Emerging Shelter Specialty Offers Informational Resources and Expanded Career Pathways for Veterinar

Shelters, once viewed as dead-end receptacles for unwanted pets, now represent a growing area of interest and opportunity for veterinary professionals, say doctors who view shelter medicine as a specialty.

“At one point if an animal sneezed or coughed all we could do was euthanize,” said Kate Hurley, DVM, who has a master’s degree in preventative veterinary medicine. “Now we can successfully isolate and treat without putting the rest of the population at risk.”

As director of the shelter program at UC Davis, Hurley and a small staff respond to about 1,000 questions from shelters each year. Issues vary from design and protocols for disease containment to environmental scanning. Fees for services provided vary, Hurley said, and some are covered by grants. Thanks to a new $1 million grant from the Koret Foundation, the staff is able to provide diagnostic consultations to shelters, which Hurley describes as a huge learning opportunity for the veterinary profession. Since many state labs will not work with shelters and many refuse to do full necropsies, “often there is no place for them to go,” and the information can prove to be very helpful to local practitioners, Hurley added.

An increasing number of students – and professionals – are enrolling in shelter medicine programs at veterinary medical schools and switching career paths to pursue a career in this evolving field.

“It is unbelievably rewarding to know that what I do helps many animals, not just the few that come through a practice,” said Catherine Mullin, VMD, MS, a resident of the UC Davis shelter medicine program. “The emergence of new infectious diseases that affect our pets is just one area where the role of shelter medicine can make significant contributions.”

Hurley recently worked with a Louisiana shelter where six dogs died from foot ulcerations and pneumonia. After conducting a necropsy, Hurley discovered bacteria that she traced back to the shelter’s disinfection system. In another case, she fielded a call from a veterinarian whose client fostered a shelter cat with ringworm, and also helped a rescue home decontaminate its environment after receiving a dog with parvo.

In addition to providing a necessary community resource – protecting pets from diseases that can affect entire populations – shelter veterinarians bridge a gap for medical services that clients may not be able to afford at private practices.

“It’s both an opportunity and an obligation,” Hurley said. “Shelters are the single biggest health threat to animals in the United States. If animals are dying homeless in shelters that is part of our profession.”

Reports of canine influenza, virulent systemic calici virus, and vaccine-resistant strains of diseases show how vulnerable communities are to diseases spread through shelters and other multiple animal environments. These diseases along with rumors that parvo and canine distemper are once again on the rise helps educate doctors and pet owners about the value of high-quality shelter medicine and design that prevents or contains the spread of disease.

“There has been more public focus upon animal welfare in the United States that has led to a new, more cohesive role for veterinarians in animal shelters,” Mullin added. “Shelter medicine, and even surgery, is in essence “herd” related, whereas most companion animal veterinarians have been trained in “individual” animal medicine. Therefore, shelter veterinarians must be trained specifically with shelters in mind, starting with professional students, and extending through resident training.”
The tide of recognition is turning as evidenced by the number of schools that offer shelter education and a growing interest in shelter medicine.

“Shelter medicine is just [one] of the myriad of specialties/fields a veterinarian can pursue,” said Crystal Mendiguren, DVM, one of the first students to complete the UC Davis shelter medicine program. “For me, it is an endlessly intriguing component of that group; one in which I can make a lasting difference to a large number of animals and their owners.”

At least seven veterinary schools in the United States have launched shelter residency or internship programs. A veterinary shelter association formed two years ago now boasts 30 members, and over the last five years a growing number of shelters in the country have hired doctors at salaries that compete with private practice, Hurley said. The group applied for specialty status with the American Board of Veterinary Specialties in 2005.

“We’ve made ourselves more valuable to shelters,” Hurley explained, pointing to educational opportunities that focus on high-population management, prevention of disease outbreak, and effective ways to disinfect environments.

The creation of veterinary programs and enhanced public perception of shelters has widened the scope of career potential to providing low-cost medical services at shelters, she said.

“There used to be a perception that shelter veterinarians and [private practice] veterinarians were not on the same side of the battle,” Hurley said. “That perception is changing as veterinarians realize that shelters do not pose a threat to their businesses and that doctors can make a living providing low-cost services.”

Complete veterinary care of shelter animals requires focused expertise combining elements of epidemiology, infectious disease control, behavioral, surgery and shelter management, Mullin added. “More specifically the shelter veterinarian is focused on keeping un-owned animals safe and healthy during their hopefully short shelter stay. Therefore, the emphasis is on vaccination; infectious disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment; strategies for control of companion animal overpopulation; personnel management; companion animal welfare and public health protection.