UF shelter medicine interns lead with their hearts to help people and pets

During their time in the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine 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. That diversity of experience is part of what draws students to the field, as this story of two shelter medicine interns clearly shows.

Dr. Daena Rowlison“Before I even applied to vet school, I was volunteering with the city shelter to get veterinary experience,” said Dr. Daena Rowlison. “I completely fell in love with it because you have the opportunity to actually be able to go out to people in need and be of use to them. I feel shelter medicine offers that to you more than other areas of veterinary medicine. I can actually say, ‘You’re having a problem here and here’s what we can do to help you that’s not just surrendering your animal.’”

She added, “I have a lot of interest in forensics and animal cruelty work, so that’s something else that has kept me in shelter medicine. I feel like I’m making a big difference not just for the animals’ lives but also for people’s lives. Nothing else I experienced in vet school appealed to me as much.”

Dr. Hannah Naples was drawn to shelter medicine as much by her heart as her head. “I really have always had a special place in my heart for shelter animals,” she said. “I grew up with rescue animals my entire life, and I think part of me sees it as a way to give back to them, for helping me become the person I am today. I also love that I am able to give back to and support my community.”

Dr. Hannah Naples She continued, “It’s very important to me to be able to provide low-cost pet care to those who may not be able to afford it elsewhere. I also wanted to work with shelter animals because they don’t have a home or voice, and I am able provide the medical care they need to find their family. Even though I had always been drawn to the field for numerous reasons, once I started working solely in shelter medicine it only confirmed that this is what I was meant to be doing with my life.”

The foundation of the internship program is a series of hands-on clinical rotations through a variety of both private and municipal Florida shelters. 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. It helps interns see how the principles of shelter medicine can be utilized at shelters with all levels of intake, resources, and community support.

But the pandemic gave the interns a bit of a trial by fire when Clay County Animal Services had an outbreak of COVID among the staff. They immediately headed there to help provide care for the animals until the shelter team could come back to work.

“They had to shut the whole shelter down, so Daena and I went out there and provided medical care for their animals,” said Dr. Naples. “It was a lesson in how to adapt to an emergency situation when you’re short-staffed, and in prioritizing what is more urgent as opposed to things that could wait until the staff were back.”

The shelter medicine internship program includes completion of several certificate programs in addition to clinical learning. 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. They 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.

Compassion Fatigue is another course that Dr. Rowlison thought was important. “I’m excited about that because I do think that it’s important to have some longevity in this job,” she says. “I think a lot of shelter vets in particular burn out pretty quickly and they just go into other fields.”

She believes that being able to pivot to hobbies or other activities that bring joy and purpose and fulfillment is vital to successfully remaining in the field of shelter medicine. “Otherwise, I think you get so wrapped up in everything that it makes you less good at your job but it also brings so much stress and burnout that I think it’s hard to recover from that. I think a lot of times when we talk about advice, we sometimes think about physical skills to develop to be a good veterinarian but sometimes we forget that those soft skills are still skills and we need to spend time being able to actually develop ourselves.”

“Spending time working in shelters is an integral part of the shelter medicine education offered through our program,” said Dr. Cynda Crawford, Director of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF. “The front-lines experience in several types and sizes of shelters gives interns a different view of shelter medicine than they may have already experienced, as well as opportunities to discover where they might fit best in a shelter medicine career, whether that is in the trenches or in a leadership role. Our interns are often drawn specifically by the diversity of paths they can take in shelter medicine.”

For example, surgery is Dr. Naples’ primary interest, and the program allowed her to practice it extensively. In addition to spay-neuter surgeries, shelter veterinarians may perform a variety of special procedures, including amputations, mass removal, entropion repair, cystotomy for bladder stone removal, enucleations, hernia repairs, and more. The program helped her to sharpen those skills. From a public outreach perspective, she gained insights into developing community outreach programs and on welcoming adopters rather than judging them. It was a concept to which she’d had little exposure and she appreciated the education, which she hopes to take back to her home state of Ohio.

Due to a back injury that required surgery, Dr. Rowlison experienced less hands-on time in shelters than Dr. Naples, but she made the most of her opportunities. A favorite one was being able to interact with and teach students at Shelter Medicine Camp at Miami-Dade Animal Services. She also spent time working with Operation Catnip and with Citrus County Animal Services, both of which were surgery-focused. Citrus County also had many long-term canine residents with behavioral issues from a confiscation case.

“It was interesting to see how they manage and approach those unique needs for those long-term residents,” she says.

During her internship, Dr. Naples worked at two very different shelters: Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services and Citrus County Animal Services. The experiences were eye-opening. Jacksonville is a city shelter with many dogs and cats coming in, but it is well-resourced. Citrus County is in a rural area with high intake and fewer resources. “It’s amazing that we’re able to provide the same quality of medicine in a very large well-funded shelter versus a lower-income shelter that still has pretty high intake,” she says. “It’s definitely interesting to see the difference between shelters and how you’re still able to provide the same level of care to your patients.”

She credits the faculty and the veterinarians and technicians at the shelters where she interned with making the program an amazing experience.

The education and exposure she has received from the program has reinforced Dr. Rowlison’s interest in “big-picture” work such as working for a national organization or taking on a leadership role at a shelter.

“I think if you want to be able to take your organization far and have an impact, there’s no other way to do it other than being in those higher level positions,” she said.

“This is the goal of our program: training sheltering leaders of tomorrow,” said Dr. Crawford. “We’re incredibly proud to be part of the contributions Dr. Rowlison and Dr. Naples will make as they go out into the field of shelter medicine.”