Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow - Veterinary Medicine
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Animal sheltering in the United States: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow
Dog pounds are a thing of the past. Today's animal shelters are community centers that provide numerous public services. But these services, such as behavior classes, often require veterinary input. Are you up to the challenge?


Behavior evaluations

Shelters are increasing their efforts to evaluate the behavior and temperament of their animals in order to make better matches when placing them in new and, it is hoped, permanent homes. When animals present with mild behavior problems, many shelters undertake behavior modification and enrichment programs to render them adoptable or seek experienced adopters who can manage the problem.

Trap-neuter-return programs

One of the most controversial programs used by shelters is trap-neuter-return, which provides an alternative to the trap-and-euthanize programs commonly used to manage the burgeoning free-roaming and feral cat population. A properly managed trap-neuter-return program returns the animals to colony located in a safe environment where they are fed, given water and shelter, and monitored continually for health problems by community volunteers. Homes are sought for adoptable animals. The goal of trap-neuter-return programs is to ultimately eliminate the colony through attrition. Questions about the cats' impact on the indigenous wildlife and songbird populations, the management and placement of the colonies, and whether it is appropriate to leave cats outdoors continue to be raised. Ongoing research is being conducted to determine the effectiveness of these programs.

Other trends

Other meaningful trends in animal sheltering include the development of pediatric and high-volume neutering techniques, the implementation of neuter-before-adoption policies by shelters, conversion to sodium pentobarbital injections instead of carbon monoxide chambers for euthanasia, and the creation of a separate group of veterinary technicians who have specialized training in humane mass euthanasia techniques.


All of the aforementioned programs have required veterinary input to be successful, which has led to an increased interest in shelter medicine.

Public interest

Research has shown that the longer animals are held in shelters, the more likely they are to become diseased.5 Historically, when animals in shelters became sick they were euthanized, but the influence of the no-kill movement and public awareness of the plight of shelter animals have led to a demand for better professional treatment and prevention strategies. Disease outbreaks in shelters often make headlines. Decisions to depopulate are heavily scrutinized and are criticized by the public, press, and veterinarians if they are undertaken without careful consideration of humane alternatives.

Continuing education

In 1992, in conjunction with its annual conference, the American Humane held the first continuing education meeting that focused on shelter medicine. American Humane recognized that a degree in veterinary medicine does not prepare veterinarians to handle the challenges faced in developing and implementing effective disease prevention and treatment programs that include different vaccination and deworming strategies, special use of disease-testing programs, and high-volume neutering techniques.

Today, shelter medicine is being taught at many veterinary colleges. The first formal class in shelter medicine was at Cornell University in 1999 in conjunction with the ASPCA. Since then, several universities have begun offering courses in shelter medicine. The University of California, Davis; Cornell University; and Colorado State University (and soon the University of Pennsylvania) offer shelter medicine residency programs, and the list is growing. In addition, shelter medicine continuing education tracks are available at the North American Veterinary Conference, Western Veterinary Conference, Midwest Veterinary Conference, and numerous animal welfare conferences. Classes have also been offered on the Veterinary Information Network (

Shelter veterinarians

Shelter veterinarians must not only be thoroughly familiar with infectious disease management from a herd health perspective, including detailed knowledge of each disease encountered, but they must also be knowledgeable about stress management techniques; animal behavior; shelter design; sanitation protocols; euthanasia techniques; husbandry of various small mammals, birds, reptiles, and farm animals; zoonosis; and veterinary forensics. Shelter veterinarians are on the front lines when it comes to animal cruelty by uncovering, preserving, and documenting evidence for the prosecution. Their diagnostic skills often rely heavily on physical examinations since diagnostic testing may not be available.

Decisions that veterinarians must make have an impact on thousands of animals and are often made without the benefit of peer-reviewed, published veterinary data or the support of colleagues. Shelter veterinarians must be creative, resourceful, and independent-minded in order to try new and unproven healthcare strategies.


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