Enrollment doubles for Cornell shelter medicine course

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Cornell University has filled a void in instruction on shelter medicine by offering "Issues and Preventative Medicine in Animal Shelters." It was first introduced during the Fall 1999 semester and enrollment has already doubled for Fall 2000.

It's a 16-hour elective course set up by Dr. Lila Miller, senior director of animal sciences and veterinary adviser to the ASPCA; Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, senior vice president of Animal Sciences and science adviser to the ASPCA; and Dr. Janet Scarlett, associate professor of epidemiology at Cornell, who served as coordinator of the course for the university.

Included in the course are areas of study specific to shelter medicine, such as methods of controlling disease transmission, and diagnosis and treatment of shelter animals. Additionally, a discussion of statistics on animal relinquishment compiled by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy is part of the course. The link between animal abuse and human violence is also explored, as is the role of the veterinarian in evidence preservation for cruelty cases. They also stress the importance of early age spaying and neutering.

Dr. Scarlett said that in 1994, when she was involved in the early discussions of the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, she talked with Dr. Zawistowski about creating a course on shelter medicine at Cornell. Over the ensuing years the ASPCA got involved and helped put together the course, which Dr. Scarlett teaches with staff from the ASPCA.

The course is a response to an increasing need and expanded role for shelter veterinarians. "There are more opportunities for work at animal shelters than there were say, eight years ago," Dr. Scarlett said. "They are desirable positions, they have competitive salaries, and veterinarians are doing more than spay, neuter, and euthanatize."

"Many shelters are developing preventive medicine programs to keep animals healthy and make them more desirable," she said.

The course lecture on how to recognize and document animal abuse is taught by Dr. Miller, who has been involved in shelter medicine for some 20 years. She encourages the employment of whole-body radiographs in the course of examinations. "Sometimes you may find various injuries in different stages of healing."

Dr. Miller said she fears that abuse is underreported, a tragically typical symptom of abuse cases. "We're very much in the same place that human medicine was 10 or 15 years ago," she said. "People don't look for it, and most veterinarians aren't fully trained to look for it."

Dr. Miller said that the section on abuse is equally vital for private practitioners. "Most veterinarians at some point in their career are going to see animal abuse," she said.

She concurs with Dr. Scarlett that shelter medicine is a cottage industry.

"Animal sheltering is coming into its own," Dr. Miller said. "You have a lot of shelters that are moving to becoming no-kill facilities. Instead of euthanatizing, they're doing more medical care and treatment, and they need more veterinary expertise in how to do that. When you're dealing with populations of animals at no-kill shelter, where you're constrained from euthanatizing, and there is an outbreak, you have to have veterinarians who can minimize the risk to the other animals."

Vaccination is another big part of the expanded responsibilities in shelter medicine.

"You may have a cat that turns up leukemia positive, but it doesn't mean that it's sick enough to be euthanatized," Dr. Miller said. "The animal could be appropriate for single-cat households."

"We're really starting to see shelter medicine being looked as an alternative career pathway," Dr. Miller said. "A lot of people see it as something for retired veterinarians who are looking for something to do, but we're saying it's not a hobby career anymore, it's a real serious career, and in some places it can be fairly lucrative."