Pets for Vets

Owning a pet can decrease loneliness
Owning a pet can decrease loneliness

This summer the San Francisco VA Medical Center (SFVAMC) is celebrating its 11th year of operating “Pets for Vets,” a program designed to provide a pet to Veterans at no cost.

The brainchild of Dr. Russell Lemle, Chief Psychologist at the SFVAMC, “Pets for Vets” operates solely on donations.

Dr. Lemle, a pet lover himself, used his own funds as seed money, and enlisted Voluntary Service to establish a fund for other donations. To date, the program has given out certificates for 169 four-legged companions.

“Pets for Vets” is a caring effort in which everyone benefits. Cats and dogs are adopted into homes and Veterans gain the love and companionship that pets bring.


“She helped me get better.” — Veteran Rick Magnone


Mazie the Cattle Dog

Rick and Mazie are the perfect example of a pet and a Vet coming together with great results. Rick Magnone is an Air Force Veteran who remembers that he was “very sick with Hepatitis C” back in 2000 when Mazie came into his life.”She helped me get better.” Mazie is a Queensland Heeler, an Australian cattle dog, trained to herd. An instinct hard to restrain, according to Rick. “When I would take her to the dog park, she would constantly try to herd all the other dogs in the park.”

“When we first met, she ran right up to me and started making circles like a drover dog does so I knew we were supposed to connect. The Pets for Vets program is great. I love it.”

The 11-year bond between Rick and Mazie was very valuable when Rick’s wife passed away recently. “What a wonderful time to have a friend like Mazie. She is a godsend — so gentle and responsive.”

Pet Owners Take Less Medication

“The elderly, who often experience disproportionate loneliness and loss, are especially well served by pets,” said Dr. Lemle. “Studies have suggested that pet owners have fewer annual visits to physicians, take less medication, recuperate better from certain surgeries and take more walks.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, owning a pet can have measurable medical benefits, including decreasing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels.

Studies show that it can significantly lower feelings of loneliness while increasing opportunities for exercise and socialization.

“Dog Tags” Photo Exhibit

To complement the free adoption program, the halls of the San Francisco VA Medical Center have been graced with a permanent gallery of 30 professional photographic portraits of Veterans with their pets.

Captured in natural light, these black and white portraits reveal an animal-human connection filled with intimacy, candor and occasional humor. The theme has a rich poignancy: men and women who served their country and the animals that serve them with allegiance and love.

The photo exhibit, entitled “Dog Tags,” has been extremely popular with Veterans, visitors, and staff alike, and has been featured on Bay Area TV news programs and the regional Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) magazine, Our Animals.

The exhibit also went on tour, with exhibits at the San Francisco War Memorial and in the halls of VA headquarters.

All portraits were taken by Don Crowe, Ph.D., a Bay Area psychologist who is one of the leading pet photographers in the country.

The Pets for Vets project is now almost completely supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation through their Dog Bless USA project.

To learn more about Pets for Vets, contact Russell Lemle at or Alexandra Harrison at


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