Home Programs US Veterans Find Your Pet Providers Supporters Health Benefits

San Francisco VA Medical Center's Pets for Vets Program

"Pets for Vets" created by Dr. Russell Lemle at the SFVAMC is the 'grand-daddy' of all the present day organizations that work to unite shelter pets with Veterans.  This man is my unsung hero and I want you to meet him and understand - he started it all.   Dr. Russell guided me throughout the creation of Vets Adopt Pets to always put forward what is working and introduced me to amazing people in the background at the VA who are diligently working to make the VA system work productively for the Veterans.  Although many have taken his name or a variation thereof, he started this program over a dozen years ago and it is still going strong today.

A man with a dog

Owning a pet can decrease loneliness

A couple with a dog
Couple received puppy from Pets for Vets

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 Russell.Lemle@va.gov



Punkin had a Very Good Life

by Stan Lewandowski, Veteran



I was the first Veteran to adopt a pet through Dr. Russell Lemle’s “Pets for Vets” program.

I have always had cats and my little Spencer, a rescue cat, had recently passed away.

I was given a certificate for the San Francisco SPCA and coupons for a local pet store that provided me with a litter box, litter, a collar, food dishes and a bag of food, a brush and a cat toy.

I adopted an adult spayed female that I named Punkin because of her orange coloring, a black round spot on her nose and, well, it was October.

The SPCA classified her as a calico and she was multi-colored like they all are, with orange, black, brown and white fur.

She had been declawed by the first owner and I had read that since declawed cats no longer have natural defenses, they bluff their way through tough spots by being vocally aggressive. I thought it was an endearing habit and I would talk back and forth with her as long as she would keep it up.

Punkin settled right in and quickly became a part of the family.

She loved to curl up on my lap whenever I lay down on the couch — she was very loving. I adopted her in 1999 and she passed away in the spring of 2008 surrounded by her family, at home, in my arms. I get tears in my eyes remembering.

She had a very good life, full of love which she returned in spades. To this day when I think of her, I can’t help but smile.

The “Pets for Vets” program was begun to help Vets through the loving interaction with a pet, a completely understanding, accepting, loving presence that can make you laugh when you feel down or just be a friend.

They make you go through the effort to feed and care for them even if you are just going through the motions and you don’t feel like it. They reward you with unconditional love and acceptance which can change lives.
Pets add so much to our existence that I can’t imagine life without one.

Stan Lewandowski is an Army Veteran, 1971-1974, and has worked for VA for almost 19 years.






What is Pets for Vets?

Pets for Vets program was started by the Psychology Director to benefit Veterans at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center (SFVAMC). Our program supports any Veteran desiring to adopt a cat or dog from the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA).

What is the purpose of the project? 

The project is a humanitarian one in which everyone benefits. Cats and dogs are adopted into homes. Veterans gain the love and companionship that pets bring. The elderly are especially well served by pets. There is even some potential medical benefit to our patients:correlational studies have suggested that pet owners have fewer annual visits to physicians, take less medication, recuperate better from certain surgeries and take more walks.

How is it funded? 

All funding for the Pets for Vets program comes from voluntary donations.  Donations can be made to the Voluntary Services, SFVAMC. If you are interested in donating, please contact the Psychological Services at (415) 750-2004 for more information.

How does it work? 

The Pets for Vets Program will act as a guarantor of payment on the initial adoption fee and dog license fee (San Francisco residents are required to obtain one). All other expenses are the responsibility of the new pet owner. 

An individual Veteran must meet minimal the SFSPCA screening requirements such as having an established residence, producing a letter from landlord, etc. 

Who is eligible for Pets for Vets?

We issue a voucher to any Veteran who wants to adopt a dog or cat. However, we respectfully limit one voucher per Veteran due to high demand.


Are you interested in supporting Pets for Vets program for our veterans? To donate, please make checks payable to "San Francisco VA Medical Center" with a notation designating your contribution to Pets for Vets and mail checks to:

Psychological Service (116B)
San Francisco VA Medical Center
4150 Clement St.
San Francisco, CA 94121

We appreciate your support!

Psychological Services (415) 221-4810 x2004

Open Monday - Friday: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

GO DIRECT TO San Francisco VA Medical Center "Pets for Vets" web page

Veteran and Dog


Pets For Vets: Frequently Asked Questions -

Here are some frequently asked questions and answers for Veterans interested in adopting or cat or dog from the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SFSPCA):

Can I adopt a pet at other organizations? 
No, our voucher is only valid at the SFSPCA.
How do I get a free Portrait with my pet? 
Unfortunately, that service is no longer available through this program.

Can you reissue a voucher? 
We will be happy to reissue a new voucher for you if it is lost, or if you didn’t find the pet that you want during the valid 90 days.

Can ‘Pets for Vets’ program help me on treatment of my pet’s illness? 
Our voucher only covers the initial adoption fee and dog license fee.

If my landlord doesn’t allow pets, can I still adopt a pet? 
Only under the special circumstances. Please visit www.bazelon.org (Fair Housing Information Sheet # 6) for more information.

How do I get dog training classes? 
SFSPCA offers a variety of dog training classes and community resources to everyone and discounted rates on classes for pets adopted through their organization. For more information, please contact the SFSPCA.

How can I register my pet as a service animal or emotional support animal? 
This is a separate process from Pets for Vets.  However, we have a great person on staff at the SFVAMC who is willing to help Veterans who are interested. For more information, please call Rachel Rodriguez, LCSW, at (415) 221-4810 x3770.

How do I start?

Are you a Veteran interested in adopting a pet? You can start by calling us or stopping by Psychological Services (Bldg. 8, Rm. 111).

1. You'll complete an application form. Please give us about a week to process.
2. We'll call you when a voucher is ready to pick up.
3. You pick up a voucher and take it to SFSPCA for an adoption. The SFSPCA will evaluate qualifications and help on the adoption process.

Our voucher is valid for 90 days from the issued date.

CALL - Psychological Services (415) 221-4810 x2004

Open Monday - Friday: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Business Hours
Tuesday – Friday, 1- 7 p.m.
Saturdays – Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Closed Mondays and major holidays.

250 Florida Street (Cross 16th Street)
San Francisco, CA 94103
(415) 522-3500

GO DIRECT TO San Francisco VA Medical Center "Pets for Vets FAQ's




Vets Adopt Pets is staffed completely by volunteers
How to Help Contact  About Us Site-Map