"Before we existed, many of these people and their pets didn't have anywhere to go."
For as long as Caroline Holtet has been a veterinarian, she has wanted to help those who cannot afford to pay for their pet’s health care.
She started her career working in a 24-hour emergency hospital, then a general practice clinic, located in an area of Oslo, Norway, with a large population of low-income residents as well as people struggling with substance addiction and mental health. “I had a lot of clients who came to me and said, ‘I have a sick animal but I don’t have money,’ and unfortunately I was unable to provide care,” she says.
When Caroline brought the matter to her employer, they saw how interested she was in helping these clients and their pets. “So we created one day every year that we worked and provided care for free.”
The first year that Caroline’s improvised aid station offered free care, about 20 patients came to receive vaccinations. The second year, they saw 40 patients. And last year, in its sixth year, on a Saturday Caroline’s team took care of 250 patients.
She laughs, “There was a big fight among staff to work on that day. They thought it was so much fun.”
All around Oslo, people and organizations became excited to lend a hand as well. Pet brands donated food and medicine, dog beds and cat scratching poles. Volunteers in the community brought in baked goods and coffee for the staff and clients. And veterinarians from other clinics around the city asked if they could donate their time to the free day of care.
One day a year is not enough
The popularity of the annual free day of care made one thing clear to Caroline: they needed to do it more often. “Last year I ended up with 250 new patients who now don’t have anywhere else to go,” she says. “And if they came back with a sore tooth or a broken leg, I had to say I’m sorry, I can’t care for them.”
Caroline believes that those who can’t afford to pay for pet care may need that companion more than most. “The less you have or the more you struggle with mental health, the more important that pet is in your life.”
The challenge: how to make sure their pets can receive care more than one day a year.
“So I approached Norway’s animal welfare organization, Dyrebeskyttelsen Norge, and said that they should start a clinic that provides free care.”
Dyrebeskyttelsen Norge is the oldest of its kind in Norway, with several locations around the country providing a range of animal welfare and advocacy services, including rehoming, microchipping, prevention of neglect and mistreatment, and taking action against unethical breeding. According to its mission, “We intervene where animals are subjected to injustice.”
Caroline knew that a free clinic was perfectly aligned with this organization, and she had strong evidence to suggest both the need and the support it would receive in the Oslo community. “Based on my experience, I knew it would be very easy to get people to donate to this cause.”
700 patients in the first 90 days
After months of searching for the right location, Caroline and her staff of one veterinary nurse and a veterinary assistant established Lisaklinikken in Oslo – Norway’s first free veterinary clinic.
Funded by bequests made to the animal welfare organization, Lisaklinikken opened in summer of 2023 – fully equipped with X-ray machine, ultrasound, blood analyzer, two operating with gas anesthesia, and a kennel room – ready to provide an extensive slate of veterinary services.
As word quickly spread, Caroline’s team was inundated with patients. In just its first three months, the clinic welcomed more than 700 patients, performing procedures ranging from tooth extractions and castrations to microchipping and tumor removal.
Dedicated volunteers have been critical to managing the clinic’s day-to-day activities. “Our volunteers clean, empty garbage, make coffee, run our social media, and greet everyone who comes in the door. They do a very good job,” Caroline says.
Although Lisaklinikken tries to prevent abuse of its services by clients who do have the ability to pay for pet care, Caroline stands by the clinic’s trust-based system. “We never ask if they receive social assistance, because that’s confidential information,” she says. “Even if they are wearing a nice coat, for instance. You can’t judge a book by its cover. You never know what someone is going through.”
Future veterinarians in a free clinic
Every Tuesday, fifth-year students from the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science visit Lisaklinikken with their professor to gain experience in managing patient caseload – running blood and urine tests, updating the patient record, and emailing results to clients.
“It’s a win-win situation,” says Caroline. “Once a week, we have a lot of vets here to offer help, and it’s very good for the students to receive communication training with people who are not the typical kind of client.”
Caroline adds that “a big reason we chose Provet Cloud for our practice management software is because the students are already using it in veterinary school. So it was important to choose a system that many people know about.”
In Provet Cloud they have all the tools they need to operate smoothly and communicate easily with clients. Email text templates (e.g. discharge instructions following a neutering) save time, as do automated reminders that can be sent via text message.
“I’m very happy with the rating system, where we send clients an email after the appointment so they can review their experience,” Caroline says. “We have the best rating in Oslo! And I love that I can download the reviews and share them with our volunteers.”
Glowing reviews are not only driving client traffic to the clinic. Veterinarians from other clinics have begun offering to volunteer their time and their supplies. “It’s good for their mental health as well, considering all the stress related to clients who are unable to pay for what their pet needs,” says Caroline. “Here there is no barrier to that care.”
Better, happier pets – and pet parents
Before Lisaklinikken existed, with the exception of one day a year, many pet parents in Oslo with financial difficulties had nowhere else to go. As the clinic grows – both in clients and in staff – Caroline hopes the tide turns in terms of the kind of care they are able to provide.
“Mostly we are caring for sick pets who have not had the attention they need. I would like one day for there to be more time and capacity for annual wellness exams and preventive care.”
But she’s already seeing the positive, longer term impact on clients. “After a few months coming here, picking up the right food, the right fish oil, the right leash and harness, they know a lot more about being pet parents. And when they come in, they love to tell us all about how they’re giving their pet a better life.”