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Sheltering Arms

Shelter MedicineAn emerging veterinary specialty cares for the lost, the abandoned, the abused.


For weeks, Cocoa Star, a kitten recovering from multiple surgeries, lived on Martha Smith's desk at the Animal Rescue League of Boston shelter in the South End. "She came to us after she was caught in a fan belt in a car in Charlestown," says Smith, V97, director of veterinary medical services at the shelter. "She was a stray, a beautiful Siamese about five months old. She had horrible tears to her skin and had required a lot of reconstructive surgery."

Although Cocoa Star had an implanted microchip from a shelter in the Midwest, information linking her to an adopter could not be found. Smith tried advertising in the newspaper, but no one claimed the cat. "She was from Cedar Falls, Iowa, and someone had cared enough about her to move her to Boston," Smith says. "But she ended up with us. We put her back together, and it took many months, but she got adopted out, and her story had a happy ending."

It's successes like these that get Smith up in the morning and energize her for her work as a shelter veterinarian. As a student at the Cummings School, working in a shelter wasn't part of her career plan, because until recently, most U.S. veterinary schools did not include shelter medicine among their menu of curricula.

Until recently, most U.S. veterinary schools did not include shelter medicine among their menu of curricula. That has changed as the notion of shelter animals as throwaways is no longer accepted.

That has changed as the notion of shelter animals as throwaways is no longer accepted. Animal welfare organizations and the public are demanding medical care and permanent homes, not euthanasia, from the shelters that harbor lost, homeless or unwanted animals. And as the practice of euthanizing healthy animals as a way to control population has become increasingly unacceptable, shelters have found themselves struggling with caring for burgeoning numbers of pets, rising costs and the complex medical challenges of managing animals with unknown or incomplete medical histories.

Although there is no national clearinghouse for data on animal shelters, the Humane Society of the United States estimates that shelters care for between 5 and 7 million dogs and cats every year; approximately 3 to 4 million of them are euthanized. Another 2 to 3 million are placed in permanent homes. And while 63 percent of American households have pets, only about 16 percent of those households adopt from shelters, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association.

Keeping these shelter animals healthy (they're at higher risk for infectious diseases and may pose a threat to public health through rabies and other diseases transmitted from animals to humans), and training veterinarians to care for them and pre-pare them for adoption, have become urgent needs.

Enter shelter medicine. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians, founded in 2003, now has some 600 members and a dozen student chapters—including one at the Cummings School. The association is pursuing board-specialty status for the field. Programs in shelter medicine are offered at a number of U.S. veterinary schools, and the Humane Society of the United States publishes the bimonthly Animal Sheltering magazine.

At the Cummings School, veterinarians in the Center for Animals and Public Policy and the department of clinical sciences are partnering with the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to design and establish a shelter medicine training program at Tufts. The goal is to offer a certificate in shelter medicine.

Like many of the programs that have successfully launched at the Cummings School, the impetus for the shelter medicine program began with the students.

Like many of the programs that have successfully launched at the Cummings School, the impetus for the shelter medicine program began with the students. At least half of the students applying for admission write about their interest in animal sheltering. Many have obtained animal-care experience through volunteering or working at an animal shelter.

Three years ago, Annette Rauch, V86, G01, who is interim director of Tufts' nascent shelter medicine program, supported a group of Cummings students in their desire to launch the Tufts Shelter Medicine Club, now among the most active student groups on campus. The club sponsors educational seminars, takes groups of students on field trips to shelters and holds a yearly drive to provide food, toys, blankets and other supplies to local shelters. And just last spring, the club sponsored a free vaccination clinic for pet owners in the Worcester area.

In their exit interviews before they graduate from the Cummings School, students often express their desire for more surgical training and for more exposure to shelter medicine. The shelter medicine program will address both issues by establishing new courses and surgical and shelter rotation electives.

This fall, in a first step toward full implementation of the program, students had the opportunity to perform additional surgeries on shelter animals in the school's Luke & Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic, under the supervision of Susan L. Mitchell, V91, an assistant professor of clinical sciences. (continued)

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Feature written by Catherine Grace, editor, Tufts Veterinary Medicine

Photos by Jared Leeds

This story ran online on Jan. 5, 2008. It originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Tufts Veterinary Medicine.