What happens when a 9-year veteran of a municipal shelter dives back into the academic world and gets a Master’s Degree in shelter medicine? He helps shelters across his state benefit from what he learned.
In 2014, Dr. Jeff Fortna was working as the principal veterinarian at Oakland County Animal Control and Pet Adoption Center in Auburn Hills, Mich. “Working in the shelter at that point was primarily spay/neuter and putting a band aid over problems,” he said. “I knew there was more that could and should be done in sheltering, so I went back to school.”
Dr. Fortna first earned the Maddie’s Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine, then went on to become one of the first students to receive the MS in Veterinary Medical Sciences with a concentration in Shelter Medicine from the University of Florida.
Fortna graduated from veterinary school in 2000, and during his years there never recalls shelter medicine being mentioned. “I didn’t know what ‘shelter medicine’ was,” he said. “The first shelter medicine residencies were barely in existence when I was graduating from veterinary school. By the time I enrolled in the shelter medicine certificate course at UF, I had been doing shelter medicine for nine years, but didn’t have any professional contacts. I didn’t have any research to reference. It was like I was trying to do private practice in a shelter, and I knew there had to be a better way.”
One of the most valuable assets of the UF program was the connection it provided to others working in the field. “It provided a comradery and a collegial relationship with people all experiencing the same challenges. We can say, this is what we’ve tried. This has not worked, but this has.”
Because the support and experience of his peers was such a valuable part of Dr. Fortna’s experience, after graduation he began looking for ways to bring those same benefits to shelters back in Michigan. That’s when he was approached by Debbie Schutt of the Michigan Pet Fund Alliance, an organization looking to create a shelter assessment and education program in the state.
Dr. Fortna agreed, and began traveling to shelters all over Michigan, including in rural areas. “I get hugely excited sharing what I’ve learned with other shelter,” he said. “I’m excited when I tell them the fundamental things like vaccinate your animals before they hit the floor of your shelter. I’m excited telling them about cleaning protocols. I’m excited educating them about separation of animals, keeping the young away from the old, keeping the sick away from the healthy. I’m excited about sharing adoption programs they may not be aware of.”
He also loves telling them about welfare issues for cats. “I tell them to shoot for that 11 square foot of cage space, and to keep their food away from their litter boxes. I love to be able to improve their care of cats by relying on my training and experience in the UF shelter medicine program.”
Prior to beginning the assessment program with the Michigan Pet Fund, he didn’t realize how many shelters in Michigan didn’t have a regular veterinarian. “So many of them have animals showing up in their transport programs, and just don’t where to start,” he said. “I get to go into a shelter and share basic principles, things that are attainable for them.”
Many organizations are apprehensive before Dr. Fortna arrives. “I think there’s fear and trepidation on the part of many of the shelters that we’ve got this trained shelter veterinarian coming down to rip them apart. Then I show them that I’m not going in there to tear them down. I tell them, ‘I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. I’ve been there for the last 15 years. But you can make small changes that will make a huge impact on the welfare of your animals.’ They get that I’m there to help, and at that point it’s almost always a very positive experience.”
Dr. Fortna hasn’t ended his quest for shelter medicine knowledge. He’s participating in the UF Shelter Medicine Program’s mentorship program, and recently went to a shelter assessment in Butler County, Ohio, with Dr. Sara Pizano and Cameron Moore. The mentorship program is operated through the Million Cat Challenge, a joint project of the UF and UC Davis shelter medicine programs and Maddie’s Fund.
“I learned a great deal regarding best practices, municipal policy and ordinance management, current trends in animal behavior evaluations in the shelter, and community cat management for friendlies and ferals,” he said. “Beyond that, I gained new friends in the sheltering community, and felt huge encouragement from Dr. Pizano and Cameron both personally and professionally.
What’s next for Dr. Fortna and Michigan? He’ll be spending the summer crisscrossing the state with the Michigan Pet Fund doing workshops for shelters and rescue organizations, bringing them up to speed on sheltering best practices.
“I’m still a shelter veterinarian,” he said. “So I want to help veterinarians and everyone working in shelters have the information and resources they need to do the best job possible for the animals in their care.”