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Professional Version

Community-Facing Shelter Medicine


Martha Smith-Blackmore

, DVM, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

Low-Cost Wellness Programs in Community-Facing Shelter Medicine

The welfare of companion animals is connected to larger systemic and institutional challenges for people and their pets—issues, like care deserts, poverty, and resource inequity, that create service gaps for people and pets in underserved areas. Millions of pets live in households of extreme poverty—perhaps more than triple the number of animals receiving services in animal shelters. The benefits of the human-animal bond transcend socioeconomic, racial, and geographic boundaries. Low-cost, accessible veterinary wellness clinics for populations with limited means help to ensure good animal welfare and equal access to the advantages of pet ownership.

Low-cost clinics for local populations with limited means can benefit animal shelters by helping to reduce the surrender of animals to shelters for medical reasons. Outreach vaccination clinics can suppress outbreaks of infectious diseases among pets in the community, and reduce the expression of community-acquired infectious disease in incoming shelter animals.

Spay/Neuter Programs in Community-Facing Shelter Medicine

Outreach spay/neuter programs for the community reduce the nuisance of free-roaming cats and dogs, the population of animals in need of sheltering services, and the rate of shelter euthanasia, while improving individual animal welfare through the reduction of sex hormone–related diseases and behaviors. Reducing problem behaviors by animals in the community also improves the quality of life for people.

Various initiatives—including the spaying and neutering of all shelter animals before placement in adoptive homes, early-age spay/neuter outreach programs and mobile spay/neuter programs—help to deliver services to otherwise functionally inaccessible communities of animals. High-quality, high-volume spay/neuter (HQHVSN) services are efficient surgical initiatives that meet or exceed veterinary medical standards of care in providing accessible, targeted sterilization of large numbers of cats and dogs to reduce their overpopulation and subsequent euthanasia. Clear communication with clients, appropriate patient selection, and a focus on patient safety increase the quality of patient care while reducing exposure to legal liability. The provision of safe and humane patient housing and handling practices, infection control procedures, proper record keeping, emergency readiness protocols, and follow-up and emergency care plans are important considerations for an effective HQHVSN program.

Spay/neuter programs require safe and efficient drug protocol selection, perioperative care, and monitoring to facilitate the neutering of many animals in a short period. Balanced anesthesia—the administration of a combination of drugs—to safely produce effective analgesia, loss of consciousness, muscle relaxation, and immobility without patient compromise is vital. Each individual patient should be monitored from the administration of premedications and anesthetic agents, continuing through the recovery period. Fluid therapy is not necessary for all elective procedures, especially when the patient is healthy and the procedure is brief. Many acceptable variations of surgical procedures can be used to neuter cats and dogs. The type of procedure, including the length and location of the surgical incision, ligation and closure techniques, will vary, depending on the veterinarian’s training, experience, and preferences, as well as the individual patient’s needs. Efficiency of movement, gentle tissue handling, hemostasis, and aseptic technique will contribute to a repeatably safe, swift surgery and recovery. Postoperative care, including pain management, helps to ensure the safety and effectiveness of HQHVSN programs.

Return-to-Field Programs in Community-Facing Shelter Medicine

Community animals, especially cats that have never become accustomed to living indoors or with people, do not thrive in captivity. A good quality of life for such animals may be attained by trap-neuter-vaccinate-return (TNVR) programs. Communities that actively manage community populations of animals can rehome friendly and neonatal animals found in colonies to adoptive homes. Over time, community animal management TNVR programs appreciably reduce the population and improve health among animals that will not do well in captivity. These programs also reduce the public health and nuisance implications of free-roaming populations of animals.

Community Education Programs in Community-Facing Shelter Medicine

Organizations may offer educational programming within the community to promote animal welfare, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers, empathy and kindness, and public health and safety. Typical programs include puppy socialization and dog training classes, programming on safe behavior around dogs for schoolchildren, animal cardiopulmonary resuscitation classes for pet owners, and general animal care programming.

Some animal welfare organizations partner with working-dog programs to have nonviolent criminal offenders raise puppies behind bars. These programs promote understanding of positive reinforcement for behavior modification and are mutually beneficial for the inmates and the dogs. Other animal shelters partner with prisons to have dogs undergoing heartworm treatment live with inmates. Such pairings help the animal by restricting its exercise and enriching its interactions during the treatment period.

Technical Rescue in Community-Facing Shelter Medicine

Animal shelter workers, animal control officers, and first responders may be called to scenes of animals in distress, such as being stranded on thin ice, in treetops, in deep holes, or in swift waters. Although first responders may be highly competent at the technical rescue of people, they may have little or no guidance or training in conducting animal technical rescues. Animal workers should be trained in recognizing the inherent perils of technical rescue and in the proper use of equipment. Organizing and executing a rescue so that it minimizes the risk of harm to the victim and the rescuers requires extensive training, as well as a clear understanding of the role that each member of a rescue team must play. Technical rescue has animal welfare benefits for the animals, helps organizations to demonstrate actionable kindness, and decreases the risk to bystanders who might try to perform their own rescue without proper training or equipment.

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