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Professional Version

Overview of Shelter Medicine

(Animal Shelter Medicine)


Martha Smith-Blackmore

, DVM, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Tufts University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2021 | Modified Nov 2022

"Animal shelter medicine," or simply "shelter medicine," traditionally refers to veterinary practices used to manage the health of populations of animals handled by municipal animal shelters (“pounds”) and private animal welfare or adoption agencies.

Since the term "shelter medicine" came into use, the definition has expanded to include many community animal health, public health, and animal welfare–oriented activities. These include outreach clinics that provide care for owned, at-risk animals; trap-neuter-release programs (also known as return-to-field programs, trap-neuter-vaccinate-return) for community animals; grassroots, foster-based rescue organizations; animal sanctuaries; disaster and emergency response planning services; support for pet owners via food banks and other services; assistance for domestic violence programs by the inclusion of animals in safety planning for survivors; and animal cruelty investigative support services (veterinary forensics). Shelter medicine is a recognized discipline, with American Board of Veterinary Practitioners specialty accreditation for the motivated and dedicated shelter veterinarian.

Some animal-sheltering organizations also provide technical rescue services for imperiled animals, whether animals stranded on thin ice or cats in trees. They may provide rehabilitative care for orphaned, ill, or injured wildlife. An animal shelter may exclusively serve a local population of animals, or shelters may develop partnership programs to move animals from geographic areas where available animals outstrip available adoptive homes to communities where there is a perceived shortage of animals to adopt. Shelters may have in-house clinics to offer low-cost care to animals belonging to individuals in financial need, or they may have outreach mobile programs focused on spay and neuter services that visit various segments of the community.

The activities under the shelter medicine umbrella vary widely, and no single organization can be all things to all animals and people. The focus of a shelter's programs may be guided by a municipal mandate or a board of directors with a mission defined by a strategic plan. The management of populations of animals in brick-and-mortar animal shelter facilities requires the veterinarian—in collaboration with the facility management—to simultaneously meet the health and behavioral needs of each individual animal, while also monitoring and maintaining health at a population level.

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