From ‘No Pets Allowed’ to Shelter Vet: Katie Houston’s Award-Winning Journey

Katie Houston Class of 2023 with Charolotte, her first pet, an 8-year-old lionhead rabbit.
Katie Houston, Class of 2023, with Charlotte, an 8-year-old lionhead rabbit

Katie Houston is graduating tomorrow with the 2023 class of the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and being recognized for her dedication to the practice of Shelter Medicine.

Houston was honored by faculty in UF’s Shelter Medicine Program with the Rosebud Award, which is bestowed upon students who demonstrate an exceptional commitment to enhancing the lives of sheltered and homeless animals through the study and promotion of shelter medicine. The Rosebud Award carries with it a scholarship of $1,000.

Soon-to-be Dr. Houston also earned the Professional Certificate in Shelter Medicine, which is awarded to students who complete an intensive training program of extra elective courses throughout vet school, including topics in individual health care for shelter animals, population medicine, facility design, control of disease outbreaks, disaster response, veterinary forensics, cruelty investigations, management of community cats, shelter consultations, and the latest lifesaving innovations. All these are geared toward ensuring optimal care for every shelter animal.

The Shelter Medicine program offers students unparalleled opportunities for practical experience and skills development, including providing them with a wealth of surgical experience that surpasses that of most graduates nationwide. A longstanding collaboration with local trap-neuter-return program Operation Catnip and externships at shelters grant students unique access to specialized training, thereby equipping them for day-one practice readiness after graduation. By the time Houston graduates, she will have completed approximately 500 spay/neuter and other surgeries including, amputation, enucleation, cystotomy, mass removal, abdominal cryptorchid, rectal prolapse repair, and wound repairs.

Houston, a passionate advocate for Shelter Medicine, shares her journey as the oldest of nine children growing up in Manasquan, New Jersey. Despite her parents’ wishes for a pet-free household, Houston’s fascination with animals and veterinary medicine was evident from an early age.

“I was the kid who was making little cardboard boxes on my porch for the community cats. I was going to our churches for events like the St. Francis Blessing with pet food to donate to the shelter,” she recalls.

Houston found a home at her local humane society. There, she worked under the mentorship of Dr. Emily Marion, a shelter veterinarian, throughout her high school and undergraduate years. This experience helped shape her career path and aspirations. She recognized the value of shelters as community resources and saw them as the perfect platform to make a meaningful difference in an animal’s life.

Houston also had her sights set on the University of Florida’s (UF) College of Veterinary Medicine. She was fortunate enough to secure a place, and since then, she hasn’t looked back. Houston shares her experience at UF, “I’ve kind of just hit the ground running in terms of trying to be a good sponge and absorb absolutely everything and anything shelter medicine possible.”

At UF, she took part in a variety of courses and electives, such as joining the program’s shelter consultation team to assess a client shelter and offer advice on enhancing operations.  This course provided Houston with a real-world perspective on shelter consultations, allowing her to understand the unique challenges faced by shelters and to provide valuable assessments.

On deployment

Another significant elective was the Community Cat Management course, a program in partnership with Operation Catnip. Houston had been involved with Operation Catnip for years, and this course enabled her peers to understand the complicated impact of free-roaming cats on communities and the caregivers who love them, as well as how to operate a large-scale spay/neuter clinic for trap-neuter-return to reduce their population.

She also credits mentors such as Dr. Patty Dingman, who was herself an alumna of the UF Shelter Medicine Program and is now medical director at Operation Catnip, Dr. Simone Guerios, tUF’s instructor at Alachua County Animal Resources,  and her school advisor, Dr. Larry Garcia for their guidance and support.

Auggie before and after, Katie Houston's first Kitten Shelter Diversion foster
Auggie before and after, Katie Houston’s first Kitten Shelter Diversion foster

Beyond her academic achievements, Houston is particularly proud of her involvement with the Operation Catnip Kitten Shelter Diversion Program, through which she has managed to adopt out 105 kittens since the summer of 2020. This program supports kittens born to unowned free-roaming cats by providing free medical care and spay/neuter to prepare them for adoption without entering overcrowded shelters and rescue groups.

Houston has accepted a shelter veterinary position at Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa, Florida, where she will join other alumni of the UF Shelter Medicine Program.

Katie Houston at Hillsborough Pet Resource Center

“As the field of animal sheltering keeps progressing, it becomes essential to have veterinarians like Katie who can grasp its intricate and emerging issues,” said Dr. Julie Levy, the Fran Marino Endowed Distinguished Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF. “Katie’s astounding accomplishments in vet school, coupled with her own extraordinary abilities and dedication, will have a profound impact on the well-being of homeless and at-risk animals.”

Reflecting on her journey, Houston acknowledges the significance of grants and donations in enabling the UF Shelter Medicine Program. Donations from compassionate individuals and foundations make it possible for all of the Shelter Medicine courses to be available to veterinary students at no charge, so no one has to miss out on this unique training opportunity.

“I recognize that as a student, as a future shelter veterinarian, I’m a small part of a very big wheel that keeps Shelter Medicine alive and thriving,” she says. “So many opportunities have been accessible to me through grants, including the Compassion Fatigue Strategies course. That especially was an opportunity that has been afforded to me by very generous donations and opportunities that otherwise I might have missed out on. Shelter Medicine can only run on people’s kindness and their compassion toward animals bringing us all together.”