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Why I Do What I Do

The dynamic duo of Hurley & her adopted Muggs will appear three times a year in Animal Sheltering.
When I'm asked to explain shelter medicine, my short answer is: “It’s like herd health, but for dogs and cats.” I push myself to take a rational approach to this work and do what’s best for the whole population. As for so many of us, though, my passion for shelter work started with recognizing the individual lives at stake. So when I was asked to introduce myself and my background, I thought I’d start with the story of one of those individuals who inspired me.

It was 1989 and I was a newly minted shelter kennel attendant, a refugee from food service ... and I was in love. Her name was Tiffany. She was a wire-haired, silver-and-grayspotted Wolfhound/Queensland cross. (At least, that’s what her paperwork claimed!) Every time I walked by, she flopped on her side and stretched her long wiry arms under the fence to entice me to pet her. Enchanted, I decided to adopt her, staying up all night to plan for my first dog. But by morning, my housemate had changed her mind, and the adoption was off.

At work later that morning, I was setting out food dishes when I heard something we all dreaded: the sound of kennel cough coming from Tiffany’s run. I froze. At that shelter, at that time, kennel cough was a death sentence. It wasn’t that we didn’t care, but with so many animals, no medical program, and terribly limited isolation space, we couldn't treat the sick and still protect the rest of our population. I knew my job was to march right into the kennel manager’s office and tell her, so Tiffany could be euthanized.

I’d like to say I decided then and there to spend my career finding better ways to manage disease in shelters, so we wouldn’t have to make such awful choices. The truth is, though I longed for a kinder solution, I wasn’t at all sure how to go about it. I had never heard the words “shelter medicine,” and I wasn’t sure it made sense to spend a lot on a medical program when even healthy animals didn’t always find homes. I still hadn’t resolved that question as I went on to become a field officer, and after a few years I headed to UC Davis for veterinary school—I just knew I wanted to be able to fix some of the fixable problems we saw. I wanted to take a kitten with a broken leg, put it back together, and send it home. But even as I learned about the amazing individual care veterinary medicine could provide—the chemotherapy, the surgery, the MRIs—I couldn’t help thinking about the many animals like Tiffany, their lives slipping away from such simple, preventable causes: URI, parvo in the cage next door, even something as seemingly minor as dirty teeth.

The idea of shelter medicine first really struck me when I heard a lecture on large animal herd health. The professor told us the herd veterinarian’s job is not just to treat disease, but to help the herd produce more: more milk, more meat, more profit. The herd vet’s tools included housing, cleaning, nutrition, vaccination, even record-keeping—every aspect of the animals’ care that would prevent disease and enhance production. I realized that if we thought of successful adoptions as our “product,” this model applied amazingly well to animal shelters. I answered my earlier question about the logic of investing in a shelter medical program even when there weren’t always enough homes to go around: a healthier population could lead to a more positive environment, a better reputation, and ultimately more adopters and more homes for our animals. I was determined to give it a try.

I loved my job as a shelter vet, but soon found out I still needed needed to know so much more. Standing in the isolation ward chock full of sneezing, snotty, miserable cats, with carriers stacked outside containing yet more sick cats, I felt as helpless as I had years before listening to that dreaded cough. What was I doing wrong? Were we cleaning effectively? Were we using the right vaccine? Was my treatment doing any good? It was hard to find the answers I needed, when most information about dog and cat care was directed towards individual animal medicine.

Then I heard that the UC Davis veterinary school, with a grant from Maddie’s Fund, was starting a whole program dedicated to shelter medicine. They described a population-based approach to improving shelter animals’ physical and behavioral health, much as I had imagined back when I sat in on that herd health lecture. As part of the program, they were offering a residency—three years of advanced training, plenty of time (or so I thought!) to learn the answers to all those questions that plagued me. I jumped at the chance.

As you might have guessed, I didn’t learn everything I'd hoped to. So little research has been done specifically about shelter animal care, sometimes the answer is still—frustratingly—“ we just don’t know.” But at least we’re beginning to tackle the questions. In just a few years, shelter medicine has expanded incredibly—the Association of Shelter Veterinarians has grown to include hundreds of members, lectures are routinely included at conferences, and more veterinary schools are addressing shelter issues.

Is it too much to hope that eventually I’ll have all the answers I want? I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, our program aims to make the information we do have widely available. I hope this column will be a part of that. Someday, maybe, no shelter worker will have to stand helpless in front of a homeless, sick animal without the tools to make it better. Until then, let’s keep learning!

P.S. Before I could tell the manager about Tiffany’s cough, I got a call from a man who wanted to adopt a dog for his family. Within an hour, Tiffany had a new home—and still did when I saw her years later at our “alumni parade,” a bit fatter and very much loved.


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