What began as a way to help cats in one community has grown to a global educational model educating shelter and private practice veterinarians in high quality, high volume spay/neuter programs, thanks to 15 years of funding from PetSmart Charities.
PetSmart Charities has long been a pioneer in recognizing the importance of high quality, high volume spay/neuter and lifesaving community cat management programs. They’ve been providing funding to UF since 2003, most critically through their support of Operation Catnip, which has sterilized more than 57,000 cats and is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. Its MASH-style operation and teaching structure is outlined on a mentoring website, also funded by PetSmart Charities, which allows other programs to duplicate its groundbreaking system.
The Operation Catnip program loans traps to community members, who bring the cats to a monthly clinic at the UF veterinary school to be sterilized and vaccinated, after which they’re returned to their caregivers for release the next day. It is designed to provide:
- Hands-on experience in sterilization surgery beyond that of the basic required curriculum
- Training and hands-on experience in pediatric sterilization surgery
- Exposure to animal welfare issues, including an understanding of how unplanned and uncontrolled breeding produces millions of homeless pets who fill animal shelters and, if not placed, often are euthanized
Last year, the annual number of spay/neuter surgeries in the program totalled 3,193, half of which were performed by students, and 675 on cats under 5 months of age. The program is on track for similar numbers this year.
“Operation Catnip is the largest university-based TNR program in the world, and through the mentoring website, its model has been adopted by veterinary schools and spay/neuter programs across the globe,” said Dr. Julie Levy, the Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. “PetSmart Charities should be very proud of this work,”
The College of Veterinary Medicine at UF offers one of the most comprehensive shelter medicine programs in the world, including a 3-year long elective Certificate in Shelter Medicine that prepares students for practice in shelters and spay/neuter clinics. However, depending on the individual path taken by a student, it’s possible to graduate with only one or two surgeries performed during veterinary school.
“Compare that to the several hundred surgeries if there is regular participation in the TNR program, spay/neuter externships, and clerkships in community outreach and shelter medicine,” said Levy. “Our students can be practice-ready in surgery on day one of their first job.”
Dr. Sandy MacArthur, a 2016 graduate and current orthopedic surgery research fellow at the UF CVM, agreed. “A university-based trap-neuter-return program like Operation Catnip provides students with experience in the pre-operative care, technical skill acquisition, and post-operative planning that it takes to become a successful practitioner,” she said. “Over the course of my veterinary medical education, I performed hundreds of sterilization surgeries and special procedures with Operation Catnip. Its multi-faceted training program allows for a safe and humane manner for surgical skill acquisition thereby producing more competent, confident, and skillful surgeons.”
The surgical edge is part of the attraction of the training program for many students, including recent grad Dr. Carly Dworkin, currently in private practice in Tampa. “Going into private practice, I was able to start booking surgeries right away,” she said. “I started on a Monday, and on Tuesday I had surgeries.”
That experience, while important, isn’t what had the most impact on Dworkin, however. “I have a more balanced understanding of things,” she said. “I feel a strong connection to shelters, even though I’m not working in one right now. It’s a more holistic perspective. The program gave me the best surgical experience, but it also taught me that a lot of things are possible, and even helping in little ways goes a long way. Just yesterday, I was able to neuter a community cat who just showed up on our hospital doorstep! I want to be able to go home and know I’ve cared for the animals in my community, whether or not they have an owner.”
The teaching component of the PetSmart Charities-funded model holds huge promise for the future of spay/neuter. “The surgeries are performed by vet students and local veterinary volunteers; around half are done by students under the direct supervision of a veterinarian coach,” said Levy. “We assign only three students to each coach; that’s a very high level of supervision. Additionally, the coaching model supported by PetSmart Charities provides a very structured learning experience for the students. They take tests and do education online, and have to come in with some experience.”
Mentoring is key to what MacArthur sees as the program’s strength. “Operation Catnip utilizes a unique teaching model that maximizes interactions between mentor and student by incorporating objective and structured assessment of technical skill, observation, and constructive feedback in real time,” she said. “The program recruits coaches who have a passion for veterinary student surgical instruction and the welfare of community cats, which effectively translates to higher-order learning outcomes. As a student and now currently in a program where I train students…. I have a profound appreciation for the role that Operation Catnip has played in my veterinary education and carry those important lessons in humility, collaboration, and servant-leadership into my teaching career.”
That was also the experience of Dr. Lindsey Hidenrite, another recent grad who was already a veterinary technician and founder of a Gainesville rescue organization when she made the decision to go back to school specifically to become a shelter veterinarian. “I definitely got a lot of experience mentoring other students, because in the majority of the Catnip clinics I worked I was captain for the anesthesia station, and worked as a technician during the Community Cat Management Course, which was a great experience in mentoring as well.”
Hidenrite, who is now a shelter veterinarian at Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services, added, “I’ve been involved in the rescue community in Gainesville since 2007, and I’ve seen the drastic decrease in the euthanasia rates and rescue need for cats at the local shelter. I think Operation Catnip played a big role to play in that.”
“Yes, you get good surgical skills, and a lot of the non-shelter medicine-oriented students go there for that,” she continued. “But for those really interested in shelter medicine, it gives us a much wider perspective of the role of TNR in communities. It’s not just about enhancing surgical skills, but seeing how important TNR is as a component of a community dedicated to reducing euthanasia.”
“We couldn’t have accomplished any of this without the support we’ve received from PetSmart Charities,” said Dr. Levy. “The influence of this program, which started small and has now grown to touch all areas of the globe, is entirely thanks to them.”
Photos and video courtesy *shannon jax productions* and Julie Levy.