Students Learn Shelter Medicine at the Capital Area Humane Society

By Kristine McComis

In a perfect world, all animals would live in safe, loving homes and over-population issues would vanish. However, as the veterinary students at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine know all too well, this perfect balance does not exist. A Shelter Medicine rotation has traditionally made up part of the veterinary curriculum, and last year Ohio State improved the program by establishing a surgical partnership with the Capital Area Humane Society in Columbus, one of the most respected animal shelters in the state of Ohio.

Larry Hill, DVM, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, oversees the Shelter Medicine and Surgery program. Working from an office at the shelter, Dr. Hill instructs students, and supervises and performs surgeries. Although other colleges of veterinary medicine offer shelter medicine programs, typically with a focus on epidemiology, Ohio State has the only clinically-based program. During their two-week mandatory rotation, groups of six to seven students gain unparalleled access to surgical cases. Each student performs about 15 to 20 procedures, which results in 250 to 300 surgeries per month for the shelter. The students learn safe surgical techniques, how to use anesthesia for a variety of cases, including pediatric spays and neuters, and observe techniques for non- traditional pets such as rabbits. The students also attend sessions regarding behavioral assessment.

Now celebrating 125 years of service to Central Ohio, the Capital Area Humane Society is a non-profit animal welfare organization, not a government agency. About 98 percent of its operating budget of $2.4 million is supported by donations and fees for services. "CAHS does an astounding amount of work with every dollar," said Dr. Hill. "The students learn a responsible use of resources by being in a resource-limited environment that demands high quality care."

Beyond the Textbook

During their rotation, students—literally—are not sheltered in the shelter. Every student is given the opportunity to ride along with a Humane Officer on cruelty investigations around the neighborhoods of Columbus. A disturbing and sad reality, CAHS receives 7,000 calls a year reporting potential abuse or neglect cases that result in 3,000 investigations. During these investigations, students learn about the humane society’s work on a sociological level. "By riding along with the officer, they see circumstances of how people and animals live in neighborhoods that most of these students don’t get to see," said Jodi Buckman, executive director of CAHS. "They can then link their experience in the field when they are back at the shelter and see the animals come in." Currently, about 2,000 cruelty cases are impounded a year. Although the cases are primarily small animal, CAHS also has rescued horses, cattle, pot bellied pigs, alligators, and even snakes.

Another aspect of the field officers’ work involves education. The students observe the officers as they advise the public about access to resources from how to get spays or neuters, rabies vaccines, advice regarding feeding stray cats, and other animal care guidance. They provide doghouses, straw, Frontline (flea and tick preventive), and education about heartworm care. Even if the students do not choose a career in shelter medicine, their learning benefits their future employment. "The students learn how to become an advocate for animals and how to apply that in private practice," said Dr. Hill.

Cats, Cats, and More Cats

Prior to 2007, veterinary students completed their Shelter Medicine rotation at the Franklin County Dog Shelter. It provided a valuable educational experience in the shelter environment, but was limited to dogs. Developing an understanding for cats in a shelter environments is quite important in the field of companion animal medicine, and the transition to CAHS definitely has exposed them to plenty of feline surgeries. Incredibly, of the 14,000 animals that come to the shelter every year, CAHS admits 10,000 cats, which includes feral cats, social strays, and those relinquished by their owners. Cats are only protected under the law from forms of cruelty and do not have legal protection when lost or abandoned, as dogs do. CAHS is the only open-admission facility for cats within 100 miles, which means no cat is ever turned away from the shelter. The staff stands firmly behind this policy and it obviously presents extraordinary challenges. One day a week is totally dedicated to feral cat spays and neuters. Often these cats are collected, treated, and then released, so they can continue to live outside but will no longer procreate, which hopefully will decrease the population in the future.

Benefits for All

Both sides of the Ohio State/CAHS partnership are thrilled with the success of the program and how much good has come of it already. The rotation gives students invaluable, practical experience that they will carry with them throughout their careers. They also gain awareness of the Humane Society’s procedures, mission, and its interaction with the law. "The benefits [of this program] to the shelter’s mission is incredible," Buckman said. "We are doing more surgeries in a shorter period of time, which results in a faster adoption rate. Because there is a faster adoption rate, animals have a shorter length of stay and the volume of animals going through the shelter can increase." Since Ohio State’s involvement, there has been a 250 percent increase of service to the community regarding feral cats and social strays. Since the shelter is spaying and neutering more cats, fewer cats are being born and coming back to the shelter, so euthanasia rates are going down.

"This is a win, win, win situation," Dr. Hill commented. Buckman added, "And the kindest thing you can do is spay and neuter your pet!"

For more information, visit the Capital Area Humane Society.

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About the College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State

Founded in 1885, The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine is ranked fifth in the nation and includes more than 1,000 faculty, staff and students in the Departments of Veterinary Biosciences, Veterinary Clinical Sciences, and Veterinary Preventive Medicine. The Veterinary Medical Center is one of the largest specialty referral centers in the world, with more than 35,000 farm, equine, and companion animal patients each year. A nationally-recognized ambulatory practice and teaching unit in Marysville, Ohio provides farm animal experience to every veterinary student, and the Food Animal Health Research Program in Wooster, OH focuses on detection, control, and prevention of disease. Located on the only campus in the country with a comprehensive medical center offering seven health sciences colleges, we admit up to 162 veterinary students per class, and offer a new comprehensive graduate program in Veterinary and Comparative Medicine as well as a unique Master’s degree in Veterinary Public Health, in partnership with the College of Public Health. http://vet.osu.edu.