Until now, if a mentally ill person needed to be hospitalized for several days or more and had no friends or family to care for the animals, their pets had usually been taken to a pound and put up for rescue.
The new program is the brainchild of Shawna Vivant, who works on the county’s mental health crisis team. Three weeks ago she set up an anonymous foster system for volunteers to care for the animals temporarily until they can be returned to their owners.
“I’ve witnessed people who got out of the hospital and had lost their pet,” Vivant said, because law enforcement had no choice but to take it to the pound. After about a week, animals in Carver County usually go to a rescue agency to be adopted, she said.
Vivant said that pets are taken when someone in crisis is a danger to themselves or others and needs immediate hospitalization, such as during episodes of acute psychosis or after a suicide attempt.
In other cases, hospitalization might be needed to evaluate someone or change their medications, she said. But her clients will refuse rather than risk losing their pet.
“For people that have mental illness, a pet can be their life,” Vivant said. “I work with people all the time who are suicidal and I ask them what’s preventing you from committing suicide and they say it’s my dog.”
Dr. Carrie Parente, a psychiatrist who works at the county’s mental health facility and in private practice, said it’s not uncommon for her clients to put their pets’ needs ahead of their own. It’s also not unusual for some to have little money and few friends, she said, so anything that can help keep them together with their pets is beneficial.
Pets provide love and companionship, Parente said, but they also get people out of the house to walk the dog or buy food for the cat. “It makes them start to care about something else in the world and then in turn because of that, they might start to care for themselves more,” she said. “It gives them more of a connection to the world than they might have had otherwise.”
Vivant said the new program is anonymous. The ill person will not be told who is caring for their pet, and the caregiver will not know who the pet’s owner is. The length of care will usually be two weeks or less, she said, although it could be extended to two more weeks if needed.
Vivant met last week with Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson, whose office will allow a community service officer to help transport animals in time of need. Details are still being worked out.
So far Vivant has four volunteers to take the animals, and one is caring for a pair of cats. For now, Vivant is paying for food and other costs out of her own pocket.
Marge Amberson, dog coordinator for the Carver-Scott Humane Society, helped Vivant work out the details of the new program and called it the “missing link in the whole system.”
While the humane society normally takes ownership of rescue animals and places them with volunteers while seeking full-time homes through adoptions, under the new program caregiving is much shorter and the mentally ill person never loses ownership of their pet.
“A pet might be all they have,” Amberson said, “the only thing in the world that loves them.”