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Shelter Veterinary Medicine

Dr. Lila Miller, D.V.M., Sr. Director Animal Sciences and Vet Advisor

Shelter Veterinary Medicine

Shelter medicine is a specialty area of veterinary medicine that has gathered a lot of interest in the last several years. Although not formally recognized by the AVMA, veterinarians who work with or for shelters are increasingly aware and appreciative of the special knowledge and skills required to design a successful shelter health care program.

While veterinary colleges teach general herd health management principles for large animals, they do not teach how to manage our small animal companions in a similar setting, especially when tossing in a heavy dose of the human animal bond. The constant introduction of animals with unknown medical backgrounds and vague histories of their previous whereabouts is any veterinarian’s nightmare when it comes to disease control, yet this is the problem that shelter veterinary medical programs must address daily. It requires an integrated use of almost all the disciplines of veterinary medicine in order to successfully meet the challenge.

Decisions made by veterinarians working with shelters have far reaching consequences for thousands of animals and humans. Health care, medical and ethical issues have become much more complex. In addition to examining, vaccinating, diagnosing, treating, neutering, performing behavior evaluations and even euthanizing animals, veterinarians are intimately involved in the design of management protocols that ensure sanitary, healthy and safe conditions for both staff and animals. Their advice about zoonosis and other liability issues is critical in dealing with their legal implications.

Shelter veterinarians often are strong, independent thinkers. Many decisions must be made without advice from textbooks or colleagues, and shelter veterinarians are often at odds with their colleagues who criticize them for performing pediatric neutering or for using different vaccination protocols, for example. Creative diagnostic and treatment regimens must often be utilized because of the lack of access to conventional methods. The ability to be innovative is a prerequisite character trait for working in a shelter.

The situations encountered by shelter veterinarians are not found in any other area of veterinary medicine. Shelter medicine is no longer a place where retired veterinarians end a career or new veterinarians start one. Shelter medicine represents a new and rewarding lifetime career option that is destined to grow as more humane alternatives and options are sought for the world’s homeless animals.

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