Vet student smashes records on a mission to help community cats

Darby TothMany veterinary students graduate having done only a handful of surgeries. Darby Toth thought she could do better than that while a student at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. And she did. She performed 1,500 surgeries, thanks to her time at Operation Catnip’s high quality, high volume spay/neuter clinic, part of a longstanding partnership between the organization and the veterinary school.

Dr. Toth achieved the Maddie’s Certificate in Shelter Medicine and graduated from vet school last month. She’ll be entering practice with surgical experience most vets will take years to acquire. What drove her to this incredible accomplishment?

“When I came into vet school, I had an interest in surgery right off the bat, and I had heard that you could graduate vet school doing nothing more than a single spay unless you seek outside opportunities,” she said.

Dr. Toth had heard about shelter medicine during orientation, and was impressed. “Not only is it an up and coming field, but the care in shelters has greatly increased over the past decade, thanks to the work of people like Dr. Levy and Dr. Crawford,” she said. “They’ve  made a huge difference in the shelter medicine world. And I wanted to be a part of that.”

Darby Toth and Guinea Pig patientShe quickly found out shelter medicine is an area where students can get a lot of experience with surgery while providing valuable care to community cats and other animals, and began helping out at Operation Catnip.

“Our organization is unique in its partnership with veterinary students,” said Audrey Garrison, director of Operation Catnip. “Our externship and volunteering opportunities, along with our summer fellowship program, provide veterinary students the chance to hone their surgical and clinical skills all while gaining an understanding of compassionate care for community cats.”

After volunteering doing everything from cleaning traps to giving vaccines to inserting catheters, Dr. Toth found her calling doing surgery. And as she become more and more proficient and engaged, she decided to set a goal for herself: She’d perform 1,000 surgeries at Operation Catnip before graduation. When she hit that goal with a year to spare, she upped it to 1,500. She hit that goal with 910 spays, 569 neuters, and 26 special procedures.

“That’s a record for UF for sure, and maybe for vet students everywhere,” said Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF.  “It’s especially significant in 2020, when COVID shut down surgery opportunities for so many students.”

Now that she’s graduated, Dr. Toth is beginning a rotating surgical and small animal internship at Kansas State University, with her eye on becoming a board-certified veterinary surgeon. She won’t be saying goodbye to shelter and community cat work, however.

“I still want to give back to shelter programs by doing surgeries and setting up a fund to help pay for shelter animals who need special surgeries the shelters can’t otherwise afford” she said.

Although it’s theoretically possible to graduate from veterinary school having performed just a single surgery, students at UF usually perform far more through clinical clerkships that provide surgery for shelter pets, externship rotations in shelters and spay/neuter clinics, and volunteer programs for homeless animals and pets in marginalized communities, both in the US and abroad. Operation Catnip provides one of those opportunities in which students collectively perform thousands of  surgeries per year.

Operation Catnip is proud of the students who train with them. “Thanks to Operation Catnip, our seniors are starting their careers with increased experience and competency, and are better equipped to serve their chosen populations of animals,” said Garrison. “Whether they’re treating the unowned animals of the world in a shelter or beloved pets in private practice, they’re ready.”

Garrison gave kudos to all the students who participated in the program during a senior year complicated by the COVID pandemic. The top ten students were:

  • Darby Toth: 910 spays, 569 neuters, 26 specials
  • Nick Krause: 110 spays, 96 neuters, 6 specials
  • Corey Fisher:  106 spays, 121 neuters, 3 specials
  • Lainie Velasquez:  59 spays, 76 neuters, 2 specials
  • Katie Cox: 73 spays, 45 neuters, 4 specials
  • Cora David: 8 spays, 63 neuters
  • Sydney Corso: 34 spays, 55 neuters, 1 special
  • Ashley Cottingham: 2 spays, 9 neuters
  • Chelsea Weiner: 3 spays
  • Hollyn Hartog: 1 spay, 10 neuters
Seniors at Operation Catnip
Graduating seniors of the Class of 2021 at Operation Catnip

“Darby has spent countless weekends with OC and has been an indelible member of our team for the last few years,” Garrison said. “We are so proud of her and thankful for her part in saving the lives of these cats.”

One of Dr. Toth’s greatest influences was Dr. Patty Dingman, the medical director for Operation Catnip who will be joining Dr. Levy as an instructor in the Community Cat Management course at UF in September. “Dr. Dingman has been the mentor who helped me along this whole journey,” Dr. Toth said. “She made so many opportunities for me happen and helped me learn most of what I know when it comes to surgery. That was even more important when so many of my externships were canceled because of COVID.”

Dr. Dingman and Darby Toth
Dr. Dingman, left, and Dr. Toth, right

The feeling is mutual. “I have had the pleasure of working closely with Darby since her second year of veterinary school,” said Dr. Dingman. “She has been a huge asset accomplishing record-breaking spay/neuter surgeries and specialty procedures performed by a student, and also by mentoring underclassmen at my clinics. She has grown so much and I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes next.

“In the time I have gotten to know her, I can say with conviction, she is absolutely a wonderful addition to the veterinary profession. I am proud to call her my mentee, friend, and colleague.”