Monday, October 1, 2012

When the patient is a shelter: week one

The next question I get after “what do you do?” is always “what’s shelter medicine?” I have been playing around with different ways to sum up a complicated veterinary specialty in a few sentences, suitable for cocktail party conversation. (No, I do not actually go to cocktail parties.) Recently I found an answer I liked: shelter medicine is where the patient is an animal shelter, not an animal.

For the next four weeks, my shelter medicine program will be working on a consultation with a particular animal shelter. This week, we are analyzing data from the shelter, which is a large municipal animal care and control facility in the South. As such, it will be open admission (take in almost any animal offered to it) and therefore likely to perform euthanasia of potentially healthy animals to free up space for more animals, rather than solely for behavioral or medical purposes.

Step one: analyze what this shelter takes in. I have received spreadsheets of data from the last five years. I will be building data tables to tell us how many animals of each species it accepted (we’re only looking at cats and dogs); how many animals of each age category it accepted (kitten/puppy, adult, and the always dreaded “unknown,” of which there are more than you would expect at most shelters even though it isn’t hard to tell if an animal is an adult or not); why the animals came to it (surrendered by owner, stray, confiscation, returned by an adopter, return from foster care, other). This will help us understand where most animals in the shelter have come from, which will be key data in making recommendations to the shelter about how to work to reduce their intake numbers.

One of the residents in my program is simultaneously looking at what happens to the animals who are in the shelter, by age and species: euthanized? Died in the shelter? Adopted out or transferred to a rescue (“live release”)? This will help us make recommendations about how to increase live release. For example, which kinds of animals are most at risk of euthanasia: feral cats? (Does the shelter have a trap-neuter-return program?) Adoptable puppies? (Do they have a program to transfer to other groups which might have more resources to put towards finding homes?) Adoptable kittens? (There are always too many kittens!) Sick animals? (It may be acceptable to euthanize sick animals, but why did the animal become sick? Does the shelter have a problem with communicable disease?) And, of course, we will look at how many animals died in the shelter. (That is the worst outcome. That should rarely happen. If it happens too often, it is a huge red flag.)

So wish me luck with all my spreadsheets. Luckily, I used to be a computer programmer. I may call on some old skills to help me out this week.

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