Written by: Kelly J. Diehl, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, Morris Animal Foundation
When dogs live in shelters while awaiting permanent homes, their health is of primary concern to shelter veterinarians. Because dogs are housed in larger numbers than what you’d find in a home environment, disease is more prevalent. Infectious diseases, such as kennel cough, can spread through a shelter like wildfire. In addition, dogs often come to shelters in less-than optimum health, adding more challenges to their care.
Sick animals are much less likely to be adopted, and caring for them often strains limited resources to the breaking point. But the good news is that these vulnerable dogs have important advocates– shelter medicine veterinarians.
According to statistics from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, approximately 3.9 million dogs enter animal shelters each year. Only one-third of these dogs are reunited with their owners, while approximately one-third are adopted, and one-third are euthanized.
In the last three decades, the veterinary profession has recognized the importance of good health for shelter animals, not only for their quality of life but also to increase the likelihood of adoption. Interest in shelter medicine as a specialty has grown, and greater attention now is given to address issues unique to animal shelters. For instance, how can we prevent disease outbreaks? What is the best way to house dogs? What can we do to improve these dogs’ mental well-being?
The Association of Shelter Veterinarians was founded in 2001 in response to calls for greater oversight, as well as information gathering and training opportunities for veterinarians with an interest in shelter medicine. Shelter medicine programs are in place at several veterinary colleges in the United States, and many veterinary students now spend time during their clinical training in animal shelters. The Association of Shelter Veterinarians currently has 1,500 members and 28 student chapters worldwide – dedicated professionals devoted to providing the best care possible.
The well-being of shelter dogs and cats also is an ongoing concern for Morris Animal Foundation. Since 1991, the Foundation has funded more than $3 million in studies addressing the unique problems faced by shelter veterinarians and care providers. These studies range in scope from behavioral issues and disease outbreak control to environmental enrichment. Many of the findings from our studies have helped shelter veterinarians and staff keep dogs in their care healthier and happier.