve had her almost 11 years now. I’m lucky to have her.”

Four years ago, Steve feared the worst after Sky fell ill suddenly. “She just wasn’t herself and then things just got worse, very quickly,” he explains.

Steve had already registered Sky with pet wellbeing charity PDSA, which offers free and reduced-cost treatment to pet owners in receipt of eligible benefits. What Steve didn’t know was that Sky had developed a disease called pyometra, a serious infection of her womb that if left untreated can lead to serious illness, and in many cases death.

I was there the day she was born and I’ve had her almost 11 years now

PDSA vets took drastic action and removed Sky’s womb in an emergency operation. Fortunately, she was back home within a couple of days. “I was worried sick,” Steve says. “It was awful. I was, and still am, very, very grateful.”

https://www.pdsa.org.uk/

VIOREL AND VIO, OXFORD CIRCUS, LONDON

Viorel Parnica has been taking his dog Vio to Blue Cross for the last seven years, ever since the pair were first united when Viorel began looking after the lovable lurcher after he was abandoned. The pair have been inseparable since.

Sadly, 13-year-old Vio fell ill this year with lung cancer and is on treatment to manage his condition, with invaluable help and support offered by the Blue Cross animal hospital in Victoria.

Viorel and Vio on Oxford Street, London

Blue Cross treats 30,000 poorly pets every year. It was the organisation that James Bowen took a stray cat to, which then led to the Street Cat Bob phenomenon. It runs an outreach service across the capital with daily mobile clinics in Islington, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Southwark.

I don’t know what I would do if the charity was not here

“I don’t know what I would do if the charity was not here,” explains Vio, who sells The Big Issue on Oxford Street. “I’m very happy with their help and Vio has had two operations here in the past and I am very grateful.”

Big Issue vendor Viorel and his dog Vio, with Blue Cross vet Maria.

Fifty-four-year-old Viorel is from Romania, and while his English is improving, understanding complex veterinary issues can be difficult. Fortunately Blue Cross vet Maria Banica is also Romanian and is able to explain Vio’s condition and discuss the best possible care for him.

“I am very glad there is a Romanian vet here, it makes it a lot easier, otherwise I’d need an interpreter,” Viorel adds. “I respect Blue Cross and I thank them a lot for helping Vio.”

https://www.bluecross.org.uk/

STEVE TRIGG AND CHARLIE, OXFORD

Oxford vendor Steve Trigg was losing his long battle with alcoholism when his beloved collie-cross Charlie became pregnant. He knew, for his and Charlie’s sake, he had to get his drinking under control.

“I got Charlie when she was just five weeks old, just a little puppy,” explains Steve, who says he used to drink seven litres of sherry a day. “She turned my life around. I was in a hell of a state when I first got her.

Photo credit: Dogs Trust

“I’m three years clean this month, something I thought I’d never be able to say. Charlie has helped me get clean and sober.

“A lot of people will tell you: having a dog gives you a great sense of purpose, having someone to care for and love. But Charlie saved my life. I mean that.

I wouldn’t have my best friend today without the support of the Dogs Trust

“She’s been with me now for eight years and she means the world to me. She’s my little darling, my best friend. I love her to bits.”

Charlie was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer in 2013 but fortunately the illness was spotted early and, with the support of the Dogs Trust’s Hope Project and with his Big Issue earnings, Steve was able to get his four-legged friend on the right medication.

Big Issue vendor Steve Trigg

“It’s something very like leukemia – her immune system is killing her red blood cells,” Steve says. “We got Charlie started on immunosuppressant drugs.

The medication costs £40 every 56 days, which I pay for with myBig Issue earnings

“I can’t thank the Dogs Trust enough. They helped with the vet’s bills back when Charlie was first diagnosed, and they continue to pay for monthly blood tests for Charlie. I wouldn’t have my best friend today without them.

“Unfortunately, Charlie will never be cured. She’s on medication for life now, but she’s doing really well. And that’s all that matters. The medication costs £40 every 56 days, which I pay for with my earnings from selling The Big Issue.

Steve Trigg and Charlie at their Big Issue pitch in Oxford.

“I’d also like to thank the people of Oxford for their invaluable support. I’ve sold the magazine on and off since 2007 and I’ve met some incredible people. They’re not customers, they are my friends. They’ve helped us through thick and thin.”

The Hope Project, in numbers…

112 – Now in its 22nd year, the Hope Project has grown from one solitary veterinary clinic in London to a nationwide scheme offering free and subsidised veterinary treatment to any dog whose owner is homeless or in housing crisis in 112 towns and cities.

2,000 – In the last year, the Hope Project has funded nearly 2,000 veterinary treatments to help dogs remain with their devoted owners. The charity works with more than 300 homelessness organisations.

0 – When the Hope Project began in 1995, there was not a single dog-friendly hostel in the UK. Now there are more than 130 that welcome dogs. However, that’s still just eight per cent of the total number of homeless hostels across the country.

https://www.dogstrust.org.uk/

GEORGE AND LOLA, ARCHWAY, LONDON

Gary, who rescued his dog Lola from Battersea five years ago, receives support from Dogs on the Street (Lola receives pain relief for arthritis) 

“I was a heavy, heavy drug user,” recalls Big Issue vendor Gary Spall. “I was in a bad way, and in a bad place.”

Gary and Lola

Fast forward a few years and Gary, who sells the magazine on Holloway Road, North London, has lifted himself from rock-bottom and is working hard towards a brighter future.

He puts this transformation down to Lola, the loveable staffie-cross he rescued from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home five years ago during his journey back from the brink. “She was found in an empty flat,” Gary explains. “Someone had moved out and just abandoned her there for nearly two weeks. We’ve both had our troubles.”

I know that Lola needs me. I know I need to get out and earn money

Fortunately for Gary and Lola, the tough times look to be well and truly in the past.

“I’d been homeless for quite a few years,” Gary says. “I’d always dreamed of having my own place my own dog. I received a lot of help from St Mungo’s to get some accommodation and my support worker at the time agreed that it would be good for me to get a dog, that I was in a better place.

“I’ve never looked back. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. Lola is everything to me and I’d do anything for her.

Lola, who sells The Big Issue with her owner Gary in Archway, north London.

“She’s my best friend, we’re with one another 24 hours a day, every day. I know that she needs me, that Lola relies on me. I know I need to get out and earn money to put a roof over our heads, to feed us.”

Gary has received invaluable support in looking after Lola from a project launched earlier this year called Dogs on the Street (DOTS), which offers free vet services, food and training for dogs belonging to rough sleepers and the vulnerably housed.

Dubbed the capital’s first ever “homeless doggy station”, DOTS was started by Michelle Clark in March. Since then, Michelle and her team of volunteer vets, nurses and groomers have cared for more than 120 dogs from its weekly drop-in clinic at The Strand, and across the streets of London and Kent. On December 17 they are planning to host a Christmas party for street dogs.

“To a homeless dog owner, their dog is their world,” says Michelle. “They will often put the needs of the dog before their own. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say it’s not a case of them rescuing the dog, but the dog rescuing them.”

DOTS has helped Gary with Lola’s weight and nutrition, and recently arranged for her to begin weekly hydrotherapy sessions to aid her elbow dysplasia.

“They’re like Bill and Ben, those two,” laughs Michelle. “I can’t speak highly enough of how loved and looked-after Lola is. You really couldn’t fit any more of Lola in Gary’s heart.”

http://dotslondon.co.uk/

STREET VET, LONDON

Jade Statt has been a practising vet for 15 years. But it was a chance encounter with a Big Issue vendor and his dog Lola last year in London that inspired the beginning of StreetVet.

“I stopped for a chat, and his dog had really bad skin and he was worried. We spoke about where he was going to take her and what he could do and I could see this unbelievable, unconditional love he had for her. After I walked away, I thought this is just ridiculous, I should be able to help this guy.

Street Vet founder Jade, left.

“This coincided with my dog Oakley being quite unwell. When I lost Oakley I couldn’t imagine feeling that helpless and not knowing what to do about it. I knew then I wanted to do something about it.”

One month after losing her beloved family pet, Jade hit the streets with a backpack full of deworming tablets and veterinary supplies. She quickly crossed paths with fellow vet Sam Joseph, who coincidentally was also volunteering his time and skills under the name StreetVet.

I want to break down that stigma too as to why people sleeping rough on the streets have dog

The two decided to band together and now – having recruited the professional help of 60 additional volunteer vets and nurses – more than 100 dogs across the capital have been vaccinated, microchipped and offered free treatment, while Street Vet is registered as an official practice with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

Brian's dog Misty is checked over by Street Vet volunteer Gabriel.

“I want to break down that stigma too as to why people sleeping rough on the streets have dogs,” Jade adds. “Sometimes they’re made homeless with their dog, sometimes they rescue the dogs, sometimes they come across them on the street as a stray.

“Regardless of how they came together, they’re always loved unconditionally, their dogs are of the utmost importance to them.”

“NOW I’VE GOT SOMEONE TO TURN TO”

Brian, who sells The Big Issue on Argyll Street in central London always has Misty by his side.

“Misty spends all day with me and sleeps beside me at night,” he says. “We’re in it together. She means the world to me. I’ve had her for about four years now. She was given to me by someone who couldn’t look after her any more.”

Big Issue vendor and his trust sidekick Misty.

Brian sleeps rough near Oxford Circus and recently encountered a StreetVet outreach van when he went to pick up his copies of The Big Issue. He wanted to ensure Misty was fit and healthy and booked his pooch in with the StreetVet team, who carried out a full check-up, including her vaccinations and deworming, and threw in some cosy knitwear to see Misty through the cold winter months.

Gabriel Galea, one of the StreetVet volunteer practitioners has been treating Misty, an eight-year-old Jack Russell.

Misty was – and continues to be – in tip-top condition and is now visited every few weeks by Gabriel. “I’m really grateful that Gabriel comes to see how Misty is doing,” Brian adds. “I don’t get any benefits so the PDSA won’t see me. So now, if she gets ill I’ve got someone to turn to that I know will help me.”

Misty is at a good weight, has a healthy coat and set of teeth, is friendly and well socialised

As Gabriel checks Misty with his stethoscope, he says: “When I first started working with StreetVet I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dogs, and the occasional cat, we saw were just as healthy as the typical pet presented to veterinary clinics across the country.”

“Misty is an excellent example of that. She is at a good weight, has a healthy coat and set of teeth, is friendly and well socialised, and clearly knows she is safe as long as she is with Brian.”

http://www.streetvet.co.uk/

Additional reporting: Dionne Kennedy