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The Caged Truth About Shelter Veterinary Medicine

Isabelle Perlman

National Animal Shelter Appreciation Week is celebrated each year during the first full week in November. The purpose of this week is to recognize the incredible shelters and vets/workers who provide care to find forever homes for millions of abandoned and stray animals. 

According to The Humane Society, there are an estimated 3,500 animal shelters in the US, with around 6-8 million cats and dogs entering shelters each year. While these are startling statistics, there’s some good news: Each year, 4 million of those pets are adopted.

Many veterinarians already show their appreciation and care for shelters every week in their roles as Shelter Veterinarians. Here’s why Shelter Medicine is so crucial and how you can get involved:

Shelter Medicine vs. Private Practice

Shelter Veterinary Medicine is an AVMA-recognized specialty and includes individual and population-level care for homeless animals, focusing closely on physical and behavioral wellness. There are certain challenges faced by those caring for shelter populations that aren’t encountered in private practice. For instance, the animals coming in have little or no medical history and can be stray, feral, or victims of abuse. Because they arrive from different locations, experiences, and exposures, they’re at higher risk for infectious diseases and behavioral issues than perhaps those animals treated within a private practice. 

What Is (and Who Can Be) a Shelter Vet

Shelter Veterinarians aren’t simply vets who love helping shelter animals and would do anything for them (that’s just a given); they must also be skilled in medicine, surgery, epidemiology, preventive medicine, infectious disease control, policy development, facility design, public health, animal behavior, and veterinary forensics. Shelter Veterinarians are innovative and able to adapt their medical approach to unique situations. 

A Shelter Medicine certification also requires veterinarians to have “at least 6 years of full-time, high-quality practice experience with shelter medicine and be able to document a commitment to high-level continuing education,” says the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP). This seems like a challenge, but can be very rewarding. Keep reading to find out why. 

Why Shelters Need Veterinarians

The growth and diversity among shelters have created an increased need for veterinarians. Thousands of animals enter shelters each year; and because of the veterinarian’s knowledge of multiple approaches to pet health (medicine, surgery, wellness, etc.), they are crucial to the wellbeing of rescued animals on their path to adoption. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians believes that by employing veterinarians who have experience and training in Shelter Medicine, shelters create “a pool of experts who can serve as practitioners, educators, researchers, and consultants. It will also promote research and excellence in the field, thus expanding the knowledge base, which will ultimately result in increased animal welfare and better service to sheltered animals.”  

Benefits to Shelter Medicine

For veterinarians, pre-vets, or students who are interested in shelter medicine, there’s a growing demand for experts who can provide consultation to shelters in need, and the benefits aren’t too shabby either. According to a 2020 research article published in Topics in Companion Animal Medicine Journal,

“Comparison between surveys of shelter medicine veterinarians in 2011 and 2018 showed a consistent increase in salary, benefits, and resources. There were indicators that the field of shelter medicine has matured as a discipline, particularly with regard to the availability of shelter medicine education and increased number of boarded specialists.”

To learn more about Shelter Veterinary Medicine, check out the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.

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