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Penn Vet students helping animals and their owners in Thailand

By: Liana F. Wait | Lfwait@Upenn.Edu | 267-800-9902 Date: Aug 22, 2023
surgery being performed by Allison Oakes and Taylor Dube in Chanthaburi
Veterinary students Allison Oakes and Taylor Dube performing surgery at a spay and neuter clinic in Chanthaburi, Thailand. (Image: Jessica Rafalko)

This summer, 14 students from the School of Veterinary Medicine traveled to Thailand to spay and neuter cats and dogs for owners who would otherwise be unable to afford the procedures. 
For students at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, an annual Thailand spay and neuter trip is an opportunity to help Thai communities that lack veterinary resources while honing their clinical skills. 

In July, 14 veterinary students made the journey to Thailand to conduct two clinics during a ten-day visit. In partnership with staff from Vet4 Polyclinic in Bangkok and the Mount Laurel Animal Hospital (MLAH), the students provided free veterinary care for cats and dogs.

The primary service provided was a spay and neuter clinic, but each animal was also vaccinated against rabies and treated for parasites. These services benefit the animals and owners by preventing the burden of unwanted litters, and help mitigate Thailand’s stray animal population. 

a cat being examined by Allison Oakes at the Bangkok clinic
Allison Oakes examines a cat at the Bangkok clinic. (Image: Claire Clemens)

“Most of the animals roam outside, but they are owned by people,” says Kara Anderson, who is entering her fourth year in the veterinary program and traveled to Thailand for the second time this summer. “Our main goals are to stop more stray animals from ending up on the streets and to help these pets stay with their owners for the longest amount of time they can.”

This year, the team provided veterinary care at two sites in Thailand: urban Bangkok and Chanthaburi, a small rural town that is a 3-hour drive southeast of Bangkok.

Though the trip is a valuable opportunity for the students to practice their surgical skills, they are well prepared and versed in the procedures before they arrive in Thailand. All the protocols are standardized, and the students practice spaying and neutering in the U.S., both at Penn and at MLAH. 

“The students are remarkably well prepared for this,” says faculty adviser and veterinarian Bruce Freedman, associate professor of pathobiology, chair of the gene therapy and vaccines  graduate group, and director of the Imaging Core Facility in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “It reminds me how impressive our students at Penn Vet really are,” says Freedman, who joined the Thailand trip for the first-time in 2022.

clinic setup in Chanthaburi
Spay and neuter clininc in Chanthaburi, Thailand. (Image: Christopher Torre)

In Thailand, the surgical suite is an outdoor pavilion. “There’s a sort of paradox because it’s a fully professional (sterile) surgical setup with surgery tables, anesthesia machines, and autoclaves, but it’s outside under a pavilion,” Freedman says. “The students scrub in and don gloves, masks, and hairnets, and then the people start to arrive with their animals on tuk tuks.” 

The students work in teams of three, taking turns as surgeon, anesthetist, and assistant. “We relied heavily on teamwork and communication in order to make our clinic a success,” says Lindsay Sprague, a fourth-year veterinary student.

After surgery, the pets recover in a nearby area while their owners look on. “They seem super grateful,” says Anderson. “A lot of the owners hang around while the surgeries are happening, and they’re really interested in watching and asking the Thai vets questions.”   

Christopher Torre, co-owner of MLAH, founded the Thailand spay and neuter trip in 2009 while studying at Penn Vet. This year, Torre traveled with the group again in a mentorship capacity.

“I’m excited to see this legacy live on,” Torre says. “Over the past 14 years, the trip has provided spay, neuter, and other medical services to over 1,300 animals.” 

The students were also joined by Liz Antzis, a recent Penn Vet graduate, who helped supervise procedures.

The experience leverages funds raised by the students and provided by MLAH, and, critically, sponsorship and on-the-ground logistical support from Vet4 Polyclinic in Bangkok. “This program wouldn’t be possible without the Thai doctors,” says Amanda Patev, a rising third-year student in the veterinary program. “They’ve given us a place to go, and this wouldn’t be possible without them.” 

group photo of Penn students and veterinary staff from MLAH and Vet4 Polyclinic
Penn Vet students and veterinary staff from MLAH and Vet4 Polyclinic at the Bangkok clinic. (Image: Courtesy of Christopher Torre)

As well as providing a lot of the heavier equipment like surgical tables and anesthesia machines, the Thai Vets oversee all procedures and help bridge the language gap between Penn’s ambassadors and members of the Thai community.

“They’re walking around helping us with anything we need,” Anderson says. “They’re very good at speaking both languages, so if we have questions, they’re able to help us, but they’re also able to communicate with the owners, which is super helpful.” 

Several students said the Thailand clinic was their favorite part of vet school so far.

“I absolutely loved being a part of the trip,” says Amanda Nimmo, who is entering her third year in the veterinary program. “Between traveling and bonding with students and faculty, amazing hands-on training, exploring an entirely new culture, and helping both the animals and residents of an underserved community, I was amazed with how much a small group of students was able to accomplish in under two weeks.”

Amanda Patev and Fern Akkrawong recovering a a cat post surgery at the Bangkok clinic
Amanda Patev and Fern Akkrawong at the Bangkok clinic. (Image: Bruce Freedman)

About Penn Vet

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling more than 34,600 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles more than 6,200 patient visits a year, while our Field Services have gone out on more than 5,500 farm service calls, treating some 18,700 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.