Award-winning veterinary students prepare to weave care of shelter animals into the fabric of veterinary practice

Two members of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine class of 2021 are being honored for their commitment to shelter medicine.

Lainie Velasquez and Katie Cox both earned the Maddie’s Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine. Velasquez also earned the Veterinary Business Management Certificate, and Cox served as class president. Added to that list of achievements are the 2021 Maddie’s Award for Excellence in Shelter Medicine, awarded to Cox, and the Rosebud Award, given to Velasquez.

Both awards recognize students for their extraordinary commitment to improving the lives of sheltered and homeless animals through the study and advancement of shelter medicine and are accompanied by a $1,000 scholarship.

The Maddie’s Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine is earned by completion of a series of elective courses covering everything from individual shelter animal healthcare, population medicine, facility design, disease outbreak control, disaster response, veterinary forensics, cruelty investigations, community cat management, management consultations, and cutting-edge lifesaving innovations to assure that every shelter animal gets the right care for the best outcome.

Students in the program, which is made possible by a grant from Maddie’s Fund, receive extraordinary opportunities for hands-on practice and skills development. For example, both students performed numerous spays, neuters, and more advanced surgeries – more than 150 each – far exceeding the practical surgical experience of most graduates across the country. A longstanding partnership with local trap-neuter-return program Operation Catnip and externships at shelters and spay/neuter clinics provide unique access to this specialized training for day-one practice readiness.

Lainie Velasquez at Op Catnip
Lainie Velasquez, Class of 2021, at Operation Catnip

Both students came into veterinary school with a long history in animal sheltering. Velasquez attended Felix Varela Senior High School, where they have a pre-veterinary program and a shelter built as part of the school. Students work with homeless animals from the Miami-Dade shelter as well.

“Working in the shelter became my passion,” Velasquez said. “It embodies everything that I wanted out of being a veterinarian. You help the most helpless of animals who don’t really have anybody else to fight for them. So once I heard about UF’s Shelter Medicine Program, I knew it was perfect for me.”

“I wanted to do shelter medicine ever since I was in my early teens,” said Cox. “My family started fostering through our local humane society when I was nine, and we fostered all throughout high school and even a bit into college. I kept track of all the names of all the cats, and we had, I think about 365 cats we had fostered in that time.

Cox volunteered in shelters while in college, and knew she wanted to attend a veterinary school with a shelter medicine program. “UF had such a well-developed program,” she said. “I came here to interview and I just loved the school in general, and the faculty were so welcoming. I knew I wanted to do the shelter medicine certificate.”

Following their hearts paid off for both students. “The shelter medicine classes gave me the most confidence and practical knowledge of any of the classes I took at UF,” said Velasquez. “I got to do a lot of in-depth assignments that helped me understand the shelter industry better. I got to go out into the world and work with shelters in a lot of different clerkships and externships. I don’t think I’d be nearly as confident as I am today in my own medical skills if I wasn’t out there working in shelters and taking all of these programs that taught me how to be a veterinarian.”

Dr. Cynda Crawford, Director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program, has nothing but praise for the two award winners. “We have greatly enjoyed working with these amazing students, and have appreciated their unbounded enthusiasm in all of the shelter medicine courses and activities,” she said. “Their passion for shelter medicine will be an inspiration to the whole veterinary profession, and we’re proud to have been part of their education.”

So what does the future hold for the two new veterinarians?

Katie Cox, class of 2021, with her cat Pumpkin
Katie Cox, class of 2021, with her cat Pumpkin

“One of the reasons I chose the clinic I’ll be working in is that they work very closely with shelters,” said Velasquez. “They do a lot of the spay/neuter surgeries for their local shelter, and the owner of the clinic is on the board of directors for a shelter. So my training will definitely be put to use there! I’ll also work on my off time at a shelter, and pick up shifts there when I can.”

Cox is also going to into general practice, but her long-term plans will bring her back to her roots. “I chose to start in general practice because I realized that one of my favorite parts of medicine is talking to clients and building a relationship,” she said. “My goal eventually is to do feline-only medicine and partner with shelters and provide low-cost care spay neuter services. I really still feel very passionate about having shelter medicine as part of my life in the future, and when I was looking at practices, I specifically asked them if they work with rescues and shelters. The practice I’m going to does work with TNR groups and provides low cost services or covers the care for a lot of local rescue animals.”

“As animal sheltering continues to evolve, it’s critical that we have veterinarians in the community who understand the complexities and new challenges of the field,” said Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF. “We have no doubt that wherever these new veterinarians find themselves in the future, the welfare of homeless animals and those who are at risk will be at the forefront of their minds.”