By Brendan Quealy
A very significant change is taking place in the world of veterinary medicine. It is an important shift that signals a transformation in our philosophy and our sense of compassion. For years, veterinarians and veterinary students viewed working at an animal shelter as a job equivalent to that of a free clinic doctor or prison physician.
“Being a shelter veterinarian was considered a second-class position,” says Dr. Laurie Peek of Maddie’s Shelter Fund. “It was like, ‘Who wants to work there?’ But since we’ve made the change from kill to adopt, the American public has changed its opinions.”
In the early 1990s, shelters began to help the animals recuperate instead of waiting just three days and then euthanizing the animal. This has brought about the numerous rescue efforts we see today and the different mindset of the nation.
Influential people such as Dr. Lila Miller, a veterinary specialist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASCPA) and co-editor of the first shelter medicine textbook, Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff, have taken it upon themselves to show people the impact that shelter medicine can have.
“I saw an opportunity to fill a niche,” says Miller. “When I started there wasn’t even anything called shelter medicine, and people thought it was OK to hold these animals for a few days and then euthanize them. I said, ‘I know there has to be a better way.’”
While the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has still not yet formally recognized shelter medicine as a specialty, its importance within the veterinary community is taking shape.
“Like any other specialty, shelter medicine has to go through a process,” says Peek. “There need to be residency programs and standardized training. All universities need to be under the same program, and I think we’re almost there.”
As of right now, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) is in the process of developing guidelines for standards of care that will ensure every animal will have quality of life. The fact of the matter is that shelter medicine is a whole different animal from small private practice or even agricultural medicine. It is actually a combination of both. Owing to the limited resources and overcrowding of shelters, shelter veterinarians have to be skilled in both individualized care and overall population health. These factors can often lead to some tough calls.
“It’s heartbreaking sometimes, the decisions that need to be made. Some animals have to be put down even though their disease is not life threatening. You not only have to worry about the individual welfare, but the overall health of the shelter population,” says Miller. “Shelter medicine is so much more than putting an animal in a cage and giving [him] food and water. There is so much that needs to be taken into account.”
According to the ASPCA, there are more than 4,500 shelters in the United States that care for more than 10 million animals every year. That averages out to about six new animals a day, most of whom are under severe stress, making them more susceptible to the infectious diseases that are commonplace in shelters. Young animals are particularly at risk for disease because their immune systems have yet to mature.
“One moment an animal can be a treasured pet and then, through an unfortunate set of circumstances, [she] is surrendered to a shelter and has no value,” says Miller. “The value of an animal should never change.”
There are a number of factors working against shelter veterinarians. Animals who are brought in usually have no background history or medical record, and there is no guardian present to tell the vet what symptoms the animal is exhibiting. Along with that, the resources at hand are limited and often outdated. There is often high stress among the staff, and because of the high turnover rate of animals, the risk for zoonosis (infectious diseases transferred from animals to humans) is greatly increased.
Despite all of these daily challenges, veterinarians continue to flock to shelter medicine.
“Shelter medicine is arguably the fastest growing field in veterinary medicine,” says Jeanette O’Quinn, president of the ASV, which now boasts just more than 750 members. “The Association of Shelter Veterinarians has helped provide direction to this rapidly expanding field. Communication among veterinarians, outreach and collaboration with sheltering groups, and the organization of continuing education has helped provide a solid foundation for shelter medicine.”
Although more people seem to be taking up this cause, the demand for shelter veterinarians continues to rise. The best way of addressing the problem has been getting to potential veterinarians early. Shelter medicine programs have been implemented at colleges across the country in an effort to feed the growing demand for this profession.
Within the past 10 years, 26 of the 28 veterinary schools in the United States have adopted programs geared specifically toward providing the special skills and knowledge required to work as a shelter veterinarian and installing a successful health-care program.
“Before these programs started springing up, a lot of veterinary students graduated without any knowledge of shelter medicine,” says Kate Hurley, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC Davis in California. “I’ve seen a huge change in veterinary students. They really have a sense of ownership of this problem.”
The Koret and Maddie’s Fund operations are two of the biggest reasons why these programs have been able to thrive in the college setting and why so many advances have been made in the field. Thanks to the millions of dollars in grants that have been awarded to these schools, specialized curricula have been implemented and more in-depth research has been possible.
These university programs may have also played a part in the decrease of euthanasia rates. The talented pool of veterinarians with specialized knowledge in shelter medicine has helped to keep at-risk pets healthy, thereby allowing more to be adopted.
By partnering with some of the major players in animal welfare as well as local shelters, these programs make a dramatic difference in the surrounding communities. Offering their services and support, the university faculty and students become one of the driving forces behind the rescue and adoption of thousands of animals who would otherwise be put down.
In fact, just this past June Maddie’s Fund held an adoption event in California with 43 participating shelters and was able to place nearly 1,800 shelter animals in homes over just one weekend.
Clearly the future of this ever-expanding field looks bright, but certainly it is not without its challenges. Money is a major concern when it comes to funding the shelter and providing the best quality of care possible.
“People think that it costs more money to run a shelter than to just put down an animal, but shelters are just beginning to find ways to save the animal that are less costly,” says Hurley.
Most of this cost reduction is thanks in part to the perfection of various high-volume and high-quality techniques. Today, shelter vets are able to perform 20 to 30 spay/neuter surgeries in one day in a way that is safe, quick, and financially stable.
Because shelter veterinarians are some of the lowest paid in their field, money is also a factor when it comes to attracting some of the best and brightest. But then again the veterinarians who work in a shelter environment are a rare and special breed, according to Laurie Peek.
“We have an innate desire to help. We care about animals, and we want to make a difference. Helping so many animals makes a huge difference. And although people don’t become shelter veterinarians for the money, at the end of the day knowing that you made a difference is quite the payoff.”
Photos By: Alyssa Marie Quealy