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Raising the Consciousness of Young Vets

New shelter medicine program shows students the flip side of pet ownership, teaching the basics of diagnostics and treatment while opening the eyes of budding veterinarians to the plight of homeless animals

New shelter medicine program shows students the flip side of pet ownership, teaching the basics of diagnostics and treatment while opening the eyes of budding veterinarians to the plight of homeless animals

What It Is

Even without all the details, the story is heartening enough: a Big Ten university is partnering with a local shelter to provide hands-on, day-to-day medical care and evaluation of homeless animals. Not just spay/neuters, not just consulting services, not just one-day-a-week visits—but daily kneecap repairs, eye surgeries, temperament assessments, kennel cough treatments, and everything in between.

And that’s only the half of it. What makes this tale of teamwork all the more impressive is that the shelter is a municipal agency that takes in 15,000 animals a year; the municipal agency is in a state once described as the worst place in which to be a dog or a cat; and the partnership has been cemented into the core curriculum for senior veterinary students.

Known as the Shelter Medicine and Surgery Program, the service provided at the Franklin County Dog Shelter in Columbus, Ohio, is a mandatory two-week rotation at Ohio State University. That means that helping homeless animals has been assigned the same level of importance as acquiring skills in anesthesiology, preventive medicine, and pathology.

It’s the kind of real-world education that many vets never experience in a lifetime, let alone in their formative years.

“It’s easy to sit in a classroom and hear about how many animals there are,” says the program’s director, Jeanette O’Quin, DVM. “It’s quite another thing to be here and have your hands on them and become involved with them. And it really brings it home to students. So many of them say, ‘I had no idea so many animals came to the shelter.’”

O’Quin’s students are even more stunned at the end of their first day in the rotation, when one of them usually asks what’s on the agenda for the next morning. The response from their teacher is simple but hard to believe: “We’re going to do it all over again.”

“They’re like, ‘What?? We saw 60, 80 dogs today!’” O’Quin says. “I say, ‘You’re going to see that many again tomorrow.’ And they are just floored.”

Why It Was Created

© Jerry R. Harvey/Veterinary Technical Services, OSU
Rather than learning about animal homelessness through mind-numbing statistics and classroom lectures, veterinary students at Ohio State get hands-on lessons in pet overpopulation. The shelter environment brings the numbers to life while giving students a chance to apply their newfound knowledge.

In their attitudes toward shelters, the veterinary community is in many ways a microcosm of the public at large. While some vets stumble upon animal welfare issues early in life, others make it to their deathbeds still blind to the suffering caused by society’s abandonment of the animals we call companions. Two weeks in the county facility is long enough to capsize anyone’s preconceived notions about homeless animals and the shelters that care for them—and the experience has already turned many veterinary students into adopters, foster caregivers, volunteers, advocates, and, in a couple of cases, wannabe shelter vets.

And that’s precisely the point, says O’Quin, who is just as excited about raising her students’ consciousness as she is about honing their diagnostic and surgical skills. As a veterinarian for the Capital Area Humane Society for several years before taking this job, she was subjected to repeated reports of private veterinarians telling their clients: “Well, of course your dog is sick—what did you expect? You got it from the shelter.” Or “We have to start the vaccination series all over again because shelters don’t know what they’re doing.”

Turning those discouraging words into positive action, O’Quin has helped develop a program that she hopes will usher in a new generation of vets— people whose understanding of homeless animal issues is so evolved that they’ll go so far as to thank their clients for patronizing shelters.

“Instead of being so down on shelters, which so many vets are, students who have been in one for two weeks and who see how it works ... realize that some of the things that happen aren’t necessarily the fault of the shelter, that the shelter’s there to try and help,” O’Quin says. “Just a difference in the way they handle these things could make such a difference in the way the sheltering community and the veterinary community interact.”

Beyond instilling a sense of community service, OSU faculty have an unprecedented opportunity to help budding veterinarians get their feet wet before they venture out on their own. Two weeks in the shelter builds confidence in students who otherwise may have participated in few surgeries and clinical cases before graduation.

Begun in March, the program is still so new that teachers have not yet received formal evaluations from students, but 40 students have already joined the campus’s Shelter Medicine club—and “word of mouth is that they’re getting more practical experience than they could ever imagine,” says Larry Hill, DVM, a clinical assistant professor who oversees the surgery aspect of the rotation. Students spay and neuter about 15 shelter animals during one week of the two-week program, he says, and they each clinically assess and treat more than 60 during the other week.

Contrast that with Hill’s earlier experiences at the same school. Though OSU is considered to have a high caseload compared to that of other veterinary colleges, he says, “I graduated from Ohio State in ‘94, and I did one spay before I left. And that’s not unusual in veterinary colleges around the country.”

© Jerry R. Harvey/Veterinary Technical Services, OSU
Two weeks in the county facility is long enough to capsize anyone’s preconceived notions about homeless animals and the shelters that care for them—and the experience has already turned many veterinary students into adopters, foster caregivers, volunteers, advocates, and, in a couple of cases, wannabe shelter vets.

Who’s Paying For It

Even though the Shelter Medicine and Surgery Program began only a few months ago, the relationship between OSU and the Franklin County Dog Shelter was seeded in 1996, when professor of veterinary clinical sciences Dan Smeak had the idea to make spaying and neutering dogs at the county facility part of a required surgery rotation—and hired Hill to help make it happen.

But while Smeak and Hill oversaw the student’s handiwork in the spay/neuter area, physical exams and other issues requiring veterinary assistance in the shelter were handled by a vet contracted by the municipal facility for a couple of hours a day. The part-time arrangement proved to be inadequate for the number of animals the shelter was handling and the cases staff were seeing, so OSU faculty and shelter managers began talking about what they could do to improve the level of care. In identifying the need for full-time prevention, assessment, and treatment, shelter director Lisa Wahoff recalls also wondering, “Wouldn’t it be great if the vet students understood the kinds of great dogs we had here and why they’re here?”

From there the idea to add a shelter medicine component to the veterinary student experience was born. Using photos and statistics, Wahoff appealed to county commissioners’ hearts and minds in an effort to gain the necessary funding. A shelter medicine program, she explained, would result in improved animal health, fewer citizen complaints, more adoptions, fewer euthanasias, and a better reputation for the shelter in the veterinary community.

“Two of the commissioners love dogs, and one’s a nurse, so she understands the concept of population control—and the other does as well,” says Wahoff, who was also in nursing before taking the job at the shelter. “So they’ve been pretty influential. And then we’ve just really packaged it in such a way that it makes sense.”

As a one-time shelter volunteer who was also involved with bearded collie rescue, Wahoff understands the need to welcome community members into her facility—and has strengthened relationships not just with university and county officials but with dog park operators, doggie daycare owners, and other animal advocates who assist in outreach efforts and provide grant money for complicated surgeries, low-cost spay/neuters, and behavior programs.

Wahoff is visionary, but she is also practical, says the shelter’s community relations manager, Susan Smith—and therein lies her success in gaining approval for innovative programs. “A lot of people have that mentality: ‘Well, this is the best we can do,’” says Smith. “And that’s not her way of approaching things at all. She just looks at it and says, ‘Well, what else can we do better? Let’s find a different way to fix this problem.’”

© Jerry R. Harvey/Veterinary Technical Services, OSU
During the required shelter medicine and surgery rotation, students examine eyes, clean ears, evaluate gaits, test for heartworm, anesthetize, deworm, vaccinate, and perform other common diagnostic and treatment procedures. Unlike their teachers, who were lucky to perform one sterilization surgery while in school a decade ago, the new generation of would-be vets do at least a dozen spays and neuters during their time at the Franklin County Dog Shelter.

OSU’s longtime management of the shelter spay/neuter rotation for veterinary students also laid the groundwork for expansion. The evolution of the original surgery initiative into a full-fledged care and prevention program was made possible by “starting out small and then demonstrating to the county, ‘Hey, these are the things we can do for you—are you interested?’” says Hill. “This is a true collaboration; OSU wouldn’t be here [in the shelter] without the county. This is a really community-based program that’s receiving a lot of support from both the commissioners and the college.”

How It Works

The symbiotic relationship leads to a fairly even distribution of program costs; while Ohio State pays the salary of one full-time veterinarian, the Franklin County Dog Shelter pays the $77,000 salary of the other. OSU donated equipment in the mid-90s, and about four years ago the county upgraded the tables, lights, and other surgical necessities. Both institutions are continuing to contribute supplies and resources to the effort.

Through a grant from the operator of Bark Park, a local organization that helps animal groups hold fundraising events, the shelter is also funding a part-time veterinarian who presents a brief overview of behavior-related issues to veterinary students at the beginning of their rotations. A recent addition to the curriculum, the behavior component helps students understand how animal stress manifests itself in the shelter environment.

“Owned dogs and small dogs are totally overwhelmed here, and some of the students say, ‘No, this dog’s not adoptable’ [even when he is],” says Wahoff. “So we’re going through some basic body language, basic behavior modification techniques, discussing how to do kennel enrichment and that type of thing.”

Partly through osmosis and partly through instruction, students also learn about other issues related to sheltering and humane work, including the challenges of pet overpopulation, the veterinarian’s role in recognizing cruelty, and the reasons animals end up homeless in the first place.

© Jerry R. Harvey/Veterinary Technical Services, OSU
Though students do not make euthanasia decisions, they are involved in weighing the economies of scale that every open-admission shelter must face, helping determine whether an animal can be returned to health quickly and cost-effectively.

“We really stress the role veterinarians can play in reducing animal relinquishments to shelters,” says O’Quin. “With the regional shelter surveys showing that so many of the animals surrendered by owners have been to a veterinarian within the last year, that’s a huge door for our vets to get involved with finding out, before those people are at their wit’s end, what’s wrong ... and what advice they can offer before things get out of hand.”

Students absorb this wisdom as they progress through the crash course in homeless animal care. Arriving in sets of six at a time, they divide into two groups, with three students spending the first week in the clinical side of the rotation. There, under the supervision of one of the vets, they conduct physical and behavior assessments, applying their book knowledge to learning the hands-on tricks of the trade. They examine eyes, clean ears, anesthetize, evaluate gaits, test for heartworm, deworm, vaccinate, and perform other common diagnostic and treatment procedures.

Meanwhile, the other three students spay, neuter, and assist in any other surgeries deemed appropriate by veterinarians and staff. The two groups trade places for the second week, and on the last surgery day, they leave the dog shelter so they can go spay and neuter a beast of a different nature: cats at the Capital Area Humane Society.

The work in Franklin County has made a difference for animals whose medical conditions may have been overlooked in the past, says O’Quin. “The animals who go up for adoption are more thoroughly evaluated, and any problems that they have are diagnosed and treated—or they’re not put up for a problem that may be chronic or painful,” she says. “If we can correct something and give a dog a good quality of life, we pretty much do. And if we can’t—if it’s an advanced hip dysplasia and it’s going to be progressive and it’s painful and it’s going to require surgery or a particular medication—we usually don’t. There’s not much we can do for them.”

Some animals with fractures or other “noncatastrophic” orthopedic injuries are sent to OSU’s campus, where residents usually see only unusual cases of pets who’ve been referred to the university by other veterinarians because their conditions are so complicated, says Hill. “The surgery residents at the college don’t see a lot of fractures because of the nature of the facility,” he says. “Being able to refer some of the fractured caseload from here to there is great—it’s a great teaching opportunity as well.”

OSU vets go above and beyond the call of duty for the shelter, says Smith, describing how one came in on the weekend to change the dressings of a bandaged dog who’d been hit by a car. “The vets we’ve been fortunate enough to work with through the OSU program are so dedicated,” she says, “and they really love the animals as much as we do.”

How It’s Made a Difference

Because the veterinarians are already at the shelter and their time is already paid for, they can afford to do things that other shelters often can’t, says O’Quin. But “it’s by no means a no-kill here,” she adds. Though students do not make euthanasia decisions, they are involved in weighing the economies of scale that every open-admission shelter must face, helping determine whether an animal can be returned to health quickly and cost-effectively. Some understand immediately that kennel space is at a premium, while others are not so convinced.

“I spend a lot of time talking to them about why we have to make these decisions and saying, ‘Okay, this dog’s going to stay in this cage for three weeks while we do this. What about the other dog that needed to be in that cage?’” says O’Quin. “And so we try and make them realize in a gentle, compassionate way that these are tough decisions, but we have to make them, and we have to make them based on the best interest of the animal and the population of animals that we’re dealing with, and not on our personal feelings.”

Like most people who fall into humane work, students encounter “shelter shock” as their experiences accumulate. They spend time in the intake area, view the adoption process, and ride along with animal control officers if time permits. They are angry, floored, “blown away” by what they see, say Hill and O’Quin, especially when they find out from their teachers that this is just one shelter in one town in one state in a nation crammed with thousands of similar facilities. “You can say how many millions of pets are out there unwanted, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a number,” says O’Quin. “So they’re holding them and they find out, ‘These are really good animals—why are they here?’”

And telling students why certain procedures are necessary is nothing like showing them, she says: “We don’t just talk about pediatric spay/neuter—we do it. So not only do they understand how important it is to spay and neuter animals before they reach maturity; they’re equipped with the skills to do it when they go out in practice.”

O’Quin has noticed a subtle shift in veterinary attitudes toward shelter animals since the original surgery rotation began in 1996. It’s too early to gauge the impact of the expanded services, however; the first class of students in the Shelter Medicine and Surgery Program won’t graduate until next year.

But early signs are encouraging. Wahoff has already received calls from local veterinarians complimenting her on the new program and commenting on the health of the animals being placed. Potential adopters are coming in to look for pets as a result of recommendations from veterinarians. The community is impressed by the professionalism of O’Quin and Hill, who have a standing offer to test and treat shelter animals who become sick after going to their new adoptive homes.

A Friends of the Shelter group helps fund the treatments, says Wahoff, who is thrilled that O’Quin and Hill “want to follow up and take ownership and try to figure out what’s going on and be helpful to the community— they’ll work with anybody.”

What the Future Holds

To aid with infectious disease control, the veterinary school’s preventive medicine department is evaluating the shelter’s cleaning procedures, protocols, and traffic flow. Final recommendations are still pending, but after the initial consultation, shelter staff began cleaning vents on a quarterly basis—an important disease control measure they were previously unaware of, says Wahoff.

© Jerry R. Harvey/Veterinary Technical Services, OSU

O’Quin and Hill are also considering adding an elective course in shelter issues to the curriculum. “We could bring a dog warden in one day to talk to the students, and then I could maybe talk to them about early spay/ neuter, and Dr. O’Quin might talk about pet overpopulation,” says Hill. “It would be an actual course where we would get up and present information; right now it’s kind of on the fly because we’re so overwhelmed every day by our normal caseload that we just kind of have to do it as we go. But the example is probably more powerful than us talking— they’re seeing that there’s this endless flow of animals coming through the door that have everything from mild to really horrible problems. And it’s every day, every day.”

Helping other shelters in Ohio is another goal; the vets would like to set up vaccination and heartworm-testing protocols for facilities in need—“just really basic stuff that a lot of shelters don’t have the benefit of right now,” says Hill. “We’re always looking for ways to expand or transport this model to other communities. I don’t know if that’s going to be possible or not, but that’s something that we talk about.”

With so many newly minted shelter inductees, perhaps anything is possible. In just one year, Hill, O’Quin, Wahoff, and other staff have had a hand in the awakening of 140 students—students who can take the model with them and assist shelters in communities wherever they go. As studies and surveys repeatedly demonstrate, veterinarians are still the most popular sources of information about pet care and the most trusted voices in animal work. Because of educational programs like these that place as much emphasis on compassion and social responsibility as they do on coursework and technique, those voices now have the knowledge to deliver a powerful new message for change—and to influence the minds and soften the hearts of thousands of pet owners in Ohio and beyond.


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