Animals find themselves in shelters for any number of reasons. For example, some animals may have come in as strays. Others may have been surrendered by their families due to tight finances or “bad” behavior. Whatever the reason, shelter animals need and deserve the same level of veterinary care that adopted pets receive at private veterinary practices. In many cases, these shelter animals would not otherwise receive veterinary care.
Animal shelters employ veterinarians to perform such veterinary services as vaccinations, spays and neuters, and parasite prevention (e.g., fleas, ticks). In fact, there’s an entire specialty called shelter medicine that is dedicated to providing shelter animals with veterinary care that caters to their physical and emotional well-being. Such care is balanced between individual animal needs and the collective welfare of all animals in a shelter. Veterinarians can receive board certification in shelter medicine.
Often, one employed veterinarian is not enough to care for all of the animals in a shelter. Veterinarians who volunteer at animal shelters play a vital role in ensuring that the animals receive proper veterinary care.
Veterinary Perspectives on Volunteering at Animal Shelters
Dr. Judy Johnson is the on-staff veterinarian at Good Mews Animal Foundation in Marietta, GA, a virtually cage-free, no-kill cat shelter. Before joining the staff, Dr. Johnson volunteered her veterinary services at Good Mews. As a volunteer veterinarian, she performed intake physical exams on cats, administered rabies vaccinations, and performed rechecks of various medical conditions.
What Dr. Johnson enjoyed most about her volunteer work was the ability to help Good Mews achieve its goals for providing quality veterinary care for shelter cats. She also enjoyed the opportunity to provide care without some of the financial constraints that are common in private veterinary practice, such as client financial hardship.
Continuity of care is often a challenge in animal shelters. When different veterinarians are providing care each week, “the continuity of care can be lacking,” Dr. Johnson noted. In her volunteer role, she would have preferred spending more time being the primary veterinarian on a case, particularly for cats who had extended stays at Good Mews. She now has that privilege as the staff veterinarian.
Dr. Callie Harris volunteers, on occasion, at Good Mews. On an as-needed basis, she performs abdominal ultrasounds on cats as an additional diagnostic tool. Dr. Harris has also volunteered at Good Mews-sponsored community vaccine clinics, during which she performed physical exams and administered vaccinations to dogs and cats.
By volunteering her veterinary services, Dr. Harris enjoys being able to make a difference in a shelter cat’s life and improve their chances of getting adopted.
Animal Shelters Versus Veterinary Practices
Within a community, a mutually beneficial relationship between animal shelters and veterinary practices is needed to provide optimal veterinary care to shelter animals. However, tension can sometimes arise between these two entities. For example, private veterinary practices may perceive that animal shelters are taking business away from their practices by providing low-cost veterinary services. On the other side, animal shelters may perceive that local veterinary practices are not able to meet the veterinary care needs for all animals within a community.
Although this tension has not been Dr. Johnson’s personal experience, it is certainly understandable, particularly “in situations where shelters are performing procedures that can be done by a primary care veterinarian,” she said. She noted that Good Mews has a great relationship with local veterinary practices. When cats are adopted from Good Mews, Dr. Johnson explained, they will need primary care at one of these practices.
For Dr. Harris, she believes that, because every animal shelter and veterinary practice is different, the dynamics between shelters and private practices within a community will vary.
Living in an animal shelter can be stressful for dogs and cats, and their physical and emotional well-being can suffer as a result. By working with on-staff veterinarians and other shelter staff, veterinarians who volunteer at animal shelters play an essential role in ensuring that shelter animals are well cared for and ready to be adopted by loving pet parents.
So, what do Drs. Johnson and Harris want you to know about their volunteer work? “We all have the same goal: to help the pets who can’t help themselves,” Dr. Johnson said. “We do the best we can with the resources we have,” she added. “We truly do this out of love for animals and for the people who love them,” said Dr. Harris.
Content provided by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM. Dr. Pendergrass is owner and founder of JPen Communications, a medical communications company specializing in consumer education.
The Healthy Paws Foundation was started in 2009 and it has helped hundreds of pet rescues and animal shelters by providing grants to help fund medicine, food, shelter, and operating costs. Through our Every Quote Gives Hope™ grant program, the foundation has donated over $700,000 to deserving shelters and rescues. Click to find out more on how we help homeless pets.