Module 9: The Role of the Shelter Veterinarian

Breaking Out of the OR

High quality, high volume spay-neuter (HQHVSN) surgery has become an area of special expertise all its own. Just as the concept of spay-neuter took many years to become institutionalized as a component of preventive healthcare in shelters and in private practices, Shelter Medicine is also developing its own identity as an integral component of modern animal sheltering. Despite some old stereotypes, shelter veterinarians are increasingly valued for more than their surgical skills.

Ten years ago, then president of Maddie’s Fund Rich Avanzino wrote an editorial in which he challenged shelter managers to include veterinary input throughout the management structure.


The Emerging Role of the Shelter Veterinarian

Portrait of Rich Avanzino
Rich Avanzino

The study of shelter medicine in veterinary colleges consists of small animal population health management with an emphasis on infectious disease control and prevention. Other aspects covered by shelter medicine courses include individual animal care, behavior assessment and environmental enrichment. Related areas include surgery, cruelty investigation, forensics, facility design, and shelter management.

As encompassing as shelter medicine is, however, veterinarians in many shelters are still tasked almost exclusively with spay/neuter surgeries, bringing us to a new watershed issue: What is the role of the veterinarian in today’s animal shelter?

Veterinarians in animal shelters shouldn’t be tucked away in surgery suites doing nothing but neutering. They should be writing policies and protocols for vet techs, kennel attendants, adoption counselors and volunteers. They should be providing wellness programs for the healthy, directing treatment or rehabilitation plans for the sick, and performing corrective surgery on animals in need. They should be out on the floor to see that animals are properly housed. They should make sure that cleaning, handling, vaccination and quarantine protocols are followed, and they should ensure that behavioral needs (rehabilitation, enrichment, exercise, companionship) are met.

A shelter veterinarian should constantly scrutinize the overall well-being of the shelter’s animals. If a veterinarian spots deficiencies that put an animal’s physical or mental health at risk, it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to report that to the shelter administrator and to recommend changes. They may not have the authority to make the changes in all cases, but as the shelter’s medical expert, the veterinarian’s opinion should be very carefully considered, just as one would listen to legal counsel or to the chief financial officer in corporate America.

To some, especially to the new breed of shelter veterinarians, this sounds obvious and so elementary it’s barely worth mentioning. And yet, it’s disappointing to hear that many shelter directors still don’t give veterinarians adequate responsibility and authority to protect and provide for the health of the shelter animals. Periodically we hear horror stories about shelters where animals are suffering in terrible conditions even though a full-time veterinarian is on staff. Either the doctor can’t or won’t step in because they are relegated to spay/neuter surgery, or when they do try to advocate for the animals, their opinions and suggestions are ignored.

It is no longer acceptable or possible that the education, expertise and talent of veterinarians practicing in shelters be limited to the practice of spay/neuter surgeries. Today’s shelter directors and veterinarians need to work together as a team, with shelter veterinarians being given a policy role consistent with their training and expertise. This is what the veterinary profession expects and what the animals deserve.

This not only should change, it must and will change.

— Rich Avanzino


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Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.