The unprecedented animal lifesaving we see sweeping the country today came about hand in hand with the rise of shelter medicine.
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 1990s, many shelters began to house animals longer and to treat pets who were sick or injured. This watershed moment in sheltering history gave rise to the field of shelter medicine.
At the time, the growing demand for shelter veterinarians prompted almost all veterinary colleges to provide shelter medicine education through coursework, residencies or externships. Since 1999, Maddie's Fund has invested nearly $25 million to train future and current veterinarians in shelter medicine, including the nation's first shelter medicine residency and first comprehensive shelter medicine program.
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, bringing us to a new watershed issue: 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 well being 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.
This not only should change, it must and will change.
Shelter medicine is now a recognized veterinary specialty. In a recent survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association, shelter medicine was second only to general practice as the field current veterinary students were most interested in pursuing after graduation. And in a continuation of our longstanding commitment to shelter medicine, Maddie's Fund recently launched our Shelter Medicine Changes Everything campaign, designed to inform the public about the lifesaving contribution of shelter veterinarians, inspire veterinary students to enter the field, help university programs and donors to more clearly understand the important role shelter medicine plays, as well as encourage shelter directors to hire staff veterinarians.
It is no longer acceptable or possible that the education, expertise and talent of veterinarians practicing in shelters be limited to the practice of spay/neuter surgeries. Today's shelter directors and veterinarians need to work together as a team, with shelter veterinarians being given a policy role consistent with their training and expertise. This is what the veterinary profession expects and what the animals deserve.
This commentary is updated from a 2007 editorial by Richard Avanzino.