Transforming Shelter Medicine: Petco Love Grant Empowers Next-Gen Shelter Vets at UF

Dr. Melanie Bizzarro and Dr. Krutika Karuna
Dr. Melanie Bizzarro and Dr. Krutika Karuna

Most veterinarians are trained for private practice, and few of them have experience in the unique discipline of Shelter Medicine. Thanks to a $510,000 grant from Petco Love, additional highly-skilled veterinarians will go through an accelerated one-year internship with the UF Shelter Medicine Program before taking their knowledge out to their colleagues and animal welfare organizations across the country and the globe.

Two of those interns are Dr. Krutika Karuna and Dr. Melanie Bizzarro, who were selected for this year’s program from dozens of applicants from around the country and the world.

Growing up in India, Dr. Karuna says she was deeply familiar with the sight of animals in need. “Even as a child, the streets were filled with animals,” she said. “Seeing them — often injured or severely ill — left an indelible mark on me.”

Her journey into veterinary medicine began in those very streets. “India has a significant population of stray dogs. Often, these aren’t the pedigree breeds most people aspire to adopt; they’re the ‘indie’ breeds, the real spirit of our streets,” she said, “What I noticed was, while many shelters existed, they function differently than in the West. We don’t have the concept of long-term sheltering; instead, we treat the animals and release them back to their habitats.”

As she continued her education, Dr. Karuna found herself at a crossroads. “My two passions were clear: wildlife conservation and Shelter Medicine,” she said. However, navigating the complex regulations surrounding wildlife conservation in India proved challenging. “It’s a protected field, swathed in layers of laws,” she explains. This pushed her toward Shelter Medicine.

Dr. Krutika KarunaDr. Karuna’s dedication led her to Worldwide Veterinary Services, an organization she’d eyed since her college days. “It was there, amid the challenges of COVID, that I honed my surgical skills, especially spay/neuter techniques,” she said.

Her experiences in India prompted a realization. “There’s a vast gap in the content of veterinary education between India and the West,” she said. “Our training in India lacks depth in certain areas, especially surgery. For instance, complex procedures like orthopedic surgeries were rare.” It was this realization about the gaps in her education that led her to the U.S. to seek further training.

Getting accredited in the U.S. wasn’t a straightforward process for her. She had to enroll in a program called PAVE and repeat her fourth year of veterinary school at the University of Missouri before applying to the Shelter Medicine Internship Program at UF.

Dr. Karuna’s journey, though challenging, has been rewarding. “During my first internship rotation at  Tallahassee Animal Services, it was an eye-opening experience to work with the veterinary team there. The way they managed overcrowding, addressed animal fears and anxiety, and collaborated with different departments, including animal control, was fascinating.”

Her current rotation is at First Coast No More Homeless Pets, where she works providing accessible veterinary care to underserved communities.

Dr. Bizzarro began her undergrad studies uncertain of her specific career path, but with a clear passion for science. Opting for a degree in biology, she found direction through one of her professors, who was not only a veterinarian but also deeply involved in shelter work.

“She ran a mobile spay-neuter clinic, did a lot of trap-neuter-return (TNR),” Dr. Bizzarro said. “I started volunteering with her, and that’s where my love for veterinary medicine grew.” Although she explored various areas within the field, it was her experience with this professor that truly resonated with her, leading her to pursue a career in Shelter Medicine.

Her passion for the field started at the crossroads of veterinary medicine, animal welfare, and human public health, in which she earned a Master’s Degree. “A lot of times animals, people that are abusing animals are also abusing people,” she said, emphasizing the profound connection between human health and animal health.

“Interns in our program go through a series of hands-on clinical rotations through a variety of both private and municipal Florida shelters and accessible care clinics,” said Shelter Medicine internship coordinator Dr. Cynda Crawford, Fredrica Saltzman Endowed Professorship Chair in Shelter Medicine. “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.” Interns are also trained to serve as crisis responders during disasters involving animals.

Dr. Melanie BizzarroDrawn to the University of Florida’s Shelter Medicine Internship Program for the diverse experiences it offered, Dr. Bizzarro recounted her days at First Coast No More Homeless Pets in Jacksonville. She described it as a center of action with “lots of emergencies, lots of things happening.” She believes such clinics are the heart of shelter medicine, preventing overcrowded shelters by helping keep pets with their families.

Her current stint at Tallahassee Animal Services addresses a different need. A municipal shelter, it welcomes any animal brought to its doors, making each day unpredictable. From routine surgeries and spays to dealing with emergencies brought in by animal control officers, Dr. Bizzarro finds herself in the midst of action. She even mentioned the unique experience of working on forensic cases, detailing how animal control often picks up cases of potential cruelty for them to examine.

Dr. Bizzarro loves surgery, but her interest doesn’t stop there. She cherishes the versatility shelter medicine offers. “You’re not confined into a box,” she added, speaking of her love for both surgery and medicine, and the variety she experiences every day, from disease outbreaks to forensic workups.

Reflecting on her internship’s rotations, Dr. Bizzarro shared a key takeaway: “There are many ways to approach a singular problem.” She learned the art of adaptability and resourcefulness, and the ability to reach out for help when needed.

Her admiration for the internship program stems from the diverse experiences it offers. She praises the structure that exposes interns to varied roles, from surgery to forensic exams, letting them discover their genuine interests.

What does the future hold for Dr. Karuna and Dr. Bizzarro when the internship is over?

Dr. Karuna is open to wherever her passion and visa take her. But she has a vision: “I dream of doing a surgery residency and working in shelters worldwide, especially in places lacking specialized care or access to vets. I want to train veterinarians, particularly those in shelters, to be more comfortable with surgeries.” She envisions herself assisting charities, organizations, and training programs to improve veterinary care globally.

As for Dr. Bizzarro’s post-internship plans, she said, “I’m still trying to figure that out what I’ll do, but I plan on working at a municipal or government-run shelter or potentially an access to care clinic.” For more long-term aspirations, she eyes a leadership position, like becoming a medical director at a shelter. Emphasizing the importance of veterinarians in shelter leadership, she said, “I think it’s essential for shelter veterinarians to be involved in operations decisions.” She envisions a cohesive team where every member’s unique perspective enriches the decision-making process.

“Our internship is unique in that they work in a series of different types of shelters and clinics across the state, said Dr. Julie Levy,  Fran Marino Distinguished Professor of Shelter Medicine Education at UF. “They learn to balance population-level and individual patient care. Most become exquisite surgeons, capable of expertly performing dozens of procedures in a few hours. In a single day, they may pivot from trauma surgeon for an injured stray, to neonatologist for orphaned kittens, to criticalist for puppies with parvo, to expert witness in an animal cruelty case, to high-intensity trap-neuter-return for community cats, to One Health practitioner planning a community rabies vaccination clinic.”


Are You Our Next Shelter Medicine Intern?

There’s a critical shortage of veterinarians with special expertise in shelter medicine. Our internship program is designed to produce a skilled practitioner well-equipped for shelter practice or to be competitive for a residency program in the shelter medicine specialty.

The UF Internship program is unique in that interns spend approximately half of their time working in a variety of Florida animal shelters and HQHVSN access-to-care veterinary clinics outside of the Gainesville area. During this time, interns will work side-by-side with clinical mentors in a range of organizations, including municipal animal control and nonprofit shelters, urban and rural facilities, and well-funded and resource-scare organizations. By the end of the internship year, interns will be highly skilled in surgery, prepared to join any type of animal shelter as an associate or medical director, and confident in responding to challenges common to Shelter Medicine.

Learn more and apply here between 11/1/23 and  1/8/24.