UF program responds to the critical shortage of shelter veterinarians

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently raised an alarm about animal shelters that’s echoing around the country: a shortage of shelter veterinarians. “It’s a trend, and it’s a dire one,” the article quoted Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Endowed Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the University of Florida, as saying. “Shelters trying to expand their services are being held back by not being able to recruit. The positions are staying vacant for prolonged periods.”

That shortage is exactly what Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF has been working hard to fill. “There is not just a critical shortage of veterinarians filling open positions in shelters,” said Dr. Cynda Crawford, Director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF. “The shortage is of veterinarians trained in the specialized care of shelter animals to meet the needs of shelters, especially in those regions where shelter animals are more likely to suffer from disease and euthanasia. This reinforces our mission to train more veterinarians in the knowledge and skills for medical care of shelter pets to create life-changing and life-saving impact.”

For example, there are 152 brick-and-mortar shelters in Florida that collectively care for nearly 425,000 animals each year. “That breaks down into 57 government-owned municipal shelters; 13 of our shelter medicine certificate graduates work in these,” Crawford said. “There are 80 private non-profit shelters, and seven of our graduates work in those. And finally, there are 15 private non-profit shelters that hold animal control contracts, and they employ two of our certificate graduates.”

The list doesn’t end there. “We’ve awarded 150 Professional Certificates in Shelter Medicine on campus, and another 107 Graduate Certificates in Shelter Medicine through our distance education program.,” she said. “We’ve also awarded 29 Master’s Degrees in Shelter Medicine. The Certificate and Master’s training programs in Shelter Medicine are unique to UF.”

Florida shelters with MSMP grads 2019
The blue dots represent shelter locations. The orange stars represent shelters with veterinarians trained by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.

One such grad is Dr. Jill Kirk, currently working as the medical director at the Animal Welfare League of Charlotte County. The scope of what she’s been able to help them accomplish in a very short time is hard to believe. “I’ve only been there for a little over six months, but we’ve made some huge strides,” she said. “We no longer euthanize for FeLV/FIV or heartworm positive status, URIs, parvo, panleukopenia, or ringworm. All of those were previously candidates for euthanasia at the shelter. We have also been treating dogs since October 2018 for distemper, and we have been able to save over two-thirds of them. Our live release rate is now up to 90 percent, and we hope to start a TNR program soon.”

Dr. Lindsey Hidenrite is another UF shelter medicine graduate, and is working full-time as a shelter veterinarian at Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services. “In addition to my personal desire to help homeless animals, shelter practice works for me,” she said. “You have to get really creative sometimes when your resources are limited. But that doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult or stressful compared to private practice. First, there’s no owner to dictate what care the pet can receive. As long as I can find a way – and it does take some creativity – the pet will receive whatever care they need.”

Hidenrite’s commitment to her patients goes beyond the strictly medical. “In the shelter you’re not just providing the medical care, you’re providing essentially everything for that animal. You’re keeping them healthy mentally as well as physically. You see them multiple times a day for their issues, and you form these very strong bonds. It’s like you become their temporary family.

“Yes, it’s a challenge, but being part of their rescue story and ultimately getting them out of the shelter is the other side of that. And when their adopters bring them back to visit, getting to see them happy with their new homes is the most rewarding thing of all.”

That’s a powerful testament to job satisfaction in what can be perceived as a highly stressful field. Nonetheless, Hidenrite is one of only two full-time veterinarians at the shelter, and openings go unfilled. “We had a part-time opening and we literally got zero applicants,” she said. “And that’s in a situation where at one point last year we had six hundred animals in house and up to one thousand in foster care.”

The juxtaposition of the power of the shelter veterinarian to save lives with the chronic and widespread shortage of shelter veterinarians is stark. “This shortage is challenging the capacity to care for animals in shelters and in underserved communities,” said Crawford. “Shelter medicine training programs like the one at UF need to be scaled up to meet this important societal need.”

In fact, the success of shelter medicine in terms of lifesaving and improved operations is in some ways part of the problem. “We’ve been broadcasting to shelters the benefits of having a shelter veterinarian to increase animal lifesaving,” Crawford said. “Now the shelters are demanding these vets, and we can’t supply them fast enough to fill the demand we’ve created.”

What that means for the entire animal welfare field, she continued, is that there is “a growing need to support the education of these skilled shelter practitioners to satisfy the increasing demand. That demand for skilled shelter practitioners drives the educational mission of our program, but we need to find ways to increase the supply to fill the shortage.”

So what are the driving forces behind the national shortage of shelter veterinarians? One is a lingering, years-old misconception that shelter practice consists of lower quality medical care compared to private practice.

That perception is something Hidenrite passionately disputes. “Just because we don’t have as many resources doesn’t mean that we practice sub-par medicine,” she said. “If anything, it forces us to be more creative and to explore other medical and surgical options. Just because these animals technically don’t have a family doesn’t mean that shelter medicine is a practice of sub-par medicine. It’s just a more creative practice of medicine.”

Crawford also cited the inherent conflict of needs within the shelter. “Trained shelter veterinarians have a very broad skillset encompassing not just the care of the individual animal, but also the population as a whole,” she pointed out. “They must be knowledgeable about proper housing and sanitation, physical health and well-being, enrichment and behavioral health, disease surveillance and epidemiology, management of disease outbreaks, public health, investigation of animal cruelty, and surgical procedures other than spay/neuter. Their training brings a unique and valuable perspective to the shelter leadership and operations teams.”

Nonetheless, she said, many organizations hire veterinarians and keep them in their spay/neuter or wellness clinics. One 2011 study found that only 6 percent of shelters had veterinarians in charge of infection control. In a 2016 study, researchers contacted shelter managers across North America about their beliefs and attitudes toward shelter veterinarians. More than 92 percent of the shelter managers replied that spay/neuter was the most important task performed by their veterinarians.

“The expectations of shelter managers in this study seemed particularly divergent from those of the expanding veterinary field of shelter medicine,” wrote the authors. “The shelter medicine practice specialty advocates a broad-based and prevention-focused approach.”

Levy said the same. “Shelter managers and shelter veterinarians generally have the same high-level goals, but they too often view shelter policy and operations through conflicting lenses. The impasse in communication, expectations, and respect will continue to contribute to a churn of veterinarians passing through shelters and positions going unfilled.”

All that may seem like a pretty terrible recommendation for entering the field of shelter medicine, but out in the trenches, veterinarians will tell you the opposite is true.

Another UF shelter medicine grad, Dr. Patricia Diskant, found her niche at the Humane Society of the Treasure Coast in Palm City, Florida. “I absolutely love my job and getting to put my shelter medicine training to work,” she said. “I keep the ASV guidelines in my bag as a reference, and enjoy sharing solutions to problems that I have seen prior in the program from other shelters. I feel that having been so involved in the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program thoroughly prepared me for real world experiences, and I look forward to growing with this expanding field of medicine!”

“There may be some pressing challenges in shelter practice, but there is also a lot of joy,” agreed Levy. “Vets who have left private practice for shelter medicine express love for working on a mission, having great teams, being involved at the management level, using their smarts more than technology to solve cases, contributing to justice in cruelty cases, and the breadth of their work.”

“There’s no shortage of veterinary students who want to help animals,” said Crawford. “Our program aims to take that desire and refine it with training and experience to create an army of shelter veterinarians to fill those openings across not just Florida but the entire country, and even around the world.”