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Understanding Shelter Medicine

Dr. Lila Miller, D.V.M., ASPCA


Understanding Shelter Medicine

It may be hard to believe, but until recently, veterinarians played a very limited role in the operation of animal shelters in the United States. As a result, the health care of shelter animals was often severely compromised. Nontechnical personnel, for example, routinely performed procedures like euthanasia, and animals who were injured or sick were often euthanized without a basic examination by a veterinarian. Spay and neuter programs, needless to say, were virtually nonexistent.

Thankfully, shelters around the country have begun to change. The deepening bond between humans and animals has resulted in a demand for better care of unwanted animals, and the increasing awareness of diseases that can be transmitted to humans (a process called “zoonosis”), coupled with the enormous costs associated with animal bites, have led to a demand for better animal control programs. Additionally, the rise of the “no-kill” movement means that animals are being held in the shelter for longer periods of time, thereby increasing their chances of adoption. It has also raised the bar for the medical standards that are used to evaluate and care for animals previously considered unadoptable.

Today, modern shelters must do more than just find good homes for homeless animals. They must also ensure that animals are as healthy as possible and incapable of reproduction. To see these changes through, shelters often hire and consult with veterinarians who understand and practice “shelter medicine.”

A Genre is Born

If veterinary medicine is a demanding field, shelter medicine is a particularly demanding specialty field. Because of the lack of relevant veterinary data on shelter animals and the various financial and staffing constraints under which many shelters operate, innovative approaches to animal care are often necessary. Traditionally trained veterinarians quickly find that they don’t have all of the tools they need to answer the questions they are being asked in shelter practice. For example, when it comes to disease management, veterinarians are typically trained to deliver individual medical care to companion animals or herd health care to farm and laboratory animals. Shelter veterinarians, however, must often juggle those two approaches, with little research to guide them. During a disease outbreak, traditional strategies may involve closing the shelter to newcomers and testing and euthanizing all sick and exposed animals. But since closing the front door of a shelter is not an option, and euthanasia is an increasingly unacceptable one, finding ways to keep large numbers of animals healthy and at the same time prevent disease outbreaks poses a real challenge.

But the differences don’t end there. In private practice, diagnoses are usually made by reviewing an animal’s medical history, conducting a physical examination and performing a laboratory workup. Shelter veterinarians, on the other hand, rely almost entirely on physical examination and observations of the staff to determine if an animal is healthy and adoptable–in other words, they’re routinely asked to predict future behavior based on very little scientific data.

In addition to answering medical, surgical and behavioral questions, shelter veterinarians may also have to help develop humane mass euthanasia protocols or make decisions about nonmedical issues, such as cleaning or shelter design. They protect the public health by recognizing and treating zoonotic diseases, and they often work with law enforcement officials in animal cruelty and abuse cases.

In a Class by Itself

In recognition of the unique demands placed upon shelter veterinarians, the field of shelter medicine is quickly growing. Through a unique partnership with the ASPCA, a course is now being taught at Cornell University Veterinary College, and there’s also a shelter medicine residency program in place at the University of California at Davis Veterinary College. There’s even a newly formed Association of Shelter Veterinarians. Shelter medicine is also being taught at continuing education seminars, and a number of veterinary colleges are developing programs with local shelters designed to benefit both animals and students.

Shelter medicine is a solid career option for both current and aspiring veterinarians. Along with the huge impact it makes on the way veterinary medicine is taught and practiced, it also greatly improves the lives of shelter animals.

Dr. Miller is the ASPCA’s veterinary advisor and senior director of Animal Sciences.

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