Dog days

Vet Agata Witkowska normally specialises in exotic animals but she’s going back to basics and running health checks on our vendors’ best friends

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It’s Monday morning in the Leeds Big Issue North office and 12-year-old Luna and 10-year-old Gizmo have arrived for their appointments. The two dogs are owned by Big Issue North vendor John*, who has bought them in today to see volunteer vet Agata Witkowska from Street Paws, a charity that provides free veterinary care and support services to people experiencing homelessness and their pets.

Witkowska, who is originally from Poland but who came to the UK as a child, has been a qualified vet for seven years. Her day job is working as a senior veterinary surgeon at Holly House vets in Leeds, a large clinic and animal hospital, where she specialises in keyhole surgery and exotic animals. But today it’s back to basics for her as she gives each of the dogs a once-over, before administering vaccinations, flea treatment and worming tablets.

“I had a very rough time and I used to be homeless,” the 30-year-old vet explains as she works. “I became homeless when I was at med school through domestic violence. But I was lucky enough to come out the other side of it and now I’m a qualified vet. This is my way of giving back.”

Witkowska, who has been volunteering at Street Paws for three years, is one of around 200 vets and veterinary nurses who give up their time for free to help out in the charity, which was established in Newcastle in 2016 but now operates across the North and also has bases in both Belfast and Cardiff.

The organisation relies on volunteer support, says operation manager Fiona Willis, as well as donations from the public and funding from grants and trusts. Like many small charities, getting funding to carry on its services is a constant battle, while the need for its services continues to grow.

“We’re seeing more people slipping into poverty,” says Willis. “And there’s no doubt about it, more people are going to end up on the streets with their dogs. We’re in for a bad winter, especially when those heating bills go up.”

Willis explains how they are receiving more and more calls from people who face eviction from their homes and have to choose between giving up their dogs to enter into some kind of temporary or permanent accommodation or end up on the streets. As well as providing veterinary care, Street Paws runs services aimed at helping homeless pet owners, including a dog champions scheme that supports hostels and accommodation providers to accept the pets of those they might home.

“It’s heart-breaking,” says Willis. “Everyone knows how good dogs are for your mental health. If that’s the last thing you’ve got and you have to give that up, that’s just crazy.”

Back in the Leeds office, Gizmo, a busy little dog who has a habit of chewing though his harness and lead, is given the all-clear from Witkowska, but Luca has got some serious problems with her teeth, which are showing signs of decay. She’ll need further treatment, including sedation and having some of her teeth removed.

After today’s appointment, Willis says she’ll get a quote from a local veterinary practice in Leeds to undertake the work, which the charity will pay for, although John is determined to make a contribution to the work as well. “It’s part of the reason I sell the magazine – to make sure these two are looked after,” he says.

John, who sells Big Issue North in towns across North Yorkshire, is living in his van with his two dogs, having become homeless because of relationship issues.

“It’s great to be able to come here and get this sorted out,” says John, who has had Luca since she was just eight weeks old. “These dogs mean the world to me. I keep going because of them and they keep me out of trouble.”

*Not his real name

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