As the nation’s animal shelters face a shortage of veterinarians trained in shelter medicine, two interns in the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF are in training to fill that critical gap.
“Going into vet school, I really didn’t know much about shelter medicine,” said Dr. Ashley Saver. “It wasn’t until after my second year of vet school, I did a rotation at the Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, DC. And that rotation really opened my eyes to this field. The amazing quality of care they were able to provide their animals really inspired me to pursue shelter medicine as a career.”
Dr. Jerika Brooks’ childhood prepared her for a future as a shelter veterinarian. “When I was growing up, my parents and I did a lot of fostering for a local organization,” she said. “For me, it was really about saving the animals who didn’t have anyone. I didn’t know that you could actually be a shelter veterinarian.”
Originally, Dr. Brooks planned to graduate veterinary school, work in private practice for a while, and then start her own animal shelter. Instead, she discovered shelter medicine. “I really like that shelter medicine encompasses so many different aspects of veterinary medicine,” she said. “Every day you can see emergencies, get to do surgery, and deal with infectious disease outbreaks. You also have animal behavior, and then population and individual health. It’s a lot of diversity.”
During their time in the program, interns work with shelter medicine faculty on campus, focusing on a range of subjects including veterinary forensic medicine, shelter consultations, diagnosis and management of disease outbreaks in shelters, and large-scale field responses to disasters involving animals.
“A unique component of our shelter medicine internship program includes completion of several certificate programs that supplement the clinical training phase,” said Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program Director Dr. Cynda Crawford. “The interns complete the core courses for the Maddie’s Certificate in Shelter Medicine, which is a nationally recognized credential honoring the knowledge and skills of a practice-ready shelter veterinarian. The interns also earn certification as a Fear Free Practitioner, complete the Fear Free Shelters course, and earn FEMA certification necessary for assisting with animal disasters or emergencies at both the state and federal level.”
But the heart of the internship program is a series of hands-on clinical rotations through a variety of Florida shelters both municipal and private. The participating shelters have advanced shelter medicine programs led by full-time shelter veterinarians, most of whom are alumni of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program. This gives interns the kind of experience they can’t get any other way, and provides valuable veterinary and operations support for those shelters.
And crucially, it helps interns see how the principles of shelter medicine can be utilized at shelters with all levels of intake, resources, and community support.
“For example, there are huge differences between the shelters in Clay and Citrus Counties and Hillsborough County,” said Dr. Saver. “In Clay and Citrus, they take in around 5,000 animals a year versus Hillsborough, which sees about 16,000. But the principles are the same. You still need to do daily medical rounds and you need to have good population management to shorten the length of stay in the shelter and assure the best possible outcome for each animal. You still need to prevent disease outbreaks.”
Dr. Brooks agreed. “It was very beneficial to see how resourceful some shelters can be with little resources. When you’re at some of the smaller shelters, you see veterinarians doing these fun, MacGyver-esque things to do what they can to save animals. Even though they may not have access to the gold standard resources in all cases, or have the most fancy and expensive tools, they do everything they can with what they have to save lives.”
The internship experience also prepares shelter veterinarians for a leadership role. “I definitely think veterinarians should have a seat at the table in regards to management,” said Dr. Saver. “Our training goes far beyond just doing spay/neuter surgery; we’re an asset to shelters and should be included in discussions surrounding policy and overall shelter management.”
It’s easy to see that veterinarians trained in both individual and population level care are the ones who are most valuable to a shelter and its mission of lifesaving. “Having a kitten whose leg I amputated and taking them home for the evening as they’re recovering, and getting to see them hopping around and not in pain anymore, is an amazing feeling,” said Dr. Brooks.
“Another time, I had a fading kitten come in who I was able to save all by myself. That’s one of the things I’m the most proud of. I named him Henry the Gremlin, because he had these ginormous gremlin ears.”
“I did an entropion surgery repair on a dog whose owner was going to surrender him because he needed that surgery and he couldn’t afford it,” said Dr. Saver. “But through the shelter’s pet retention program, we were able to do the surgery and then return that dog to his owner. It was a great feeling!”
Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF, said, “Dr. Brooks and Dr. Saver are doing great work for shelter animals. The COVID pandemic had created all kinds of special needs, workforce shortages, and challenges for teaching and learning, and they have definitely risen to those challenges. The future of shelter medicine is in good hands!”
Dr. Crawford agrees. “These specially-trained veterinarians are crucial to the future of animal sheltering,” she said. “Fortunately, with the support of Maddie’s Fund, we’re training an army of them, with the hope that one day every shelter will have a veterinarian skilled in shelter practice.”