As animal welfare organizations nationwide struggle with the effects of the growing shortage of veterinarians, a lack of veterinary care and spay-neuter are driving euthanasia rates upward. But thanks to the generous support of national nonprofit Petco Love, the UF College of Veterinary Medicine is able to offer an accelerated one-year internship program for veterinarians to become skilled in Shelter Medicine.
“Most veterinary colleges prepare their students for private practice, so many graduating veterinarians lack the specialized training and technical skills required for shelter practice,” said Dr. Julie Levy, Fran Marino Endowed Distinguished Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at the University of Florida. “This immersive training will prepare highly skilled and resilient veterinarians who are equipped and motivated to step into high-impact careers in Shelter Medicine. Thanks to the support of Petco Love, this accelerated program will help fill the gap caused by the veterinarian shortage more rapidly.”
Petco Love is making the internship possible with a $510,000 grant to train two interns each year for three years. The organization, which invests in animal shelters, spay-neuter programs, disaster responses, and programs to help keeps pets with their families, has observed first-hand how the shrinking veterinary workforce is leaving the most vulnerable organizations without critically needed care. The internship program is designed to start filling those gaps with practice-ready veterinarians who can step in and make a difference right away.
Two newly-minted veterinarians, Dr. Avnee Mistry and Dr. Hannah Coenen, are this year’s interns. While each brought different experiences and goals to the program, both share one overpowering passion: To help both people and pets during these difficult times.
“These two new graduates stood out from the entire application pool for their obvious enthusiasm for this field,” said Shelter Medicine internship coordinator Dr. Cynda Crawford, Fredrica Saltzman Endowed Professorship Chair in Shelter Medicine. “Starting even before veterinary school, they were volunteering in trap-neuter-return clinics, animal shelters, and every opportunity to learn and serve.” The two were selected from dozens of applicants from across the country.
“A big part of what appealed to me about shelter medicine is the fact that I can help homeless pets as well as the people who need it most, whether that be in rural areas or communities low on resources,” said Dr. Mistry. “Accessibility to veterinary medicine is something a lot of people are really struggling with, and shelters can be a part of providing that resource to their community, providing basic medical care to those who can’t access or afford it through a private practice.”
Dr. Coenen’s previous experience in animal shelters left her with the same dream. “Before vet school I worked as a tech full-time in a shelter,” said Dr. Coenen. “That’s where I got exposed to how different it is in a shelter versus private practice. You’re working with homeless animals and with people who are trying to keep their pets while struggling with financial or personal issues. This internship is a way for me to get mentorship and intensive training so I’ll be well-prepared to serve both animals and people in the community.”
The internship program includes 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 Shelter Medicine Program at UF. This helps interns see how the principles of Shelter Medicine can be utilized at shelters with all levels of intake, resources, and community support. The training also prepares them to serve as crisis responders during disasters involving animals.
“During my time at Citrus County Animal Services, we were able to take in animals from DeSoto County, which was heavily impacted by Hurricane Ian,” said Dr. Mistry. “Helping pets who were rescued from a rooftop in a community that was flooded, being there for people and animals who truly needed help in this desperate time, was the biggest thing for me.”
For Dr. Coenen, the most impactful part of her internship so far was time spent working in animal shelters in St. Thomas and the Virgin Islands. “There are a lot of stray animals in the Virgin Islands, so I was able to see how their shelters deal with pet overpopulation. We did a big spay-neuter clinic, helping a local shelter catch up on their spay-neuter backlog and helping to implement a more efficient system to keep up with demand.”
What does the future hold for Dr. Mistry and Dr. Coenen when the internship is over? They’ll be carrying their skills out into all kinds of communities, and helping bring more veterinarians and animal organizations to a higher level of Shelter Medicine practice.
Dr. Mistry is planning a career in Shelter Medicine, focusing on the state of North Carolina, where she went to school. “I really loved the community,” she said. “I want to host veterinary students at shelters there, to teach them more about Shelter Medicine, get them exposed to and learn high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter techniques, and also how to provide accessible care to their clients and create a connection with the community.”
For Dr. Coenen, she’s hoping to spread the Shelter Medicine message around the globe. “I have a strong interest in international shelter medicine,” she said. “I speak Spanish and would like to work in South America, helping with pet overpopulation, especially doing TNR. My eventual goal is to have a shelter where there’s high need, helping with street dogs and cats.” She added, “What will help me reach that goal is that there’s a lot of networking that goes on with this internship. We go to all these shelters, we meet a lot of different people who themselves know people from all over the world.“
“Petco Love knows how desperately shelters need veterinarians with the specialized training they receive as interns,” said Dr. Levy. “Dr. Mistry and Dr. Coenen will not only be going out into the country and the world with their skills, but are looking to provide inspiration and education to other veterinarians and shelters and make a difference for people and pets in communities everywhere.”