Summit may lead to best spay/neuter practices

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Redefining shelter medicine in the collective mindset not only of the public but also the veterinary profession itself was the underlying reason for a recent shelter medicine summit sponsored by Imagine Humane, a project of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and PetSmart Charities.

An interdisciplinary task force gathered Dec. 1-3, 2006, at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca, N.Y., to begin establishing guidelines devoted to ensuring best practices in spay/neuter projects. Members included veterinary surgeons, anesthesiologists, and internists actively engaged in shelter and feral animal surgery; an epidemiologist; shelter veterinarians and management staff; and spay/neuter clinic operators.

The initial hurdle identified by the group is reversing the misperception that shelter medicine is somehow inferior in quality, when in reality, its practitioners strive to provide quality medicine and to reduce the number of healthy animals euthanized.

The task force maintains that a high standard of patient care is essential and achievable in all circumstances, even though spay/neuter programs are challenged by working with unique patient and client populations, often with substantial funding limitations and, at times, in remote locations without running water or electricity.

Another misimpression is that such programs compete with local practitioners. According to Dr. Brenda Griffin, a conference participant, "These shelter clinics and programs are actually helping pet owners bond to their animals. They don't see the animals again; instead, they refer them to veterinarians in the community, thus beginning a wholesome relationship within the home and within the local communities."

Hosted by the Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell, the summit had as its goal to advance the concept of high-volume, high-quality spaying and neutering as a means of reducing pet and feral animal overpopulation.

Besides identifying protocols of use and standards of care for high-volume operations, the summit objectives include increased training and recruitment for shelter medicine programs, issuance of recommendations for working within the veterinary community and for public relations, and establishment of outcome measures. Tracking assessment may be useful in validating how HVHQSPN programs reduce the number of euthanized animals over the long term, actively reducing nationwide pet death.

The task force defines HVHQSN programs as veterinary organizations offering affordable services dedicated to providing targeted sterilization of large numbers of companion and feral animals to reduce pet overpopulation while meeting or exceeding current standards of care.

Standards of care will include patient selection, examination, anesthesia, monitoring, surgical procedures, recovery, analgesia, treatment of complications, permanent identification of sterilized animals, record keeping, and liability. The guidelines developed by the group will be presented as various options instead of one standard, to allow multiple means of attaining quality care for high-volume operations with likely diverse financial situations.

Task force members met in four work groups to begin addressing the areas of standards of care, public awareness programs, outcome assessment and tracking on how effectively HVHQSN programs reduce euthanasia and promote better health care, and attracting fourth-year veterinary students to this line of work and finding ways to subsidize them, given their high debt loads.

The summit co-chairs were Dr. Leslie Appel of the ASPCA and Dr. Karla Brestle of the Humane Alliance. Dr. Appel and three other organizers also serve on the board of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians.

The task force will reconvene April 13-15 at Louisiana State University to continue its work toward a white paper. For more information on the initiative, contact Bert Troughton, senior director of Imagine Humane, at berttataspca [dot] org (bertt[at]aspca[dot]org), or Dr. Andrea Looney at Cornell, all11atcornell [dot] edu (all11[at]cornell[dot]edu)