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Why We Need Shelter Veterinary Programs

By Sharon S. on Care2.com

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recently made a $100,000 three-year renewable grant to the Center for Companion Animal Health at the University of California at Davis. The grant will fund the Koret Shelter Medicine Program which trains a new breed of veterinarian called, Animal Shelter Specialists.

If you are wondering why the world needs veterinarians that specialize in medical care for animals in a shelter environment read what happened to Dr. Kate Hurley at her first day on the job as veterinarian for the Dane County Humane Society in Madison, WI.

When Dr. Hurley walked into the shelter she found they were in the middle of a ringworm outbreak. “Though ringworm is easy to treat in private practice,” Dr. Hurley said in an interview with JAVMA News, she soon learned it is difficult to control – and often fatal – in a shelter setting. Her training as a private practitioner hadn’t prepared her for the situations a shelter veterinarian faces. Dr. Hurley is now the director for the Koret Shelter Medicine Program.

Private veterinarians generally focus on the health of individual animals. They aren’t trained to take into consideration the consequences of an illness when large groups of animals share a common living space.

Animal Shelter Specialists are educated to be familiar with the transmission and control of disease, behavioral care and shelter management. They also become proficient in surgeries to repair injuries and spay/neuter procedures to stop pet overpopulation.

Pets that come into a shelter are highly stressed and they come from all types of backgrounds; this puts them at risk for developing a whole range of infectious diseases. Training in shelter medicine encompasses a principal called “herd” medicine which enables veterinarians to handle illnesses that quickly attack a large number of animals.

Their focus is to keep pets healthy for a short, but critical time – until they can be returned to their families or find new homes.

Even as this story is being written, several cities in Michigan are having the worst outbreak of parvovirus they have ever seen. The Animal Care Network, which is a non-profit animal welfare group in the area, reported that more than 300 dogs have died. This is a situation that shelter specialists would be able to tackle for the community.

In addition to handlig infectious diseases, Animal Shelter Specialists are trained to address other issues specific to life in a shelter. These include:

  • Proper nutrition
  • Parasite control
  • Ensuring that there is good air quality, so airborne diseases are kept at a minimum
  • Evaluating and optimizing the design of a shelter and living spaces for the pets
  • Reducing the level of stress for the pets. Stress can lead to behavior problems and make them less desirable to adopt
  • Managing overcrowded conditions
  • Strategies to control animal overpopulation

Veterinarians also learn to identify animal abuse cases and how to correct behavioral issues. They become knowledgeable about legal, regulatory, ethical and emotional aspects of shelter animal care. And because euthanasia is still part of the shelter system, these specialists are instructed how to end the life of an animal in a “dignified and humane” manner. In fact, guidelines are posted on the website of their professional organization called Association of Shelter Veterinarians.

The first class about shelter medicine was offered at Cornell University, only a few years ago and was funded by Maddie’s Fund. Soon other universities followed with full-blown programs. They are located at: UC Davis, University of Florida and Louisiana State University. And Maddie’s Fund added two more programs at Iowa State University and Auburn.

The ultimate goal of Animal Shelter Specialty programs is to decrease the number of pets entering shelters and keep the ones that have to come there, as healthy as possible so they can find new homes.

The ASPCA National Shelter Program estimates there are 4,000 to 6,000 animal shelters across the country and less than a quarter of them have veterinary services. With help from their grant the organization hopes to get more qualified and enthusiastic specialists into shelters so they can provide quality care to the vulnerable animals.

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