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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Shelter Medicine

One of the big things that sets No Kill apart from traditional animal sheltering is that No Kill treats the treatables. The development of shelter medicine over the last 15 years has helped make it possible to give shelter animals the same chance at treatment as animals with homes. But that’s only the beginning of the advancements shelter medicine has made and is making. Shelter medicine is just now beginning to mature as a specialty, and its practitioners are going beyond simply treating shelter animals to developing protocols for all aspects of shelter care.

Fifteen years ago there was no shelter medicine specialty and most people thought that a shelter job was the bottom of the barrel for a veterinarian. The first formal class in shelter medicine did not take place until 1999. It was a cooperative effort between the ASPCA and Cornell University and was taught by Dr. Jan Scarlett and Dr. Lila Miller. Also in 1999 Maddie’s Fund awarded a grant for the first shelter medicine residency program, at the University of California at Davis. The resident was Dr. Kate Hurley, who is now head of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Another big milestone was the formation of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) in 2001. In 2002, UC Davis started its pioneer shelter medicine program. In 2004 a textbook of veterinary medicine was published.

Today many veterinary schools have shelter medicine programs or residencies or both, shelter medicine classes are offered as continuing education at conferences, and there are over 1500 members of the ASV. Just last April, the executive board of the American Veterinary Medical Association unanimously voted to recognize shelter medicine as a specialty.

Maddie’s Institute is the “academic division” of Maddie’s Fund, and it has produced and made available a series of informational videos and webcasts on shelter medicine and other topics. As Rich Avanzino says, shelter medicine is a hybrid between herd medicine and companion animal care. Infection control in an animal shelter requires looking at the shelter population as a whole, but shelter veterinarians may also go to great lengths to save individual animals. Shelter veterinarians must balance the cost considerations common to herd medicine with the focus on the life of each individual that governs companion animal medicine.

Shelter medicine specialists are involved today with so many aspects of sheltering that it’s hard to imagine how shelters ever got along without them. Shelter vets have developed protocols on infection control, including vaccinating on intake. They are making big changes in how temperament is evaluated in shelters. Housing for mental and physical health, shelter flow-through, length-of-stay, and capacity control are all issues that shelter medicine has influenced. TNR programs are dependent on help from the veterinary profession. One of the most exciting new directions in No Kill is the Million Cat Challenge, which is run by Dr. Hurley and Dr. Julie Levy of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine program at the University of Florida.

Another phenomenon we are seeing is that academic shelter medicine programs can work in their local communities to raise live release rates. The University of Florida program is a good example, as it has worked with the Alachua County and Gainesville shelter system for years. The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine has a program, Operation Catnip, that does TNR for feral and unowned cats. The involvement of shelter medicine programs has helped expand the scope of what shelters can do. Fifteen years ago it would have been highly unusual for a shelter to even attempt to treat a parvo pup, for example. Today such tough cases are much more likely to be treated and saved.

Shelter medicine specialists can also serve an important primary or supporting role in consulting. The Irvine, California, shelter has been the subject of a lot of criticism in the last several months, and the city brought in a shelter-medicine consultant who trained at the UC Davis program to weigh in on the issues of euthanasia and behavior evaluations.

There have been some bumps in the road. Because shelter medicine is so new and because it is a hybrid type of practice, it does not always fit neatly into existing rules and expectations. An example of this has been the controversy in Texas over the powers of shelter veterinarians. Hopefully problems like these can be worked out expeditiously now that the importance of shelter medicine in lifesaving is beyond question.


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