UF Shelter Medicine Program unique in country

Student Lauren Gray with the newest member of her furry family (now named Otis.
Student Lauren Gray with the newest member of her furry family, now named Otis.

Maddie’s Fund, the Pet Rescue Project, has made possible a UF program that focuses on training veterinarians to be an integral part of saving pets’ lives in animal shelters.

Thanks to a $5.2 million program grant to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine that began in 2008 — the largest gift made to date by Maddie’s Fund, The Pet Rescue Foundation, to any veterinary school in the country – homeless animals in shelters throughout the state are receiving better care, and training opportunities for UF veterinary students and shelter medicine-oriented professionals continue to advance in new and exciting ways.

“Virtually all of our programs focus on teaching veterinary students, residents or interns,” said Dr. Julie Levy, the Maddie’s Professor of Shelter Medicine at UF and program leader. “In addition to the more traditional didactic courses and externships, research projects and shelter consultations are always selected to incorporate a substantial training component.”

For example, this past summer, six veterinary students from UF worked on research projects to help solve important issues that shelters face and presented their preliminary findings at the program’s annual conference.

Advancing Shelter Medicine Education

“There is tremendous student interest in shelter medicine training,” Levy said. A shelter medicine certificate program was created in 2009, allowing veterinary students to amass additional credits within shelter medicine through a variety of approved courses and activities. Currently 45 UF veterinary students are enrolled in the shelter medicine certificate program, with seven graduates of the college having completed the program through 2012.

“Our certificate program has expanded in a relatively short time to be the biggest such program at the college,” Levy said. “In addition, we have experienced huge growth in our incoming trainee class.”

As of July, the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF has been training three residents and two interns in shelter medicine, the largest house officer group of any veterinary school.

This past summer, the program launched yet another training initiative with a new online graduate course in shelter medicine. The course, titled “Integrating Veterinary Medicine and Shelter Systems,” is the first of its kind anywhere, Levy added.

“This program will bring shelter medicine training to veterinary students at other schools, to current practitioners and even to private veterinarians who want to apply this unique type of veterinary medicine at their local shelter,” Levy said.

Helping Animal Shelters Save Lives

For five years in a row, the program has sponsored Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Conference, providing nationally recognized speakers on topics including the use of veterinary forensic science to fight animal cruelty, animal hoarding, how to improve the outcomes of impounded animals by controlling infectious diseases in shelter populations and strategies for ending the use of euthanasia for population control. These conferences typically sell out, and draw shelter veterinarians, directors, technicians and volunteers, Levy said.

Faculty, staff and others associated with UF’s Maddie’s Fund program have assisted in providing veterinary assessments in several high-profile animal abuse and rescue situations, working collaboratively with the UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s disaster response team and other agencies including the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Florida State Agricultural Response Team. The program also provides assistance and consultation directly to animal shelters.

“We were excited that the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF was able to evaluate our organization two years ago,” said Danya Parks-Freel, director of operations at the Jacksonville Humane Society. “The Maddie’s team was able to effectively identify areas of improvement and gave constructive criticism, along with providing suggestions on how to improve efficiencies.”

As a result, her organization has been able to put systems in place that have long lasting, life-saving benefits for animals in Jacksonville, Parks-Freel added.