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Sheltering Arms

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"The spay clinic has the dual mission of serving the local animal shelter community—which means doing up to 30 surgeries a week—and teaching our students," says Emily McCobb, V00, G03, an anesthesiologist at Tufts' Veterinary Emergency Treatment & Specialties (VETS) in Walpole, Mass., who served on the working group to develop the shelter medicine program. Contributions from Cummings School overseers V. Duncan and Diana L. Johnson, who've adopted many of their pets from shelters, the Kenneth A. Scott Charitable Trust, the Trimix Foundation and the Massachusetts Animal Coalition have helped support the program.

Training more veterinarians in the field will improve the lives of millions of homeless animals in shelters throughout the United States, not only in terms of providing care but in making the public aware of the enormous needs of this animal population. (Even President-elect Barack Obama says the First Dog, a campaign promise to his two young daughters, may arrive at the White House via a shelter.)

"When shelters were started 150 years ago, many people looked at the animals in them as unnecessary... Now we believe it's a worthy enterprise to keep these animals."

— Annette Rauch, V86, G01

"When shelters were started 150 years ago, many people looked at the animals in them as unnecessary, as unwanted throwaway animals, and they were just put to sleep," Rauch says. "We have evolved to have a more compassionate outlook. Now we believe it's a worthy enterprise to keep these animals.

Animals are also staying at shelters for longer periods of time, she notes. "They may live there for a week, a month or a year before they find a home. We want a 'forever' home for every animal, but to make that happen we want to make sure that our animals are medically and behaviorally healthy—and that's where shelter medicine comes in."

Training veterinary students to recognize the special needs of shelter animals, and how to diagnose and treat them, is critically important to addressing long-term solutions for this vulnerable population of animals, Rauch says. Because the typical patients Cummings students see during their in-hospital training have devoted owners and are well cared for, they are not exposed to the range of problems that can afflict animals that have not had regular preventive care, or have been abused or neglected. The new shelter medicine program—including rotations at the busy Boston shelters affiliated with it—will provide experiences students may otherwise not get during their traditional D.V.M. studies.

Shelter Medicine

Annette Rauch, V86, G01, left, and Emily McCobb, V00, G03, spearheaded the development of the new shelter medicine curriculum at the Cummings School.

The Cummings School is ideally situated to offer a concentration in shelter medicine, says McCobb of Tufts VETS. "We are lucky that New England is such a nexus of animal welfare. We have leaders in our state at the MSPCA, the Animal Rescue League of Boston, as well as the Massachusetts Animal Coalition—and there are many other small rescue organizations and animal welfare organizations here. As a region, we are considered progressive and animal-welfare-oriented. So the resources for our students are great," she says.

"If you're welfare motivated, if you care about not just the individual animals but also the problems we have with animal welfare in our society, shelter medicine is a nice niche," says McCobb, who's also a director of the Massachusetts Animal Coalition. "You can really feel like you're making a difference. You become the advocate for all the animals that are in the shelter and those that will be in the shelter in the future."

Two of those advocates graduated from the Cummings School more than a decade ago, before shelter medicine had found its way.

"I really hope that this specialty becomes more prevalent and more of an opportunity for new graduates. It offers everything you ever wanted to do as a vet."

— Gary L. Weitzman, V89

"The shelter environment used to be difficult to work in," says Gary L. Weitzman, V89, chair of the District of Columbia Board of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of the Washington Animal Rescue League. "But that's not where the specialty is now. Shelters are not dark dingy places anymore. Really good shelters have associated hospitals and are doing cutting-edge medicine. And I love it. I really hope that this specialty becomes more prevalent and more of an opportunity for new graduates. It offers everything you ever wanted to do as a vet."

Weitzman began his career in private practice before joining the Air Force and working in public health. He also managed a breast cancer research program for the U.S. Army. Eventually, back in civilian life, he opened a practice in San Francisco. After selling it, he moved to Washington, D.C., to help direct a congressional cancer research program.

To keep his hand in veterinary medicine, he volunteered at the Washington Animal Rescue League. "They said, 'By the way, we need a medical director. Are you interested?' And I said, one million percent, yes."

He's never looked back. Although Weitzman welcomes the opportunity to practice hands-on medicine, he says the really great moments come when the animals find homes. "When you are in the lobby and you see a dog or a cat that you worked on going home to a new family—our front desk will make an announcement, like 'Zydeco is going home!'—that's the best thing." (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.