While veterinary colleges have traditionally taught herd health management for large animals as part of the core curriculum, they have not routinely taught veterinarians how to manage the health of companion animals housed in a herd setting. Shelter medicine classes are typically offered as elective courses for interested students.
With the constant introduction into shelters of animals with unknown histories and vague backgrounds of disease exposure, it can be a nightmare for the average veterinarian who is not trained in population management and medicine to help shelters solve their problems.
Many of the problems that shelter veterinarians deal with on a daily basis are unique to shelters, despite the surface similarities to private kennels, veterinary hospitals, breeding facilities, laboratories, etc. Shelters have different missions and goals, management policies, staffing constraints, budgets and resources from hospitals, kennels, laboratories or breeding facilities – for which most small-animal herd health management protocols were developed.
Some of the biggest challenges are faced by open admission shelters that must accept all animals regardless of capacity to care for them, resulting in high turnover and population density problems not faced by other facilities that can limit admission, test for diseases, set quarantines and the like.
An expectation that a pet acquired from a shelter has received the same level of care that other private hospitals and breeding facilities might offer is unrealistic given the different challenges and available resources.
Shelter medicine requires an integrated approach utilizing most, if not all, the disciplines of veterinary medicine in order to successfully meet the challenges.
Challenges Unique to Shelters
- Constant introduction of new, unknown animals into the “herd”
- Open access and accountability to the public
- Inadequate healthcare programs
- Mandatory holding periods
- Limited resources
- Inadequate staff and volunteer training and high turnover
- Aging, poorly designed facilities
- Inability to use tried and true methods of disease control
- Constant scrutiny from the media, the public and other veterinarians
- Admission of species other than dogs and cats
Medical and ethical issues have become much more complex. In addition to examining, vaccinating, diagnosing, treating, neutering, performing behavior evaluations and even euthanizing animals, shelter veterinarians are intimately involved in the design of management protocols that ensure sanitary, healthy, enriched and safe conditions for both staff and animals.
Their advice about zoonosis, i.e. the transmission of diseases from animals to humans, is critical in dealing with health and liability issues.