An Expert's Insight on Shelter Medicine
February 4, 2021
Hello aspiring veterinarians!
My name is Dr. Laurel Gale, DVM, and I graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College in the Class of 2009. After graduation, I spent approximately 5 years working at two different companion animal practices in the GTA. In May of 2014, I joined the team at the Humane Society of Kitchener Waterloo and Stratford Perth (HSKWSP) working as a staff veterinarian, where I have been employed since. In November 2018 I moved into the role of Veterinary Director for the organization.
As a veterinary student, I was never really made aware of shelter medicine as a pathway that was available to veterinarians. My years in private practice had many ups and downs, and when the opportunity arose to join the team at the HSKWSP I jumped into shelter medicine with both feet – and never looked back! Working as a shelter veterinarian allows you to improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable populations of animals – both those coming through the shelter doors, but also those in marginalized communities that may not otherwise receive much needed care. The job is very demanding and days are busy, but the results are highly rewarding!
A day in the life of a shelter veterinarian is always varied, and we are constantly seeing new things to challenge us and continue our learning. Typically, the day is spent providing a combination of both surgery and medical care to animals housed in the shelter or foster homes. The majority of surgical time is spent performing high-volume high-quality spay and neuter services, as well as other “routine” shelter surgeries such as enucleations, cystotomies, amputations, mass removals, and wound repairs. Medical care is provided on daily rounds, where shelter animals receive physical exams, vaccinations, and treatment for illnesses/injuries as they arise. For those shelters that are associated with local animal control services, we also see a variety of emergency cases (ie. hit by car) and wildlife cases regularly.
As the nature of animal sheltering progresses, we are seeing more and more shelters offering veterinary services to the public. These may include wellness exams, vaccination and/or spay/neuter surgeries for reduced costs; Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs to control community cat populations; microchip clinics; or medical/behavioural consultations for pets in their homes. These programs are invaluable in working towards keeping pets in their homes rather than entering the shelter.
Veterinarians working in shelter medicine also need to develop their knowledge and skills in relation to population management and medicine. They need to consider “herd health” in treating their patients – i.e. how the condition of one animal affects the condition of those housed around it, particularly with regards to infectious disease. Additionally, they need to be able to evaluate the housing conditions of the animals – such as population density, cleaning protocols, stress levels, environmental enrichment – in order to maintain the physical and mental well-being of their patients. Looking at the big picture of the shelter population and environment, not just the conditions of one specific animal, is key in shelter medicine.
Luckily for veterinary students today, there are many different resources they can access if they are interested in a career in shelter medicine. Many veterinary schools are offering externships in local shelters, and some are offering both internships and residencies in shelter medicine. Additionally, in 2014, Shelter Medicine officially became a board-certified specialty through the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) – a very exciting time for shelter veterinarians! My advice for anyone interested in pursuing shelter medicine as a career is to spend time at your local shelter getting to know the ins and outs of the sheltering world, and check out online resources for shelter veterinarians such as the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (www.sheltervet.org) and the Ontario Shelter Medicine Association (www.ontariosheltermedicine.org) for more information.