Paving the Road
Shelter Medicine as a Veterinary Specialty

Spetember 16, 2014
by Brenda Griffin, DVM, MS, DACVIM and Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM

Vet with an orange tabby cat
Earlier this year, Shelter Medicine was formally granted provisional recognition as a veterinary specialty.
Bill Oxford/iStockphoto

Shelter Medicine—Today, people have heard the term, but just ten years ago it was not so familiar, and still today we are explaining it to many of our colleagues. Frankly, it has been a whirlwind over the past decade—the formal discipline of Shelter Medicine has rapidly emerged as a distinct area of specialization in veterinary medicine in a very short time. Like many who have worked with animal shelters for some years, it didn’t take either of us very long in this field to realize that Shelter Medicine is unique. It demands an unprecedented specialized veterinary approach that blends the best of both population and individual animal medicine with an ultimate goal of improving animal welfare. In fact, we quickly learned that the practice of Shelter Medicine requires special focused expertise in the context of very unique and challenging environments.

Ten years ago, the two of us exchanged emails and phone calls, often scratching our heads, searching for answers, trying to understand what “good medicine” was in the context of an animal shelter. And, as we delved deeper into shelter practice, we realized how great the gaps were in our own training and how difficult it was to identify and integrate optimal practices into the context of shelters. Just as many veterinarians working in shelters did, we saw that enhancing animal welfare and meeting the needs of animals and people in the community required a broad range of expertise in population wellness, infectious disease control, behavioral care, high quality, high volume spay-neuter, triage, epidemiology, and shelter management, among others. Consulting with others in the field, it became clear to us that a specialist in shelter medicine must be capable of responding to the needs of shelters ranging from large open admission facilities to small home-based rescue organizations, as well as every permutation in between providing care for homeless animals. We recognized that shelter patients present diverse populations and challenges, necessitating a thorough understanding of facility design and operations, population management, resource allocation, risk analysis and welfare, as well as strategies for control of companion animal overpopulation, public health protection, and disaster and cruelty response. Surely, a specialty would help to bridge the gaps and advance the body of knowledge necessary to provide optimal care in this challenging context.

In 2007, both of us served on the board of directors of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians and along with the board, we began to explore the possibility of creating a Shelter Medicine specialty. On the advice of the American Board of Veterinary Specialties, we set out to conduct a formal “job task analysis” to define the aspects of veterinary practice that are crucial to the care and management of shelter animals. With the assistance of Dr. Jeanette O’Quin, who was a key organizer of the effort, a professionally-mediated job task analysis was conducted, and subsequently validated the following year through a survey of the ASV membership. The analysis defined major categories of duties for a Shelter Medicine Specialist including: optimizing shelter animal physical health, optimizing shelter animal behavioral health, protecting community and public health, addressing animal cruelty/abuse/neglect, alleviating companion animal homelessness, facilitating animal shelter management, serving as a resource on animals and public policy, and advancing shelter medicine. This would ultimately serve as the foundation for our petition for the proposed specialty in Shelter Medicine.

Shelter dog receiving specialty medical treatment
The Shelter Medicine specialty will help improve veterinary care provided to shelter animals and advance competency and scientific progress in the field. Michelle Riley/The HSUS

In 2009, ASV formally appointed an Organizing Committee for the development of an AVMA-approved specialty in Shelter Medicine, and we were named as the co-chairs of this effort. We firmly believed that a specialty in Shelter Medicine Practice would elevate the field, create organized training and certification pathways for veterinarians, and ultimately serve to establish veterinarians as leaders in providing quality care for the millions of companion animals passing through U.S. shelters each year. Over the following years, we worked with our dedicated committee members to define the unique professional knowledge and skills required, establish standards for training, research existing recognized veterinary specialty organizations, and conduct surveys of veterinary curricula and veterinary employment in shelters. Ultimately, we recognized that the discipline of Shelter Medicine would be well suited to one existing specialty board: the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. ABVP is the only specialty organization in which Diplomates demonstrate excellence in the care of the total patient relevant to the context in which the practice is occurring. It is not a system-based specialty like dermatology or cardiology, but instead represents a holistic, comprehensive approach to the patient—a perfect fit for a shelter specialist.

With the approval of ABVP and a lot of hard work and assistance from our committee, we submitted a formal petition for provisional recognition of a veterinary specialty in Shelter Medicine Practice under the ABVP to the AVMA’s American Board of Veterinary Specialties in November 2012. Following the required review process, the ABVS enthusiastically recommended provisional recognition of the new specialty. In April 2014, the AVMA’s Executive Committee formally conferred provisional recognition of ABVP-SMP. ABVP will accept the first credentialing applications for its newest practice category this fall. The first certifying exam will take place in 2015. View the full petition»

We are excited as we consider the future of our specialty. Ultimately we hope it will improve the veterinary care provided to shelter animals and advance competency and scientific progress in our field. We smile now as we hear veterinary students talking about shelter medicine as though it has always existed. We know that the last generation of shelter practitioners has worked tirelessly to blaze a trail that the new generation can follow – and we are so grateful to have been entrusted to help pave some of this road. Paving is an important step—one that we believe will not only ensure that the road remains, but that in time will help expand it into a super highway. Congratulations to all of us in this field—together we did it, and it’s official: Shelter Medicine is a recognized veterinary specialty.

Dr. Barbara Griffin holding a puppy
Brenda Griffin, DVM, MS, DACVIM

Dr. Griffin is a 1990 graduate of the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. After completing an internship at the MSPCA’s Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in 1991, she spent time working in general small animal practice as well as in animal shelters before pursuing a residency in small animal internal medicine at Auburn University. For the past 15 years, Dr. Griffin has used her expertise in small animal internal medicine and her passion for shelter animals to assist in the development of training and research programs that support the field of Shelter Medicine. Her professional interests surround feline medicine, population health, behavioral wellness, and sterilization programs. She has published numerous articles and book chapters on these topics. While a member of the faculty of the Scott Ritchey Research Center, Dr. Griffin co-founded the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs. She later served on the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Task Force to Advance Spay-Neuter, as well as the Shelter Standards Task Force. In 2000, she was named by the AVMA as the Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year. She currently co-instructs courses in shelter medicine at both the University of Florida and the University of Georgia, and serves as the Regent for the new specialty in Shelter Medicine: ABVP- SMP.

Dr. Kate Hurley holding a kitten
UC Davis
Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM

Kate Hurley is the director of the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Dr. Hurley began her career as an animal control officer in 1989. After graduation from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999, she worked as a shelter veterinarian in California and Wisconsin. In 2001, she returned to UC Davis to become the first in the world to undertake a residency in Shelter Medicine. Following completion of the residency, Hurley became the director of the UC Davis Koret shelter medicine program. Two of her proudest achievements are co-authoring the “Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters” and co-editing the textbook “Infectious Disease Management in Animal Shelters”. She loves all things shelter-related, but her particular interests include welfare of confined dogs and cats, humane and effective strategies to manage community cats, infectious disease, and unusually short dogs. She loves shelter work because it has the potential to improve the lives of so many animals and the people who work so hard to care for them.