Weighing just 13 pounds, Pepper the Maltese-poodle mix carries a surprisingly heavy responsibility.

“She’s so affectionate and intelligent,” said Pepper’s constant companion, Louise Vahle, 67. “I have mental illness, bipolar disorder. I recognize Pepper as my dependent. That helps me stay steady and committed to taking care of myself to manage my illness.”

Updated vaccines and annual veterinary checkups are mandatory for pets sharing apartments at the St. Paul public housing high-rise where Vahle lives. That could be a problem for the retired office administrator, who has no car and lives on a fixed income.

Dr. Marie Louderback is the solution to keeping Pepper healthy and Vahle happy.

“It’s my mission. No one should have to give up their pet because they can’t afford basic services,” said Louderback, 59. “When that happens it’s tragic for the person and often the animal, too.”

Louderback operates her deeply discounted veterinary practice out of her Shoreview home, traveling to assisted living facilities, senior buildings and private homes to care for the pets of low-income owners, most of them older or disabled.

During these house calls, Louderback offers vaccines, wellness care and a range of services — trimming claws or toenails, cleaning ears, testing for heartworm and treating for parasites. She even provides in-home euthanasia when an animal is at the end of its life, sitting with bereaved owners as they say their final goodbye.

With no office or marketing budget, “Dr. Marie,” as she is known, makes it her business to charge a fraction of the going rate at a typical vet’s office.

“I don’t have to advertise. Seniors work with health aides and other people who come in and these workers spread the word to other places and other clients who have pets and need my help,” she said.

Some pet owners can’t afford even her reduced fees. Louderback receives a few grants to cover their costs and has established a nonprofit for “people falling off at the bottom end.” Her organization, Minnesota Supporting Companion Animals for Seniors & the Disabled (MnSCASD), accepts donations to support and expand her practice.

A lifelong animal lover, Louderback had her first career was as a semiconductor engineer in her native Ohio. When she was accepted to the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine at 40, she moved to the Twin Cities with her family.

“In one class they took us to a senior building to help older people with their pets and I thought, this is for me,” she said.

Her work is particularly valued during the pandemic, when many of her older clients are nervous about venturing outside their homes while needing their pet’s companionship more than ever.

“Their activities are canceled and no one is visiting. That pet with them 24 hours a day and is their lifeline,” Louder­back said.

That’s certainly the case for Vahle.

“Pepper is so important to me. When I do my list of gratefuls, as I call it, she’s always at the top of the list,” she said. “Dr. Marie is on my list, too."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and broadcaster.