Thanks to the dedication of two UF Shelter Medicine alumni and the generosity of a donor, veterinary students at Kansas State University and the University of Missouri are able to discover the world of shelter medicine.
Dr. Alyssa Comroe is a clinical assistant professor of shelter medicine at Kansas State University (K-State). She graduated from the University of Florida in 2015, and completed the Shelter Medicine Certificate Program here. “I really enjoyed those courses and felt practice-ready to go straight into a working as a shelter veterinarian after taking them,” she said. “When I started my position at K-State, we only had a few credits to offer in shelter medicine; we had a two-credit clinical rotation and a one-credit didactic class. I really wanted to increase the amount of shelter medicine courses students had available to them, but I am clinical faculty. This means that the majority of my time is spent on clinics leaving me without much time to put together more in depth classes in shelter medicine.”
Dr. Comroe was at the HSUS Animal Care Expo in May of 2018 when she began chatting with Dr. Julie Levy about how much she had loved the certificate courses, which are taught online, when she was a student and wished her students had access to it. “She said, ‘We’ve actually been thinking about piloting a program to share our courses online with students from other veterinary schools. Do you think your students would be interested, even if they couldn’t receive credit for it this year?’”
It turned out ten students were interested enough to complete the course just for the learning opportunity. “It went really, really well,” said Dr. Comroe. “My students loved the course. We had a debriefing after the course was complete and all of the feedback was really positive. Having my students be willing to commit to working on this course over the summer for no credit demonstrated that this was something we should explore.”
This experience opened the door for veterinary students at K-State as well as at the University of Missouri (MU) to take the shelter medicine course for credit. The inclusion of MU came about thanks to Amie Burling, DVM, DACVPM, DABVP (Shelter Medicine Practice), who was a resident in Shelter Medicine at UF from 2012-2015 and is now an assistant teaching professor of shelter medicine at the MU College of Veterinary Medicine.
“At MU we don’t have any classroom courses that are specific to shelter medicine,” she said. “Once the students get to their clinical rotations they have a shelter medicine clinical rotation that I teach in along with a colleague here, but there’s no didactic shelter medicine instruction at MU.”
She continued, “I don’t have the time away from the clinical rotation to be able to set up a didactic course from scratch, so to be able to have this amazing UF course packaged and ready to go was a huge opportunity. The ability this year for our students to be able to enroll in the UF Shelter Medicine Course has allowed this cohort of MU students to have access to a didactic course in shelter medicine that they wouldn’t have been able to do any other way.”
The impact of the course sharing program on students at the remote campuses was profound. “Here at K-State, I would say that every single student at some point in the course made a comment like, ‘I had no idea that this was needed or that I could do this in my community, and I’m definitely going to,” said Dr. Comroe. “I had one student who came to talk to me before the course who told me frankly that she didn’t have any interest in shelter medicine. She just wanted the extra credits over the summer.”
That particular student was only interested in equine practice, a field she had worked in prior to veterinary school. “One of the projects the students have to complete is to physically visit a shelter and do a shelter profile. That student chose to visit a horse rescue organization, and it was her first time ever seeing that side of equine medicine. That visit really had a profound effect on her. She commented that conditions really need to improve at that rescue group, and that there need to be people that understand shelter medicine helping to care for those animals.”
Dr. Comroe continued, “I think even a student like that, who doesn’t have any interest in working with dogs and cats, is now going to be helping horses that are trying to find homes as part of her career. Similarly, I think that even the students who still aren’t going to go into shelter medicine will now have an understanding of the importance of sheltering in their communities, and an understanding of how much help is needed. And most of all, now they’ll want to help.”
For Dr. Burling’s students, the experience was much the same. “It was incredible seeing the level of understanding about shelter medicine increase among those students during the course, since there is limited exposure to shelter medicine here otherwise,” she said. “It’s a pretty big change for students here to be able to see the significance and impact that shelter medicine has.”
One example in particular stood out for Dr. Burling. She met with the new Shelter Medicine Club officers, and sat down with one who had taken the course. “The typical things the club is interested in are having a spay-neuter event and suturing lab, and maybe highlighting adoptable animals,” Dr. Burling said.
“This time, one of the first things she said is, ‘Can we have a speaker talk about the Association of Shelter Veterinarians Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters?’ That would never have happened before. She’s a second-year student, and not only was she personally inspired by what she’d learned in the course, she was also passing along what she had learned to the larger student body through the club. There is definitely a ripple effect, and I’m really hoping we’ll have the ability to keep on offering this, because as word gets out about the experience students are having in the course there’s more and more interest.”
“The shared course is highly interactive, with a team of 11 highly experienced instructors from academia, animal shelters, and humane advocacy coming together to lead discussions and share feedback on each topic,” said course coordinator Dr. Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, DABVP (Shelter Medicine Practice). “From day one our students are building a professional network that they can lean on throughout their careers.”
The donor who supports the course sharing project prefers to remain anonymous, but is impressed with its impact. “The students’ enthusiasm for shelter medicine is a testament to how this program has blazed the trail,” she said. “Their dedication and hard, day-to-day work is what will continue to move the field forward.”
The content of the course is inspiring and challenging students, but its technology is no less in its impact. “Part of what really motivated me very early on was knowing how well developed and carefully thought out the UF course structure is,” said Dr. Burling. “They put so much of their expertise, resources, and time into developing this online platform. So it doesn’t make sense for each school to be replicating or trying to develop their own version of that. If you have such a carefully designed introduction to shelter medicine it’s a resource that we all should be utilizing for our schools, rather than using our time and resources to be replicating it.
“This is an era when schools should be moving to utilize technology and online platforms. Resource sharing is a key part of that, and this seems to really sum up what could be possible if we were all working together.”
The technology and structure of the UF shelter medicine course allowed 19 students from MU, 36 students from KSU, and two shelter medicine interns to join 58 students from UF to develop collegiality and to learn from each other. “Course sharing allows students from different schools to communicate with each other,” said Dr. Comroe. “They meet people who they don’t get to spend every day with in vet school but who are going to be their colleagues one day. I really like that so early in their careers they’re already branching out and getting to know future colleagues at different universities.”
Interacting with students in different parts of the country can benefit animals in a lot of ways. One of them happened last summer, when only University of Florida and K-State students were enrolled in the course. “In one of the discussions, there was an article that the students had to read that mentioned using snowballs as enrichment for shelter pets,” said Dr. Comroe. “My students were all saying, ‘Oh, yes. Snowballs as enrichment. That totally makes sense.’ While some of the UF students were saying things like, ‘I never would have thought of that! I’ve never even seen snow.’”
That sense of collegiality extended to the faculty, too. “Being connected to other institutions elevates all of us in the way that we’re teaching students about shelter medicine,” said Dr. Burling. “It’s easy to feel isolated in each of our schools, so to be involved in an online course where we are responding to students together is a huge opportunity to raise the level of information we’re able to provide.”
Ultimately, said Dr. Burling, it’s all about the students. “I was hearing over and over again that this was brand new material to them, and learning it changed the way they saw veterinary medicine. They said they’d be applying what they learned to shelters and private clients they work with in the future.
“They’re talking about things like stress reduction in animal housing, and disease control, and the importance of behavior and stress, and even forensics. The students say things like, ‘I am going to go out and do this in my veterinary work right away,” and ‘This is why I came to vet school, to really see how I can help, especially shelters and rescue groups. This is the one place in the curriculum so far where I really feel like I have been able to learn exactly what I came to vet school for.’ Having a course like this can inspire them to keep on that path, and come out of it excited about the potential of shelter medicine in their future careers.”