I recently did a series about how the Shelter Pet Project is working to change the image of shelter pets. As discussed  in the final installment — see Shelter Pet Project Pt. 3: The Future —  that’s only one part of the equation: In order to promote adoption and end the killing of healthy animals, the shelters need to step up too. This post, adapted from an article I wrote for Your Dog, the newsletter for the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, discusses these issues from the veterinary perspective.


Increased public awareness of shelter dogs’ value is matched by a growing concern among veterinary schools, including Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, about the animals’ unique health issues from communicable diseases to behavior problems — both often exacerbated by their confinement.

Why Now?

“We’re moving away from the model of animal control where dogs were kept for seven to ten days and euthanized if they didn’t find a home,” says Annette Rauch, DVM, an interim director of the school’s Shelter Medicine Program. “And because many dogs are staying in shelters for a longer period of time — that is, until they’re adopted — we need veterinarians who can provide input on shelter policies, from basic things like how to design facilities, so that they’re not overly stressful to the animals to how to have the staff clean them so that pathogens are not transmitted.”

There should be no problem filling this need, according to Martha Smith, DVM, director of Veterinary Medical Services at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Volunteering at shelters inspired many young people to decide on a veterinary career in the first place, Dr. Smith says.

In addition, like the dogs they treat, shelter veterinarians have gained a newfound respect. “Shelter medicine used to be a refuge for veterinarians without people skills,” she says. “Now shelter vets are in great demand and they’re very well regarded.”

While the recent spotlight reveals that shelter medicine is thriving, it also illuminates the fact that the discipline is still finding its way. “This is a very new field without established national guidelines,” says Miranda Spindel, DVM, former president of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.

Statistics about — and from — shelters are hard to come by. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates some 5,000 community animal shelters exist in the United States. And although the names of these diverse shelters may include terms such as “SPCA” or “Humane Society,” those are generic labels. They don’t indicate affiliation with either organization. No centralized agency sets guidelines for shelters or collects data about them.

Shelter medicine itself is not yet recognized as a board specialty. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians has been trying to change that since 2005, but it’s a long process, says Dr. Spindel. “We hope to have it accomplished in the next decade.”

In the meantime, the association is working to standardize the six residency programs in shelter medicine that are already established — at Purdue, UC Davis, Colorado State, Auburn, Cornell and the University of Florida. It’s also becoming actively involved in the less formal certificate programs. Luckily, given all that’s on the agenda, the association is growing. It has 19 student chapters at veterinary schools, with more than 750 individual members at last official count.

If some of its practices and methods of data gathering are still being established, the importance of shelter medicine itself is not under dispute. It’s not only the directly affected animals who benefit. A ripple effect can take place from the spaying and neutering programs at shelters affiliated with veterinary schools. Dogs who undergo the procedures become more adoptable because potential owners have one fewer expense — and one less dog-related chore — to worry about. Adopters can also feel good about being socially responsible.

The difference

Shelter medicine differs from other veterinary practices in several essential ways, including the unknown origins of most of its patients, the group environment where they’re forced to live and the need to overcome these circumstances to enhance adoptability. Among the key challenges shelter veterinarians face:

  •  Solving medical mysteries. The millions of dogs brought to shelters by animal control — about half of the total intake, according to the ASPCA’s 2005 survey — as well as the many others delivered with only sketchy information from their owners need to be thoroughly examined. With no medical histories and often spotty or nonexistent care, the shelter staff must estimate the dogs’ ages and evaluate their general health to make such pressing decisions as what vaccinations to administer and when.
  •  Crowd control. Instead of focusing on the health of individual dogs, shelter medicine deals with the prevention of infectious diseases such as kennel cough, distemper and intestinal parasites in groups of dogs with a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s the same type of problem that’s encountered with cattle — or humans — in confined spaces. “Any time you have animals, including humans, in a limited area, you have an increased risk of disease transmission,” Dr. Rauch says. “If one person comes on a cruise ship, say, with a norovirus [a virus transmitted by fecally contaminated food and water, and by person-to-person contact] which spreads like wildfire, you can get a third or half of the people on the ship sick for two or three days with vomiting or diarrhea. It’s happened many times.”
  • Environmental improvement. Dogs are social animals, and the shelter environment can create problems where none existed before. “If you stick a dog in a cage, and it just sits there month after month with no one talking to it, and no one walking it, it will become more and more isolated and depressed. Such dogs can develop behavior problems — and won’t end up making very good pets,” Dr. Rauch says. Dogs who might have entered a shelter housetrained but aren’t taken out to urinate or defecate as frequently as in the past might forget their training, and even the slightest tendency toward resource aggression can be exacerbated in a shelter setting.  Some dogs if housed improperly can also become more aggressive towards other dogs.  What’s more, the stress of being in a shelter makes dogs even more susceptible to disease.  Because of all these factors, it is critical for shelter veterinarians to implement programs both medical and behavioral- to keep shelter dogs healthy and ready for adoption.

Veterinarians and shelter staffs are only beginning to address these challenges on a large scale. But identifying them is the first step toward creating shelters that are healthier, more cheerful, and — building on the many spaying and neutering programs already in place — less densely populated.


Note: One of the programs that is helping shelters become more hospitable is Open Paw, discussed here.

15 thoughts on “Shelter Medicine: Veterinary Challenges & Solutions”

  1. Well said Edie! I am so glad we have the challenges we do today with shelter medicine, only because we are shifting away from shelters as “holding pens” and towards shelters being refuges in which pets can transition to their forever homes. Some of that success is due to the awesome shelter veterinary teams, but cheers also to the rest of the people directly involved and the communities that support them – including Nebraska Humane Society and Omaha – woo! 🙂 Everyone working together really does make a huge difference, and I am encouraged and excited to see what the future holds.

    1. Thanks, Dr. Shawn! And you’re right of course — it takes a village, people to support the efforts of shelter workers and shelter vets.

  2. This is such a great article. It really outlines how quickly things are progressing in modern shelters for the better. While there are still many shelters and “pounds” that have yet to make any changes, the more veterinarians stand up for better practices, I think the more good we will see. There is just so much hope!

  3. Interesting read Edie. I think the US is a lot further in taking care of the veterinary needs of shelter pets when I compare it with over here, where only acute care is given. I am still appalled by the super-vicious and general check-up Viva had to undergo while it was obvious for the layman’s eyes there was a lot wrong – you know the list.

    1. Well, we still have a long way to go in many places — the Arizona shelter where a guy took his cat for medical treatment and that ended up killed comes to mind! — but I’m glad that there’s a more widespread recognition of the distinct issues involved in shelter medicine and lots of people working towards a new no-kill model of care.

  4. Wow Edie, excellent post. The idea of “shelter medicine” as a specialty unto itself is a very cool idea. We recently became friends with a vet– I’ll have to ask him if this is a movement here in Canada!

    1. Thanks, Lori. I’m sure there are shelter medicine programs in Canada; do let me know what your friend says about them.

  5. Wonderful post. Over the past ten years (at the most), I have seen a great change in addressing the needs of shelter pets here in southeast MO on several levels: a no kill cattery opened with a vet on the board; Silverwalk Hounds opened in my home to Beagles, Coonhounds and seniors, again no-kill; our local kill Humane Society has had a change in leadership focusing om moving out dogs, kittens and puppies to rescues as much as possible both local and distant and a trainer colleague took up the challenge in her neighboring county, beginning and cont with a county wide dog project. Indeed, improvement is coming and while we all want no kill NOW, I am gratified when I sit back after reading a story like this about an entire new veterinary direction and marvel at the change in pounds and shelters. There is hope. Thanks!

  6. Pingback: Shelter Medicine Basics
  7. Really interesting stuff. I’ve got a sister-in-law that works at a No-Kill shelter and has talked about how, over the years, they have really come quite a ways. Nice post.

    1. Nice to have the sense that things are changing verified by someone who’s there on the scene. Thanks, Bill.

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