UF Online Shelter Medicine Course Helps Veterinarian Turn Troubled Shelter System Around

Published: November 16th, 2015

Category: Blog, Front Lines, News, Profiles

“Lots of shelters think veterinarians are just spay/neuter machines,” says Dr. Dumars, “but that’s not what shelter medicine is, or what shelter veterinarians have to contribute.”

“Lots of shelters think veterinarians are just spay/neuter machines,” says Dr. Dumars, “but that’s not what shelter medicine is, or what shelter veterinarians have to contribute.”

Dr. LeeAnn Dumars didn’t plan on practicing shelter medicine when she became a veterinarian in 1989. Today, she’s not only running a successful private practice, but is about to help transform troubled Fresno County Animal Control in California.

“This was a shelter that was euthanizing 98 percent of the cats who came in their door,” she said. During different periods of time the shelter was managed by various organizations, including a for-profit company, and community groups and shelter experts from UC Davis offered help. “But I just don’t think the shelter cared,” she said. “They were not in it for the animals.”

Dumars began her work with homeless pets in her community back in 1992, when she would adopt one adult dog each month from the Fresno SPCA, provide veterinary care including vaccinations and spay/neuter surgery, then find the dog a loving home.

“The SPCA couldn’t understand why I was doing this,” she said, “and it became very adversarial, so I had to stop.” Ten years later, one of her clients started working for the shelter, and recruited Dr. Dumars and her veterinary team as foster homes.

“After my first foster was a foster failure,” she said, laughing, “they called to see if anyone at my practice would be willing to foster and bottle feed a litter of puppies whose mother had been killed. I loved it, and found it a nice way to help.”

She then went on to get involved with a local rescue group, the Animal Compassion Team, which was trying to bring about change in the county shelter system during a time when it was under intense criticism for its operations and euthanasia rate. Her practice has been providing veterinary care to ACT’s animals ever since, as well as helping them develop a shelter building they acquired thanks to the generosity of a benefactor.

Dumars found she really liked working with shelter animals, and began trying to elevate the standard of medicine practiced at ACT and the local shelter. She brought in Dr. Richard Ford to help her advocate for the importance of vaccination on intake, and immersed herself in shelter medicine textbooks to get a handle on subjects like infectious diseases and sanitation.

“I talked to some people who had taken the University of Florida’s online shelter medicine course, spoke to some UF people at conferences, and finally decided I should do it,” she said.

“As I got into the coursework, I realized how much more there is than I’d realized, and how much I could do to help our local animals.”

“As I got into the coursework, I realized how much more there is than I’d realized, and how much I could do to help our local animals,” she said. “I thought it would be more about infectious diseases, more veterinary medicine-oriented, but never did I think it would include things like standard operation procedures (SOPs), data analysis, how to be more efficient, or how to help more animals.”

The experience solidified Dumars’ views on shelter medicine practice.  “Lots of shelters think veterinarians are just spay/neuter machines,” she said, “but that’s not what shelter medicine is, or what shelter veterinarians have to contribute.”

When Dr. Dumars was near the end of the online course this summer, she learned that the group running the Fresno shelter was in bankruptcy and the county was looking for another organization to take it over. Dr. Dumars and ACT were one of four groups who bid on the contract.

“I was still in the class as we went through the process,” she said, “and I was able to get advice from other students in the class. Everything fell into place.”

ACT and Dumars, operating as Fresno Humane Animal Services, were awarded the contract in part because of her shelter medicine expertise along with their promise to improve community goodwill and save more animals.

“I’m helping them set up all the business elements of the contract, am in charge of all veterinary policy including SOPs for sanitation, flow of animals, staffing – I have a big voice in policy and operations.”

Dr. Dumars is definitely not on board as a “spay/neuter machine.” She said, “I’m helping them set up all the business elements of the contract, am in charge of all veterinary policy including SOPs for sanitation, flow of animals, staffing – I have a big voice in policy and operations.”

She’s also utilizing what she learned in the online shelter medicine course to guide the transformation of the Fresno shelter system, including its focus on behavioral health. “We’re getting dogs who are strays, who have an unknown history, have received unknown care,” she said. Shelter animals, she pointed out, are under a lot of stress, which can cause both health and behavior issues that tend to discourage people from adopting from shelters – the exact situation she had been seeing in Fresno County.

“Being a private practitioner, I know people need and want to enjoy their pets, not just have them,” she said. “They’ll live with that animal for 10-15 years, and that relationship should be rewarding. That’s why our job in the shelter is to help the animals become the best possible pet an owner can choose.”

“It used to be 75 percent of my clients would buy purebred dogs, but now about 85 percent of my clients and people in my community are adopting rescue dogs, and feel really strongly about it. As veterinarians, we need to change, because it’s what the community we serve demands from us.”

Other programs and policies that grew out of Dumars’ experience with the online course included the development of intervention programs designed to keep pets out of shelters and in their loving homes, and the implementation of neuter-return programs for community cats.

“I’d heard of TNR,” she said, “but I’d never heard of the ‘Feral Freedom’ programs, not taking healthy community cats into shelters. With a 98 percent euthanasia rate for cats in Fresno, this was one we needed.”

Dr. LeeAnn Dumars

Dr. LeeAnn Dumars

Dumars believes her involvement with shelter medicine is part of a bigger movement that veterinarians need to recognize and take part in. “It used to be 75 percent of my clients would buy purebred dogs, but now about 85 percent of my clients and people in my community are adopting rescue dogs, and feel really strongly about it. As veterinarians, we need to change, because it’s what the community we serve demands from us.”

Pointing out that private practice has changed, too, she said, “If you had told me when I was in veterinary school that my practice would involve doggy daycare and VIP boarding with ice cream hour and nature walks, I’d have laughed at you. But that’s what people want. And guess what? They also want homeless pets to get great veterinary care. It’s a good thing!”

Dumars is clear on what she’d tell her colleagues in veterinary medicine. “It used to be, if you couldn’t get a job in a veterinary practice you went to the shelter. But now that there are shelter medicine programs in veterinary schools, and so many amazing specialists are involved, that’s changed. But I don’t think a lot of veterinarians are aware of that change. I think a lot of them wonder why you’d need a shelter medicine specialty just to do spay/neuter. They just don’t know.”

She said she’d advise her veterinary colleagues that even if they don’t plan on working in a shelter, from a private practice perspective, taking the online course can give them valuable knowledge that will enrich and improve their private practice by enabling them to more skillfully treat the growing number of shelter and rescue pets who their clients are bringing to them.

“Where else can we get access to these incredibly smart people, these great specialists?” Dumars asked. “Dr. Kate Hurley, Dr. Julie Levy, Dr. Brenda Griffin, the behavior experts… it was an amazing opportunity that no veterinarian should dismiss without exploring what it has to offer.”

To learn more about the University of Florida’s online Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program, which offers an online master’s degree and an online graduate certificate in shelter medicine offered through a partnership with the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and Maddie’s Fund®, visit http://onlinesheltermedicine.vetmed.ufl.edu/.