Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team
Dr. Barbara Hanek is the Director of Shelter Medicine at PAWS Chicago, but she didn't plan on becoming a shelter veterinarian.
She had a good practice at a private clinic, and enjoyed her clients and her patients.
But the clinic where she worked happened to be the place that PAWS Chicago sent the pets in their shelter that needed hospitalization. And something about those pets, and the people at the organization, just got to her.
"I was so impressed with their commitment," she said. "They spent two thousand dollars on a single pet once. So I decided to give them a hand, and started helping them on my days off."
The next thing Hanek knew, they were calling her when they found themselves short-handed, and she was spending more and more of her available time on the shelter animals. Finally, she took a part-time regular position there, although she still worked at the private clinic, too.
Working at both facilities, the shelter and the private practice, meant Hanek was able to follow the shelter pets throughout their treatment, and she really liked that. But in the summer of 2009, PAWS Chicago asked her to come on board as their fulltime shelter medicine director, and she told them yes.
"It's an honor to work for PAWS. I'm proud to be part of this awesome movement, and of the lives we save," she said.
Hanek didn't leave behind everything she'd learned in her 20-plus years in private practice, though. She says that it's not at all true that you have to sacrifice the quality of care owned pets receive when you are treating shelter pets.
"You can integrate individual care and ‘herd health'," she said. In fact, in many ways focusing exclusively on shelter medicine has freed her to do more for her patients than she could do in private practice.
"When there is no owner, it's pure medicine," she said. "No one is going to opt for euthanasia instead of treatment. I'm able to do anything I can do to help the pet. It's really refreshing."
That freedom doesn't mean everything she does has to cost money, though. Many of Hanek's biggest successes have come from finding low-cost, low-tech, high-touch solutions to dealing with shelter pets' illnesses and injuries.
"I don't just look at lab work," she said. "I look at the pet." That approach includes hands-on, daily examinations; daily tracking of weight, temperature, and how much the pet is eating, urinating and defecating; whether the pet is having behavior changes or problems after arriving at PAWS; and a very aggressive approach to vaccination - PAWS pulls its pets from the local municipal shelter, and they actually vaccinate the pets while they're still at the animal control facility before they even bring them back.
Once at the clinic, the pets are held in transitional areas and monitored carefully for health problems before being transferred to the adoption center and out into homes as quickly as possible. "My goal is for them to touch just three paws down, then go," Hanek said. "Even though PAWS is a great place, it's not where I want them. I want them sleeping in their new home, on someone's bed."
In fact, improved care at the shelter, including preventing and treating illness in shelter pets and the adoption fast track has reduced the cost of treating difficult cases. "I'm proud to say that we've taken external care from around a quarter of a million dollars a year before I started, to $60,000 now," Hanek said.
It's not just Hanek's professional life that's changed in the last 20 years, however. There's been a revolution in the field of shelter medicine that's made these kinds of advances possible. "Twenty-five years ago, when I was in veterinary school, I did an externship at Chicago Animal Care and Control," she said.
Hanek's job was so stressful that she would "just go into the locker room and bawl," she said. "When I was there, cats got put down for having ear mites, or a dog because he had diarrhea. ‘Shelter medicine' then just meant managing killing.
"I feel like I've come full circle now, to start out with that and get to this point, where shelter pets are having heart surgery. Where I can take a dog with an arrhythmia and now he can live a normal life.
"This is where I belong."
About PAWS Chicago: PAWS Chicago was founded in 1997, when 44,000 animals were killed each year in the city. Today, that number is down to 18,000, with the goal of saving all of Chicago's healthy and treatable dogs and cats in sight.
The organization runs a turbo-charged spay/neuter program at their Lurie Clinic, which is located to be accessible to the underserved areas of Chicago. Those are also the neighborhoods where the largest percentages of stray and unwanted pets that come into the city pound originate. Last September, they hit the milestone of 100,000 surgeries, of which 65% were performed for free.
Their other milestone was 10,000 adoptions within the three years since the opening of the Pippen Fasseas adoption Center. That figure, said PAWS Chicago Executive Director Rochelle Michalek, was made possible by the shelter's dedication to high-quality shelter medicine - a commitment that starts before the animals even enter the shelter.
PAWS takes in over 4,000 pets each year, with nearly two-thirds coming from the city's Animal Care and Control (AC&C) facility. (The rest are owner surrenders and kittens from a number of community cat projects and colonies they support.)
Nearly half of the pets they take from Chicago's Animal Care & Control are in need of medical care beyond vaccinations (which are usually administered at AC&C before the pets are even put into the transport vehicles), spay/neuter, and preventive treatment and physical examination. Many of these are kittens and puppies, 75% of which require more than basic veterinary care.
"We are able to take in so many sick animals from this massively high-risk population because of two factors," Michalek said. "The first is an innovative and dedicated shelter medicine team. The second is our amazing foster care network. At any given time, we average over 150 animals in foster care, every single day."
Part of their secret, too, is their "fast track" through the medical facility to the adoption center, what Shelter Medicine Director Dr. Barbara Hanek called "three paws down and they're out."
"Healthy pets move on to the adoption center after only two or three days," Michalek said. Kittens and puppies go into foster care until they've had two sets of vaccinations, as do pets that need more care or time, but don't require hospitalization.
Animals that need treatment get it, whether it's for ringworm, an orthopedic condition, an infectious disease like parvo, distemper, panleukopenia, skin conditions, heartworm, upper respiratory infections, diabetes, dental disease, or any other conditions that can be treated, even those that are very costly.
"Medical euthanasia is done only when the prognosis is for recovery is less than grave to poor and the animal is not responding to treatment, or there is a quality of life concern," said Michalek. "Providing life-saving medical care is core to our mission of making Chicago a 'no-kill' community."