The inside story on becoming board-certified in shelter medicine

Since shelter medicine became a recognized veterinary specialty, there have been only two opportunities for veterinarians to become boarded in shelter medicine. One who took the grueling board exams and is now a specialist is the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program’s own Dr. Julie Levy. We spoke to Dr. Levy on her role in the development of the specialty and the impact it will have on shelters, shelter animals, and the veterinary profession.

Q: Dr. Levy, how were you involved with the process of establishing a specialty in shelter medicine and the board exams?

Dr. Levy: I’ve been honored to spend the past decade working with a team of pioneers to conceive what the specialty of shelter medicine would encompass. Although veterinarians had been working in shelters for eons, once we sat down to define it, we realized what a massive amount of expertise shelter veterinarians might be called upon to draw upon.

We started with a job task analysis in which hundreds of veterinarians described what they do every day. That led to a daunting list, including optimizing physical and behavioral health, protecting public health, alleviating animal homelessness, addressing cruelty, managing shelters, and advancing the field of shelter medicine.

Once we defined what shelter medicine was, we developed standards for residency training and a non-residency path to certification for practicing shelter veterinarians. The new specialty petition was accepted, and we’ve already completed two rounds of specialty examinations resulting in the first new specialists in shelter medicine.

I’m proud that of the first groups of new specialists, three of them were residents trained at the University of Florida: Dr. Amie Burling and Dr. Staci Cannon took the exam with me, and Dr. Brian DiGangi was certified with the first wave of candidates the year before. I’m so proud of the impact they’re having at the forefront of change for shelter animal care.

Q: What difference will a shelter medicine specialty make for shelters and homeless pets? How about for you, personally and professionally?

Dr. Levy: Having a recognized specialty will have important impacts on several fronts. These new specialists will populate veterinary schools to train future veterinarians to fill the gap that currently exists between the number of open positions in shelters and spay/neuter clinics and professionals who have the skills and compassion to elevate the care of shelter animals.

They are also taking leadership positions in shelters across the globe and serving as hands-on training sites and mentors for other shelters.

And finally, they are researching the persistent problems shelters face and developing solutions and evidence-based guidelines that will make shelters and the communities they serve better places to live for both residents and animals.

Sometimes ten years seems like a long time to turn the spotlight on the under-appreciated work that shelter veterinarians have been doing on behalf of our communities. On other days, it feels like everything changed virtually overnight, and our new specialty has a seat at the profession’s leadership table.

Q: What surprised you the most about the process of studying for and taking the boards?

Dr. Levy: I was pretty intimidated about the scope of material I knew I would need to study. I had been through intensive study before when I became a board certified small animal internist, but I’m older now and have to work harder for things to stick. But just like my first specialization exam, the process of structured intensive study gave me a better grasp of a lot of material I wasn’t as familiar with. I thought the two-day exam was very hard, but fair. I don’t think anyone looks forward to sitting through a high-stakes exam, but everyone I spoke to afterward felt like they were a smarter shelter veterinarian after going through it.