Tuesday , 12 December 2017

From A Vet’s Point of View: Shelter Medicine

by MDB Blogger and veterinarian, Dr. Christina Nosotti 

Volunteering in shelters is what sparked my passion to pursue my dream of becoming a vet. For as long as I can remember, I have loved animals. As a child, I used to visit the local SPCA and would just long to bring them all home. In my late teens, I started volunteering at the SPCA and went as often as my studies would allow. I had the privilege of volunteering at the Vancouver SPCA, which was also an animal hospital. There, I worked closely with the vet technicians and got the opportunity to see a multitude of cases. There was no going back. I knew I wanted the opportunity to make a difference.  Shortly after, I was accepted into vet school.

After graduation, I worked at a few clinics before going back to the SPCA. I was ecstatic to be returning to the place that had first motivated me to pursue my career. I was hired at a time where there were some interesting changes because a clinic was opening and I was eager to be a part of it all. I was one of the veterinarians that would be doing the sterilizations. I performed a number of other tasks as well, such as examinations and treatments pre and post adoption, evaluations of seizure animals and euthanasia. What kept me going was the fact that I was dealing mostly with the adopted animals which is, of course, the more positive side of shelter and rescue life.

My enthusiasm was short lived because I became painfully aware that changes needed to be made at higher levels if our efforts were to be fruitful. Yes, we were saving some lives and finding homes for many unfortunate animals, but there was a limit to how many would be so lucky. There were occasional epidemics, which were devastating and, in some cases, could have been preventable. In addition, other than my studies of large animals, I had very few resources for treating small animal populations. I was applying my experience of small animal practice, which is focused primarily on the individual. I was fully aware of the need to reduce disease transmission, but we didn’t have adequate tools or funds.  I was never asked to go to court to testify regarding the animals that had been seized from horrible situations of abuse and neglect. I realized that unless we had stricter laws and regulations, we were only a small band-aid to this endless problem. I went back to private practice at the end of two years, but I have continued to stay informed on what was going on, without necessarily actively participating on a regular basis.

There have been some positive changes since then and new laws have been put in place with harsher penalties for animal abuse, but we still have a long way to go. Too many animals still suffer. Puppy mill seizures provide shock value for the public, but so many other establishments, such as multi-breed breeders and animal hoarders are overlooked. I still encounter people who want to breed their family pets for profit or for experiencing the joy of birth, and I am powerless to do anything about it. I can emphasize the benefits of sterilization and lecture about the overpopulation problem, but I can’t oblige them to comply. According to statistics, these people are major contributors to the problem. As long as we cannot put a plug on reproduction, shelters and rescues will be overwhelmed and ultimately animals will suffer the consequences of overcrowded situations.

Another positive change is the evolution of shelter medicine. Veterinarians are now becoming specialized in the field. It is a post graduate degree.  Shelters and rescues have a multitude of unique health challenges because of the varied and most often unknown health histories of the animals they take in.  Infectious diseases are a constant reality and a real threat. Animals are stressed and sometimes injured or malnourished, which increases their susceptibility to illness, causing suffering. The approach of a shelter veterinarian is to consider the whole group and not just the individual and the ultimate goal is to keep shelter animals physically and emotionally healthy. The major focus is on disease prevention, which in itself has many facets. Vaccine protocols are not the same as those suggested in private practice because of high stress and high exposure to pathogens. Shelter design and ventilation affects the health of the animals in it because it has an impact on how easily diseases are transmitted within the facility. Sometimes, an improperly disinfected cage or surface can mean the difference between life and death, so sanitation procedures are vital to maintaining the health of the population within the shelter. Providing proper housing, which is easy to disinfect has a huge impact on the health of the animals. There is more awareness of environmental enrichment that takes into account an animal’s needs and natural habitat to reduce stress.

Shelter medicine also places much emphasis on sterilization programs. These, however, need to be paired with stricter laws regarding reproduction in order to have more impact. High volume/high quality spay and neuter techniques are taught and being implemented in many shelters. Pediatric sterilization has shown to be a very promising option. TNR programs are being studied and there is more focus on the quality of life of the animals after their release. Will they have adequate shelters and food? Will they be forced to deal with extreme weather conditions? Bottom line, will they suffer the consequences of harsh conditions? These programs need to be adapted to the specific needs of the various geographical locations of the animals. Sterilization cannot be used as the sole solution, but is an absolutely necessary element if we are to have any success in our plight to decrease the number of homeless animals.

Veterinarians across the US and Canada are joining forces and we now have more continued education on the subject at our disposition. We have new associations that provide information and networking tools. Guidelines to proper care and management of animals are being published and hopefully all animal facilities will be obliged to abide by them. After all, I think everyone has the same long-term goal in mind: to improve the living conditions, health and well-being of animals.

I, personally, see a light at the end of the tunnel. As I previously mentioned, I feel we still have a long way to go, but with advanced medical science, improved laws and more public awareness, we are definitely slowly moving in the right direction.

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