The Fellowship of the Cats: UF Community Cat Management Fellowship

How can future veterinarians address challenges in managing free-roaming, unowned cats? As part of the University of Florida’s pioneering approach to feline welfare and veterinary education, the 10-week, full-time Community Cat Management Fellowship.

Michelle Duncan, class of '26
Michelle Duncan, class of ’26

Michelle Duncan, class of ’26, is one of four fellows who participated in the program last summer. “The course really shaped my foundation in community cat management,” she said. “It wasn’t just about surgeries and vaccines, but also about how community cats fit into the bigger picture of animal welfare.”

 “The Community Cat Management Fellowship is definitely a lot of work,” she said. “You’re there five days a week around that 40 hours a week over a 10-week period. You don’t stop learning from the time you get there to the time you leave. And it was never boring. You were always learning new things.”

Mentorship proved to be one of the most valuable experiences for the fellows. Jennie Fleming, class of ‘26, particularly called out Dr. Patty Dingman, then medical director for Operation Catnip. “She was awesome. She taught me everything I know about any type of surgery skills,” she said. “She was always there for us. She was always great at teaching us from our mistakes and building on our skills from zero to a hundred. And problem-solving skills was a big one as well. She led you through it, asked you questions, and really made me think like a doctor, which was something that I haven’t gotten yet in the vet school curriculum. So I was really, really thankful for that experience.”

Jennie Fleming, class of '26
Jennie Fleming, class of ’26

Duncan seconded the praise for Dr. Dingman. “She’s a really special teacher who not only knows exactly how to guide you through things, but is good at letting you take control so you can learn on your own while still very much mentoring you. So I felt that, even close to the beginning, we were allowed to start doing things on our own. And as a first-year vet student, you still really feel like a baby in the field. So to be able to be in that position where we start playing doctor and doing things on our own while under her guidance is really, really unique.”

Not only did the students learn from seasoned professionals, but they also got to experience the sheer magnitude of community cat operations. Fleming’s favorite day, she says, was when “we had over 300 cats come in and get spay and neutered. It was a very long, exhausting day, but I really learned a lot.” Such days provided more than just technical skills; they taught resilience, teamwork, and the impact of collective effort.

Fellows also took the Community Cat Management course, in which students were introduced to the intricacies of trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs, spay and neuter procedures, and the fundamental principles of shelter medicine. The curriculum includes a field activity for understanding nonprofit cat management programs and a daylong MASH-style spay/neuter clinic with Operation Catnip, where students practice patient care and surgical techniques. 

Summer 2023 Community Cat Management Course students, veterinarian coaches, staff, and volunteers
Summer 2023 Community Cat Management Course students, veterinarian coaches, staff, and volunteers

A key component of the course is a field activity that immerses students in the operational aspects of nonprofit cat management, providing an intimate understanding of the human-animal bond from the perspective of cat caregivers. Additionally, students gain real-world experience with Operation Catnip, mastering various stages of patient care in a high-volume setting. By the end of the course, students not only enhance their surgical skills and efficiency but also become adept at advocating for humane community cat management, fostering collaborations with local entities, and organizing large-scale trap-neuter-return clinics.

The course was sponsored by the John T. and Jane A. Wiederhold Foundation, which was created for the purpose of protecting and improving the welfare of animals of all kinds with a focus on cats and dogs, the promotion of veterinary programs, and the protection of wildlife. It covers legal, environmental, and public health issues, alongside socio-economic and animal welfare considerations. The Weiderhold Foundation also sponsored two of the four students in the Fellowship, while a private donor sponsored the other two.

Fellow Jennifer Wachowiak, class of ‘26, said, “The Community Cat Management course started with logistics of how TNR works across the country and how certain programs differ, along with background on community cat management and its history. My first big commitment in veterinary medicine was TNR, but I never really got a lot of that just by volunteering at clinics. I saw the logistics of being in the clinic, but I didn’t know there were studies on how to effectively manage community cats, and that people had tried so many different things. I also had no idea about the whole wildlife debate until this class. So it gave me a deeper perspective.”

Jennifer Wachowiak, class of '26
Jennifer Wachowiak, class of ’26

Looking to the future, many students have been inspired by their fellowship: “I have a passion for shelter medicine and a passion for practice ownership,” Fleming said. “I want to meld those two together, and be able to be a trusted resource for shelter and rescue TNR programs in my community. I may even start my own TNR program. I’d also like to become a mentor to other pre-vets or technicians who want to learn more, maybe help other vets start their own TNR program. I just want to be a mentor for other people, since I’ve been so lucky in my experience.”

Said Duncan, “The whole experience pushed me specifically in my goals of wanting to go into shelter medicine, especially compared to a lot of the surgical hands-on experience that my fellow classmates have had up until this point – some of them absolutely none. And then we spent 10 weeks doing nothing but that!”

As all students stressed, the UF Shelter Medicine Community Cat Management Fellowship is more than just a summer opportunity. It’s a formative experience that imparts both skills and perspective. “Every vet student should learn about community cats,” Wachowiak said. “As a field, we all should be aware and have at least some kind of idea of what to do when these cats show up.”

Dr. Dingman has designed a new Fellowship for the coming summer focused on the care of both dogs and cats in shelters. Students in the Shelter Medicine Fellowship will visit multiple rural and urban shelters to learn how to provide both individual animal and population-level care. The Fellowship includes 2 weeks at the Austin Pets Alive! shelter working in the county’s largest parvovirus treatment center. Dr. Dingman isn’t leaving her passion for community cats behind though. Her Fellowship students will train in spay/neuter of both dogs and cats and join a TNR Spay Day at Peggy Adams Animal Rescue League where more than 400 cats will be spayed and neutered in a single day.

Applications are now open for the Summer 2024 Community Cat Management Fellowship and the Shelter Medicine Fellowship until April 4, 2024. Learn more about the Community Cat Management Fellowship and how to apply here.