What is the Role of a Veterinarian in Animal Shelters

2007 by Richard Avanzino

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Shelter medicine is a relatively new concept. Historically, animal shelters were little more than processing centers where dogs and cats were either adopted or euthanized within a very few days. Pets coming in with any signs of injury or illness were generally euthanized immediately.

With the rise of the no-kill movement and the decline in shelter intake in the 1990's, many shelters began to house animals longer and to treat pets who were sick or injured. In these shelters, veterinarians are a must if adequate care is to be provided.

The growing demand for shelter veterinarians has prompted almost all veterinary colleges to provide shelter medicine education through coursework, residencies, or externships. (Maddie's Fund is proud to have awarded the University of California, Davis a three year grant to start the nation's first comprehensive shelter medicine program in January 2001.)

Generally speaking, the study of shelter medicine in veterinary colleges consists of small animal population health management with an emphasis on infectious disease control and prevention. Other aspects covered by shelter medicine courses include individual animal care, behavior assessment and environmental enrichment. Related areas include surgery, cruelty investigation, forensics, facility design and shelter management.

As encompassing as shelter medicine is, however, veterinarians in many shelters are still tasked almost exclusively with spay/neuter surgeries. This begs the question: what is the role of the veterinarian in today's animal shelter?

We can find a good model in human medicine. Hospitals employ both a CEO and a Medical Director who reports to the CEO but is responsible for overall patient care. In my opinion, shelter veterinarians should have the same authority to make decisions for patient care as the Medical Director in a human hospital.

Veterinarians in animal shelters shouldn't be tucked away in surgery suites doing nothing but neutering. They should be writing policies and protocols for vet techs, kennel attendants, adoption counselors and volunteers. They should be providing wellness programs for the healthy, directing treatment or rehabilitation plans for the sick, and performing corrective surgery on animals in need. They should be out on the floor to see that animals are properly housed. They should make sure that cleaning, handling, vaccination and quarantine protocols are followed, and they should ensure that behavioral needs (rehabilitation, enrichment, exercise, companionship) are met.

A shelter veterinarian should constantly scrutinize the overall wellbeing of the shelter's animals. If a veterinarian spots deficiencies that put an animal's physical or mental health at risk, it is the veterinarian's responsibility to report that to the shelter administrator and to recommend changes. They may not have the authority to make the changes in all cases, but as the shelter's medical expert, the veterinarian's opinion should be very carefully considered, just as one would listen to legal counsel or to the chief financial officer in corporate America.

To some, especially to the new breed of shelter veterinarians, this sounds obvious and so elementary it's barely worth mentioning. And yet, it's disappointing to hear that many shelter directors still don't give veterinarians adequate responsibility and authority to protect and provide for the health of the shelter animals. Periodically we hear horror stories about shelters where animals are suffering in terrible conditions even though a full- time veterinarian is on staff. Either the doctor can't or won't step in because they are relegated to spay/neuter surgery, or when they do try to advocate for the animals, their opinions and suggestions are ignored.

Maddie's Fund believes that the education, expertise and talent of veterinarians practicing in shelters require that they do far more than perform spay/neuter surgeries. If shelter directors fail to consult their veterinarian or ignore their veterinarian's recommendations at the animal's peril, they need to be held to account.

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