Veterinary specialty spotlight: shelter medicine

William Woods Undergraduate

In the 1990’s the first courses in shelter animal health were being introduced to a few veterinary colleges across the country. Now, shelter medicine is part of the core curriculum in nearly every veterinary college in North America.

Furthermore, The Journal of The American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) reports that what started as a grassroots movement back in 2001, The Association of Shelter Veterinarians has become a well-know organization with thousands of members, including over 700 veterinarians and student chapters in 22 veterinary colleges.

It is for these reasons and more that The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Executive Board unanimously voted in 2014 to recognize Shelter Medicine Practice as a veterinary specialty.

So what does it look like to specialize in shelter medicine?

Unlike small animal practice that focuses on the individual patient, vets working in shelter medicine focus on the well-being of an entire population of cats and dogs and take into account their unique shelter environment.

“Shelter medicine is a very, very unique blend of population and individual health care,” Dr. Griffin, a professor of shelter medicine at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine said in the JAVMA article.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) also explains that the primary goal of shelter medicine is disease prevention rather than simply treating disease, which can be costly, time-consuming and can put other animals in the shelter at risk.

“Shelter medicine must balance the physical and behavioral needs of the individual animal with the overall health of the herd without jeopardizing the welfare of either one,” ASPCA goes on to explain.

Each veterinary specialty comes with its set of challenges, and shelter medicine is no different. Here are just a few challenges you may face in this career:

  • You will be working with animals who have unknown histories and vague backgrounds of disease exposure.
  • If you work in an open admissions shelter that must accept all animals regardless of capacity, you will face the issue of an overcrowded work environment.
  • Overcrowding can make it difficult for veterinarians to test for diseases, set quarantines, and practice other procedures.
  • Most small-herd health management protocols were developed with budgets and resources from hospitals, kennels or laboratories in mind and are not always directly applicable to shelters.
  • Shelters have open access and a level of accountability to the public when treating an animal that may be adopted and brought back into the community.

However, with these challenges you will have the reward of knowing that you are helping a population of homeless animals in need and working toward the hope of preparing them for a new home and family in the future.

For William Woods bachelors in biology students within the pre-veterinary concentration, shelter medicine is just one of the many specialties to consider when preparing to apply for veterinary school.

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