How a shelter veterinarian passes it on

Dr. Angele Bice and friendOnce a shelter medicine student at UF, Dr. Angele Bice is now helping homeless pets in her community, and teaching the skills she learned to other veterinarians so they can, too.

Like many veterinarians and vet students, Dr. Bice once assumed that surgery was pretty much the whole story when it came to shelter medicine. “I just wasn’t aware of the scope of the field,” she said. “I liked surgery and exotics, and signed up to do a shelter medicine track just because I wanted more surgeries. But then they tricked me. They offered stipdends for students to do externships, and when I got into the shelters I saw how much more shelter medicine really is. And one more thing I found out: I loved it!”

It was in the trenches, though, that Dr. Bice discovered the true scope of shelter medicine. “I had done externships at shelters while earning my shelter medicine certificate at UF, including at the Charleston Animal Society. I was really scared because they are open admission, and I thought we’d be euthanizing all the time, but that wasn’t the case at all. They lobbied for every animal to get the care they needed.”

After graduating, Dr. Bice took a job doing spay/neuter at a rural shelter that wasn’t looking for a veterinarian to provide the full scope of what she’d been trained to do. She’d been volunteering at CAS, and when a position opened up there five years ago, she took it. She was one of the veterinarians who cared for Caitlyn, the dog who became famous after being discovered with duct tape wrapped around her swollen muzzle.

A year ago, she also began working part time at another rural shelter two days a week. “Before I went to vet school, I assumed shelters must have veterinarians they work with, but I figured it would be along the lines of one day a week, mostly doing spay/neuter. What I learned studying shelter medicine at UF gave me a realistic understanding of the resources shelters have and what a veterinarian would be able to do there. Now I’m working with them, doing spay/neuter but also overseeing all the medical care for the animals, creating standard operating procedures, and really having a voice in shelter operations.”

Not content to just practice shelter medicine, Dr. Bice has begun teaching it. “When I got to CAS I took over scheduling the externship program. We got so many people interested in the externships I had to turn them down. Then I started a CE program for local vets, which was a lot easier to put in place than I thought it would be. Veterinarians can get 16 CE credits by spending two full days with us.”

Dr. Bice says most of the vets sign up because they’re interested in getting CE credits in surgery. “They always assumed we’d been cutting corners doing surgery in the shelter,” she said. “We’ve been able to show them what we’re really doing, that we’re practicing a high level of surgery. In fact, we’re AAHA-accredited. The credits they get are in pediatric spay/neuter, scrotal neuters, pedicle ties, and flank spays.”

That’s the first day; their second day is spent in the shelter, not in the surgical suite. “We bring them in with the surgeries because that’s what they’re most interested in,” Dr. Bice said. “That’s what gets them there. But just like I got tricked, we trick them, too.”

Dr. Bice and her team walk the vets through the flow and layout of the shelter, the intake process, holding, processing, vaccinations, and more. “We give them an overview of how we do behavioral assessments, how we make our observations and notes, and demonstrate how we address each animal’s needs before they leave the shelter,” she said.

During the veterinarians’ day in the shelter, they are introduced to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines, becoming become familiar with the  research-based guidelines that will help any sheltering operation meet the physical, medical, and behavioral needs of the animals in their care. “I think most vets picture shelter medicine as a big free-for-all,” Dr. Bice said. “We have the opportunity to bring them in and show them where we’re trying to take the field. Until we gave them a copy, they didn’t even know there were guidelines to shelter practice!”

Veterinarians can also earn CE in topics including:

  • SAFER (Safety Assessment For Evaluation Rehoming)
    One-on-one demonstration and discussion; supervised hands-on participation, understanding and reading behaviors displayed by the individual dogs in response to controlled situations.
  • Understanding What “NO KILL” Really Means
    Discussion of the formula used to calculate the save rate in a shelter, the difference between a closed admission and open admission shelter, and the criteria used to determine the categories of healthy, treatable, manageable, and untreatable/unmanageable
  • Shelter/Hospital Design
    A discussion and tour through the shelter to understand the intense process of designing a facility that can accommodate hundreds of animals at one time while decreasing contamination, stress, and noise

The impact of the program on participating veterinarians is a big one. Often, Dr. Bice sees them go on to volunteer or work in shelters.  “We had one extern who came through, got a job in private practice, and still volunteers with our Pets for Life Program. She goes door to door in the community and does vaccines on the spot, and talks about heartworm and flea prevention.” And that, she says, is the biggest payoff of all.