Shelter Medicine: An Emerging Veterinary Specialty That Offers Hope

By Paula Fitzsimmons

Rescues are filled with animals who have suffered to some degree in their previous lives. Then there’s shelter life, rife with its own unique challenges – from the stress of being in a new environment, to increased vulnerability to outbreaks.

Balancing the needs of individual animals with that of the group’s isn’t a cake walk for shelter staff, either.

Because the needs of shelter animals differ from that of companion animals, a group of veterinarians were prompted to create a shelter medicine specialty. Although in the works for over a decade, shelter medicine just recently became a recognized specialty – the first American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (ABVP) Shelter Medicine Practice exam wasn’t given until 2015.

It’s a specialty that gives hope to countless shelter animals.

If you’re a vet student still considering a specialty or are interested in working for an animal shelter as a vet technician or other capacity, read on to learn more about efforts to improve these animals’ lives.


Shelter medicine . . . it’s not what you may think

There’s more to shelter medicine than treating animals who happen to be living in shelter settings. The ultimate goal of any vet is to ensure the animal’s health and overall well-being. But unlike a traditional vet who treats individual patients, shelter practitioners look at the bigger picture.

Mehnaz (Chumkee) Aziz, DVM, a shelter medicine resident with the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told me shelter medicine is a population-based specialty. These practitioners work to empower shelter vets so that they can, in turn, provide optimal treatment for animals under their care.

For instance, last year when H3N2 canine influenza first appeared in the United States, vets with the Shelter Medicine Program at The University of Wisconsin partnered with other agencies to help shelters respond to concerns of outbreak.

Other specific areas shelter vets can focus on, according to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, include veterinary forensics, animal cruelty investigations, and providing high quality, high volume spay-neuter services.


There is a growing demand for experts able to provide consultation services for animal shelters.
–Association of Shelter Veterinarians


Interested in pursuing shelter medicine? What to consider

According to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, specialists need to have a thorough understanding of epidemiology, infectious disease control, policy development, facility design, veterinary forensics, and other topics relevant to shelter animals. This is in addition to being knowledgeable in standard veterinary medicine and surgery.

Chumkee says most shelter medicine specialists are employed in academia, or they serve as consultants to rescues. Vets with The Shelter Medicine program at the University of California at Davis, for instance, consult with rescues to manage specific diseases, perform diagnostic testing, develop vaccine programs, or analyze shelter data.

Even if you’re not interested in consultancy or academia, you can still work as a veterinarian for a shelter. Chumkee says a shelter will take any DVM with the right frame of mind. Do a search for shelter or rescue veterinarians on Animal Jobs Digest, or on the Association of Shelter Veterinarians job board and you’ll see that most employers want vets who are flexible, can work in fast-paced environments, and have great surgical skills.

Still, acquiring credentials via programs like the one offered by University of Florida, College of Veterinary Medicine, can be beneficial. The school offers an online certificate program, designed for vets, students, techs, and shelter staff; as well as a more comprehensive Master’s Degree program.


Where to learn more . . .

Association of Shelter Veterinarians is the specialty’s professional organization.

• American Board of Veterinary Practitioners confers Diplomate status to qualified vets in a handful of specialties, including Shelter Medicine Practice. (You don’t need to be board-certified in order to practice at a shelter.)

ASPCA Professional has lots of information about this specialty. And along with Maddie’s Fund and Cornell University Shelter Medicine Program, they host a conference.

Maddie’s Fund supports shelter medicine programs at vet schools via grants.

Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the UC-Davis College of Veterinary Medicine offers rescues a wide range of professional consultancy services.

• The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine – partnering with Maddie’s Fund – offers an online Master’s Degree program and an online graduate certificate in Shelter Medicine.


Shelter medicine represents a new and rewarding lifetime career option that is destined to grow as more humane alternatives and options are sought for the world’s homeless animals. –ASPCA Professional


Shelter medicine is an emerging, population-based specialty that offers hope to rescue animals. Specialists often work in academia or as consultants to rescues, empowering shelter staff to provide optimal animal care. Veterinarians can still work in shelters without having specialized in Shelter Medicine or being board-certified, but learning as much about this specialty – whether via conferences or coursework – is beneficial. It’s a specialty that can give vets an opportunity to make a positive impact on countless animals.

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