Skip to content Skip to navigation

Positive evolution

Shelter-vet school relationships change with the times

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2012

Gary Sullivan, a veterinary student at louisiana State university, helps examine a dog in houma, la., following hurricane gustav. dr. Wendy Wolfson, director of the lSu shelter medicine program, took three students and a mobile unit to houma following the hurricane, which left local veterinarians without power for several days. Through shelter/veterinary school collaborations, students get experience and animals get needed care. Elise gingrich, supervising veterinarian at the larimer humane Society in Colorado, and Colorado State university third-year vet student Joseph Campbell perform a dog spay, while tech John Bowker (far left) looks on. Louisiana State university veterinary students Amy Troendle and Rachel Carlson examine a cat at a shelter in Walker, LA.

When Dr. Susan Krebsbach attended the Ohio State University veterinary school in the early 1990s, she had a rude awakening.

At the time there were 27 veterinary schools in the U.S., she says, and they all did “terminal surgeries”—where students would perform surgical procedures on healthy ani- mals, then euthanize them.

Krebsbach, now a veterinary consultant for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association ( HSVMA), a professional vet- erinary organization that focuses on humane veterinary training and other welfare initia- tives, found the practice horrific. “I refused to do it,” she says. “I said, ‘If that’s what it takes for me to be a veterinarian, then I don’t want to be one. I don’t want to harm the animals that I’m being trained to heal.’”

Along with seven fellow students in her class of 120 at Ohio State, she sought a differ- ent path. They pushed for an alternative that allowed them to practice surgery on cadavers— animals who had been euthanized for medi- cal or shelter overpopulation reasons, whose deaths were unrelated to their use by the medi- cal school. “The key to me … is that the animal was not killed for the sake of my education.”

Ten years after graduation, she got a measure of redemption: One of her former professors told her that, because of the ren- egade students of her era, the university had abandoned terminal surgeries. Now, of the 28 veterinary schools in the U.S., more than half have eliminated terminal surgeries from their small-animal curriculum, and that num- ber continues to grow, Krebsbach says.

An Uneasy Partnership

The issue of how veterinary schools use shel- ter animals has sparked debate for decades. Traditionally, schools would obtain shelter animals slated for euthanasia from middle- men known as Class B dealers or directly from shelters. The schools would argue that they were training the next generation of vet- erinarians by using dogs and cats who were going to be euthanized anyway. Veterinary schools also bought animals from research facilities or biological supply houses, but ani- mals from so-called “random sources” such as shelters were viewed as desirable because they tend to be cheaper and, some research- ers argued, more physically and genetically diverse than those bred for research.

But opponents argued that the prac- tice of terminal surgeries runs counter to the medical profession’s commitment to “First, do no harm,” and others, promoting best practices at animal shelters, pointed out that organizations seeking to adopt out and raise the status of pets shouldn’t be placing them with researchers. A 2009 HSVMA paper (available at hsvma.org/as- sets/pdfs/animal-welfare-friendly-training. pdf ) notes that killing or harming animals during training presents “a serious moral conflict” and is often a traumatic experi- ence for students. Numerous studies have shown that students trained using humane alternatives such as mannequins and cadav- ers from ethical sources perform as well or better than students trained via methods that harm animals.

Beyond the move away from terminal sur- geries, many schools now partner with shelters and rescue groups, performing surgeries that range from fixing fractured limbs to spay/neuter. Krebsbach says the collaborations allow schools to provide students with solid, and often better, surgical training while also helping the animals. Many members of the public are shocked to discover that some students are required to eu- thanize animals as part of their training in surgi- cal procedures, she notes. “We as a society are becoming more in tune with animal welfare issues,” she adds, and veterinary schools are changing to keep pace with public opinion.

Bernard Unti, senior policy adviser at The HSUS, agrees it’s part of a larger trend—one

where society values animals more highly, veterinarians are more frequently heading local animal welfare organizations, and more veterinary schools have established shelter medicine programs. “Now, shelter medicine is actually a professional pathway for many people in veterinary schools,” Unti says.

A Program Rises

At Louisiana State University (LSU), officials say the development of a shelter medicine program has helped transform the institution. The LSU School of Veterinary Medicine began partnering with one shelter back in 2001, sending students there for primary care experience. But the school’s shelter medicine pro- gram expanded significantly after Hurricane Katrina, thanks largely to a $600,000 grant from The HSUS, which supplied $200,000 last year to extend the program.

More than a decade ago, LSU had a surgery curriculum that was typical for veterinary schools, says Dr. Joseph Taboada, associate dean for student and academic affairs. The school would receive animals from a number of area shelters. Students performed surgeries, then euthanized the animals. The surgeries were per- formed to teach the procedures, not because the animal needed them, so recovering the animal was not considered humane, Taboada explains.

Today, the curriculum has changed radically: The veterinary school uses more models and cadavers, and live animal surgery is con- fined to spay/neuter. In addition to sending students into about 26 shelters around the state, the program brings animals from shelters and rescue groups to LSU, where students

perform spay/neuter surgeries before sending the animals back for adoption. From 2009 to 2011, students evaluated more than 3,500 animals, participated in more than 1,400 surgeries at shelters, and did about 1,500 surgeries on shelter or feral animals at LSU.

“When we first started, there was some reluctance on the part of the faculty to put students into shelters,” Taboada says. “And that’s changed completely. I think that now if you asked, certainly the clinical faculty, most of them would say that this is a really important part of what we do.” A key piece of the program, he adds, is that it puts students into the community and gives them a chance to see what a difference a veterinarian can make at a shelter.

Out of the Classroom, Into the Shelter

Dr. Wendy Wolfson, a veterinary surgery instructor and director of the shelter medicine program, says the change since she graduated from LSU 26 years ago is dramatic. “When I was in school, they didn’t offer shelter any- thing. Are you kidding?” Now, she adds, there are many points of contact between the school and shelters, including a vibrant shelter medicine club composed of students who raise money for shelter supplies. The club members also have “learning days” where they go into shelters to draw blood and vaccinate animals.

Wolfson worked for the Louisiana SPCA in New Orleans for 21 years, including 15 as medical director. She recalls that hiring veterinarians to work in shelters was nearly impossible; the job just wasn’t seen as desirable. As a shelter medi- cine instructor, Wolfson says she feels obligated to teach students about shelters’ need for veterinary help. She tries to ingrain a sense of respon- sibility in her students, so that even if they don’t seek a job in a shelter, they’ll at least volunteer. She also points out that shelter veterinary work is almost never boring, will challenge their diagnostic skills, and shelter veterinary employees are often treated as well as those in private practices. A new attitude does seem to be taking hold: Taboada reports that prospective students often ask if LSU will position them for a career in shelter medicine.

The LSU program also aims to improve shelters by consulting with them and educating shelter staff on issues such as humaneeuthanasia and spay/neuter before adoption. The shelters initially think she’s being “a little tough” on them, Wolfson says, but eventually they appreciate the expertise. “I think of it as constructive nagging,” she says with a laugh.

A typical fourth-year class will go into a shelter to do exams on the animals, and vaccinate and deworm them. The following week, students will go back and do spay/neuter surgeries before the animals are adopted. They also might talk to staff about zoonotic diseases and the importance of proper sanitation. Wolfson says the goal is to provide a service to the shelters and a full spectrum of experience to the students.

The shelter medicine program has largely changed the way shelters view LSU, Taboada says. “Now I think that the shelter community within Louisiana looks to LSU as being an expert that can help them,” he says, noting that Wolfson sometimes gets calls for advice from shelters that aren’t even in the program. “… That relationship just wasn’t here before we started this program.” Some shelters that wouldn’t have considered hiring a veterinarian 10 years ago are doing so now, he adds.

Krebsbach finds it particularly gratifying to see shelter medicine programs such as LSU’s gaining respect and growing in popularity. “To see things change so dramatically is really encouraging to me,” Krebsbach says, “because I honestly didn’t think the changes would happen in my lifetime.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.