Shelter vets have a tough job. Their patients don’t talk, and they often don’t have any medical history information available. Plus, shelter animals require a special kind of care. They may have come from a background of abuse or neglect or have suffered some illness or injury, and it’s up to shelter veterinarians to figure it out.
At San Diego Humane Society’s recently opened Pilar & Chuck Bahde Center for Shelter Medicine, dedicated veterinarians are doing just that, and they’re teaching rookie vets from around the country to do the same. The first of its kind in Southern California, the center hosts veterinary students in their clinical year of study and interns at its single-story 5,652-square-foot facility in Linda Vista.
Shelter medicine, a specialty veterinary field, differs from private veterinary care. Shelter vets not only treat individual animals, they have to consider the overall health of the entire shelter population and possibly even the community.
“We’re thinking of the population as a whole while still managing the individual,” says Dr. Kati Loeffler, SDHS’s director of veterinary education. “Balancing those two requires special skills.’’
Shelter medicine is especially challenging, says Dr. Loeffler, because vets are tasked with figuring out what animals are communicating—physiologically, behaviorally and so on—without a person there to speak for them. “We’re working with animals we know nothing or very little about on intake.”
The center’s staff—one of the largest in the country, with 17 vets, 20 registered vet techs and 35–40 vet assistants—also take into consideration an animal’s stress level and overall well-being. The center’s natural lighting and spacious environment help with this.
The center features a main surgical suite, two for specialized surgeries like eye and orthopedic procedures that in the past had to be outsourced, and an imaging center for ultrasound and radiography. Center staff perform about 40 surgeries a day on average plus specialty procedures, and are able to treat animals housed in other parts of the shelter. “We focus on the overall health, both body and mind,” Dr. Loeffler says.
Ultimately, it’s the center staff’s job to evaluate animals and get them ready for adoption. Its vets, techs and assistants strive to care for animals in such a way that the stressors inherent with any type of institutional situation, regardless of how comfortable the environment is, don’t affect their overall health or lead to degradation in an individual animal’s behavior. They incorporate enrichment activities, exercise, play and cognitive engagement in an effort to minimize the anxiety an animal feels. “It’s really remarkable how well they do adapt, and it speaks to the skill of the caretakers,” Dr. Loeffler says.
Prepping an animal for adoption often includes taking care of any dental issues. Dental disease is common in shelter animals, in part because of their respective backgrounds, diet, environmental stressors and/or age. SDHS is committed to treating dental issues in-house and not passing the burden on to the adopter. The Center for Shelter Medicine has a dental suite, where vets perform anything from routine cleanings to treating painful tooth fractures. Dr. Loeffler says many of the shelter’s animals need extensive work, which prior to the center’s opening had to be squeezed into already busy surgery schedules. A dedicated dental suite eases that backup, which in turn helps get animals ready for adoption sooner.
“Dental disease is one of the most common conditions in shelter animals,” says SDHS Administrator of Veterinary Hospitals Loren Fish. “We want to make sure the animals will be as successful as possible when they get adopted. Relieving pain and suffering is a top priority for any animal in our shelter.”
Dr. Loeffler says the quality of shelters is indicative of the value that society places on animals. Shelter staff not only treat injuries and illness, they work to prevent the spread of infectious disease, conduct education and outreach efforts, address violence against animals as a social health issue and play a role in public safety. Great shelter care mirrors the relationship between people and pets in society as a whole.
“Just the existence of a shelter like ours in the community and the operating budget that comes from donors represents how much our society, at least in San Diego, values that human-animal connection,” she says.
Dr. Loeffler adds that the driving goal at the center is to give people a healthy start with their new pet.
“Ultimately we need to do all that we can to ensure each animal goes to a home where he or she is going to be happy and healthy and can stay there for the rest of his or her life,” she says.