Every year, 6.5 million stray or surrendered animals enter shelters, 1.5 million of them are euthanized. In Philadelphia, the city’s shelter alone admitted 19,000 animals last year.
Enter Penn Vet’s Shelter Medicine program with a mission that includes keeping animals from ending up in shelters at all. The program helps improve the lives of the city’s most at-risk animals. And early next year it will start covering more ground with a mobile clinic.
Serving Need and Saving Lives
“We provide primary care to shelter animals but also services to the community in collaboration with our partners,” said Dr. Brittany Watson, Director and Clinical Assistant Professor, Shelter Medicine and Community Engagement. "Community engagement is as important as direct clinical services in preventing shelter overpopulation and increasing animal welfare. Philadelphia has areas of deep poverty and inequity. Many communities don’t have adequate health care resources for pets, and residents can’t easily travel to or afford quality care elsewhere. This can lead to surrenders or affect the human-animal bond. Then shelters and the community are overtaxed and under resourced in their ability to help animals in need.”
The Shelter Medicine team supports shelters with critical surgical and other medical services. This includes, through a partnership with the Richard Lichter Charity for Dogs, treating ill and injured, but ultimately saveable, dogs that shelters aren’t able to treat. Part of the Humane Society of the United States’ Pets for Life program, the program also offers low-cost spay or neuter and wellness care in underserved neighborhoods.
“The Shelter Medicine program has been a great partner for us,” said Dr. Hillary Herendeen, Medical Director, ACCT Philly, Philadelphia’s municipal shelter and the region’s largest intake facility. “They help us on protocol development and review, give advice on disease control, and provide guidance when we adopt a new process or procedure. Having Penn Vet’s insight and partnership helps us remain at the cutting edge of sheltering and maximize lifesaving for Philadelphia's at-risk animals!”
Taking Clinical Care Directly to Shelter Partners
Today, Penn Vet and its shelter medicine partners are eager for the new year, when the Shelter Medicine program rolls out its new 40-foot-long mobile clinic to heal and help more vulnerable animals.
Outfitted for surgery and diagnostics, the traveling clinic will offer services and equipment that shelters can’t afford or accommodate. In addition to exam, surgery, and recovery spaces, on board will be microscopy staining, radiograph, and blood machines. Eventually, the clinic will also accommodate dental care and ultrasounds.
“When planning how to expand the Shelter Medicine program’s reach in the city, we looked at gaps and how to fill them,” Watson said. “One advantage of having a mobile clinic instead of a building is that transportation is a big barrier for many communities. So, we’ll be able to go where the need is. Our animal welfare partners are confined by their brick and mortar facilities too, so we can bring services directly to them.”
On a weekly basis, the clinic will operate onsite at shelters. At other times, the unit can serve as a public clinic in different neighborhoods through community partnerships, as well as an opportunity for Philadelphia middle and high school students to learn about animal health and welfare. In the long term, Watson hopes to use the clinic in disaster and emergency response and animal cruelty cases.
“This clinic is going to be huge for our shelter and rescue partners,” said Herendeen. “The expanded diagnostics and additional surgical capacity will enable us to better diagnose our most urgent animals. On days when the clinic is on site for surgery, we will be able to perform double the number of spay and neuter cases to prepare our pets for adoption.”
While the concept of mobile medical services isn’t a new one, Watson pointed out Penn Vet “is unique because most veterinary schools are not located in urban environments and most shelter medicine programs are embedded in a particular facility.”
She added, “We want this unit to be a robust educational tool for Penn Vet students, shelter staff, and the people of Philadelphia, one that can help us address the surgical, medical, and educational needs of the communities we serve.”
Driving Tomorrow’s Veterinarian
For Penn Vet students, the medical facility will be a new teaching and learning resource in a program that has grown in popularity over the past four years. Since 2014, the School’s Shelter Medicine program has seen a 55 percent increase in student enrollment, and 50 percent of Penn Vet students are registered in the program’s courses.
“Our students are deeply engaged in animal welfare, as well as human-focused issues,” said Watson. “Whether they plan to enter research, alternative careers, or private practice, early interaction with shelter medicine is important training. We want our graduates to think globally and see connections between humans, animals, and socioeconomic environments. Shelter Medicine exposure helps future veterinarians understand and work within difficult and diverse contexts, which can help them serve all animals — and the world — in a more meaningful way.”