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What is Shelter Medicine?

Traditionally, the focus of companion animal veterinary training has been on the health of individual animals. In shelters, large numbers of animals share common sources of air, food, water, living space and caretaker attention, increasing stress and facilitating disease transmission and the development of behavior problems. The health and welfare of the population influences the health and welfare of all individuals and vice versa.

Complete veterinary care of shelter animals requires focused expertise combining elements of epidemiology, infectious disease control, behavior, surgery and shelter management. More specifically, the shelter veterinarian should have an expanded understanding in the following areas:

  • Shelter facility design and operation
  • Husbandry, including housing, nutrition, and sanitation
  • Preventive medicine, including vaccination
  • Infectious disease management, diagnosis, and treatment
  • Resource management and risk analysis
  • High quality high volume surgical techniques
  • Companion animal welfare
  • Behavior evaluation and environmental enrichment
  • Animal cruelty investigation and veterinary forensics
  • Public health
  • Personnel management

Shelter medicine veterinarians must also be well versed in legal, regulatory, ethical and emotional aspects of shelter animal care. Many veterinarians learn these skills through on-the-job training but there are also veterinarians who have underdone specialized training in shelter medicine. Several universities offer internships, fellowships, residencies or online courses for veterinarians which enhance their understanding of shelter medicine.

Why study shelter medicine at Cornell University?

Cornell University's Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Program is one of the few schools offering a robust shelter medicine program, that not only teaches classes, but has a rotation for students in their clinical years and is dedicated to training new shelter veterinarians through an intensive one-year internship.

How do we support animal shelters and animal rescues?

Our team responds to email and phone consults, as well as traveling to various local and regional shelters offering consultation on different topics as requested, including dog/cat housing, enrichment, intake protocols, vaccine protocols and infectious disease outbreak. We offer Outbreak Response Assistance through our Consultation Hotline (, and we provide subsidized diagnostic services to registered brick-and-mortar animal shelters and humane organizations in certain states along the East Coast through our Maddie's® Shelter Lab program (made possible by funding from Maddie's Fund®).

Shelter Medicine: The Past, Present and Future of Saving Animals' Lives

In the 1970's there was no such thing as shelter medicine. Most animals entering a shelter did not leave them alive. In 1999, the first formal class in shelter medicine was taught.  It was a cooperative effort between the ASPCA and Cornell University and was taught by Dr. Jan Scarlett (Program Founder) and Dr. Lila Miller. In September 2005 the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell, with support from Maddie’s Fund®, launched a Shelter Medicine Program to educate veterinarians and veterinary students in shelter medicine, to provide medical and behavioral outreach to animal shelters and to advance the new discipline through the discovery of new knowledge.Today, the field of shelter medicine has come a long way.  It is now a recognized specialty of veterinary practice and many animal shelters are working with shelter medicine programs and veterinarians to save upwards of 90 percent of the animals they take in.

Shelter medicine differs from traditional small animal private practice in that it blends individual patient care with population health management, including preventive medicine and behavioral health. Prior to 1999, veterinarians working in shelters did so without formal training or external recognition of the specialized knowledge that comprises shelter medicine. The first course in shelter medicine, conceived by Dr. Lila Miller of the ASPCA and Dr. Jan Scarlett of Cornell University, was taught at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Since then, and thanks in large part to Maddie’s Fund®, the specialized training in shelter medicine for veterinary students and graduate veterinarians has expanded on a yearly basis, and now incorporates over two dozen schools, offering everything from elective courses for first- and second-year students to externships, internships, and residencies.

What is the role of our program at the SPCA of Tompkins County?

At the SPCA of Tompkins County, we work as the medical team, managing clinical cases of dogs, cats and small mammals coming through the SPCA. Everyone gets a physical exam, and any diagnostics or treatments as needed. As needed, animals are spayed/neutered (dogs, cats, rabbits), and dental cleaning/extractions are performed. Additionally, we’ve performed special procedures such as limb or tail amputations, enucleations, wound repairs, mass removals and a handful of others. We work in creating and updating protocols for certain diseases or problems in the shelter, and continuously have fourth-year students rotating through the program. During the summers, we help with the SPCA Camp, leading elementary-aged students through physical exams and spay/neuter procedures and teaching them about pet health. As needed, we conduct forensic/legal physical exams and necropsies for cruelty and neglect cases managed by the Humane Investigators. 

Working with the SPCA of Tompkins County

Bouderau attributes a lot of the SPCA’s success to the community of Ithaca. He notes that it is a progressive community with residents who are very receptive to forward-thinking ideas like No Kill. As one example of the support the SPCA gets from the community he points to the SPCA’s relationship with the Cornell shelter medicine program, which was one of the first such programs in the country. In 2012 the shelter formalized a relationship with Cornell in which a team of four veterinarians, including Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, the head of the shelter medicine program, provide veterinary care at much less than market rates for the SPCA. Two of the four veterinarians are interns or residents – graduate veterinarians who want to learn more about shelter medicine – and the benefit for the Cornell program is that the interns and residents get hands-on experience in a working shelter. The program allows the SPCA to save animals who require very complex care. It also provides a 24-hour on-call service for animal control officers to help them triage injured and ill animals in the field and decide if the animals can be cared for at the shelter or need to go straight to the Cornell hospital.  

           Excerpt from the July 8. 2015 blog post "Meet the Director: Jim Bouderau"                                                        by Out the Front Door:Reporting on Animal Shelters in the United States,                                                                written by Susan Houser.