How a new generation of veterinarians is transforming animal sheltering

Is shelter medicine education really transforming animal sheltering? Absolutely, say director Scott Trebatoski and chief veterinarian Dr. Lisa Centonze of Florida’s Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center.

The two started interviewing veterinarians for an open position this spring, and found it was almost impossible to pick among them. “It was incredibly hard to make a choice,” said Centonze. “We’d have gladly hired four out of six of the applicants. In the past, we never really had a choice; there was always just one we felt comfortable with. The applicants we see now are really outstanding, not just qualified.”

Trebatoski said, “If you’d had looked at that same pool five years ago, the one we considered the least qualified now would have been the top candidate five years ago, and we’d have been happy with that person!”

During the application process at Hillsborough PRC, they ask functional questions and present real-world scenarios to the candidates. “In the past, in order to answer, people would say they needed more information, needed to know our protocols, before they could respond,” Trebatoski said. “At best, you’d get choppy answers. Now, they barely take a breath, just go right into the answer; they don’t need to know our policies or protocols before coming up with their own approach. We get answers we’d not only anticipated as minimally acceptable, but responses that show they are technically adept at shelter treatment and herd management, and know what the difference is between shelter medicine and private practice.”

In fact, he said, new hires with shelter medicine training actually help the shelter look at its protocols. “Instead of being the doe caught in the headlights in the first year, they come in and say, ‘Did you ever consider…’ And sometimes we say, ‘es, but we’ve never had anyone to spearhead it — do you want to?’ And they do.”

He continued, “The reason today’s veterinarians are coming into shelter medicine is to advance the field, which dovetails perfectly with our long term plans.Where once we’d bring them on and they were experimenting, now they’ve plotted out their course and want to bring programs to us rather than us giving them something to take on. I’ve been doing this since 2000, and I can’t ever remember sitting in interviews with candidates for veterinary positions and being blown away like this.”

Thanks to its Florida location, the shelter has seen many students and applicants who have been trained in shelter medicine by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF.

“Two years ago we had a vet student here from UF,” Centonze said. “I always take the students out to lunch on their last day to debrief and give feedback. She gave me the idea for our ‘Wait Until 8’ program, which has been a great success. These students do consults with shelters all over the country, while I don’t have the opportunity to see shelters in different areas, so that gives them a powerful advantage.”

Another veterinarian, Dr. Mallory Offner, who graduated from UF in 2014 and interned in San Diego, looked at Hillsborough’s ringworm protocol. It had been developed with UF’s Dr. Cynda Crawford using the protocol from the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Centonze said, “She took a look and said, ‘This drug isn’t the best for cats. How about we switch to terbinafine?’ I’m learning from a young whippersnapper! So I asked her to revise our protocol to align it with the most current standard of care.

“She took it on. She knew about infectious disease control, and she taught me something new. And three years ago Hillsborough wasn’t even treating cats with ringworm! Treating them and cats with scabies was one of the things Scott and I did when we got here, to save more lives without risking the other pets or staff. It’s all helped us get up to an 85 percent release rate for cats.”

Trebatoski added, “We have a lot of people we didn’t know who already knew about us through UF, so not only are they becoming better trained, they’re starting to network. A lot of the people connecting with our shelter are also looking at what we’d consider the top shelters in the country, so UF is a good professional network in addition to the resources and training it offers.”

The elevation of shelter medicine practice has had a positive effect on morale throughout the shelter. “These veterinarians are coming in a year or more down the road from where they’d have been at the same point int he past,” he said. “They come in already understanding the shelter, and looking to advance from day one.

“From a director’s standpoint, I feel I don’t really have to worry about who might be back in our veterinary area. If Lisa is out for some reason, in the past I would spend more time making sure all the animals’ needs were met, but now I have full confidence if a medical call needs to be made, they know the right thing to do. I’m very proud of the work they do, so if I’m talking to someone in sheltering who says ‘Vets!’ in a disparaging way, I say, ‘I’ve never had better vets.'”

That boost in morale goes for veterinarians, too. “As a vet who graduated 14 years ago when shelter med was kind of a dirty word, there was no pathway for shelter medicine advancement,” said Centonze. “Most shelters in Florida didn’t even have vets, or they were vets who couldn’t get a job somewhere else, or only worked part time. Now we adopt out FIV and FeLV cats into homes. It makes me proud to be a shelter vet. And when I see these new shelter vets who are amazing and so well prepared, and give the profession a good name? It’s incredible.”

Word about the rise of shelter medicine practice has spread beyond animal welfare circles. “This shelter has proven over the last 3-4 years to really know what we’re doing, and to be practicing good to great standards of care,” said Centonize. “I was asked two years ago by the local veterinary medical society to speak to members about shelter medicine, and it was packed!”

Trebatoski laughed. “Shelter vets who have been around for a long time need to be sure they’re keeping their CE up in shelter med, or these new guys are going to come along and bump them out with their superior knowledge.”

He continued, “It’s a real testament to the shelter medicine faculty at UF and their devotion to teaching. I’m amazed at what such a small group of people up there have done in training and education for so many students. We had 12 vet students doing externships with us last year, ten from UF — surgical, medical, animal handling skills, plus passion and attitude — all outstanding!”

Shelter medicine has also provided the shelter team with direct support and education. “Taking a shelter from average to great has been so much easier since the shelter medicine programs have been around.It used to be I wouldn’t have felt I could get expert veterinary advice as a non-vet,” Trebatoski said. “Now, I can take my crazy ideas and say, ‘What do you think?’ and get intelligent feedback on it from experts.”

Centonze mentors the veterinary student externs at PRC, and says the present is a world different from the past in terms of quality of shelter medicine. “We’ve had quite an influx of students from UF and all over the country wanting to do externships with us,” she said. “They’re so much more experienced and prepared than students of a few years ago. I no longer have that knot in my stomach when I supervise them. It’s a pleasure to work with them, and I learn form them as well as teaching them. The shelter medicine programs give a great service preparing them to be good students and ultimately great vets.”