Jun 27, 2024

Have Stethoscope, Will Travel

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Helping Fellow Animal Groups Save Lives: DCHS’s new program provides medical care and surgical services to other shelters and rescues in need.

It was an early morning when felines Moxie, Sampson, and Cleo arrived at Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) to receive care in our Animal Medical Services (AMS) department. They needed vaccines, spay surgeries, and even a dental extraction — procedures Verona-based Angel’s Wish, the animal adoption organization taking care of them, was unable to provide.

DCHS takes great pride in the operation of AMS, our in-house veterinary clinic. Our primary objective is to deliver top-tier medical care to the thousands of animals who come to DCHS annually. Through AMS, we offer an array of services to our shelter animals, from routine spays and neuters to specialized surgeries such as dental procedures and orthopedic interventions. Our skilled medical team adeptly manages cases of infectious diseases, ensuring the health and well-being of every animal in our care.

However, unlike DCHS, most shelters and rescues don’t have their own veterinarians. With the United States facing a worsening veterinarian shortage, the private clinics that shelters and rescues have historically relied on have become busier and more expensive, and appointments are scheduled further out. Most animal groups require dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered prior to adoption, so these surgery delays mean animals wait in shelters longer — sometimes even months — before they can go to new homes. This causes organizations already facing overcrowding to struggle with longer stays for animals who might otherwise have gone home in days.

DCHS has a long history of supporting other animal welfare groups. We regularly transfer in adoptable animals from overcrowded shelters near and far. Several organizations send ringworm-positive cats to our Maddie’s Felines In Treatment Center to be cured of the contagious fungus. Our staff members frequently collaborate with, mentor, and train staff and volunteers from other groups.

In Fall 2022, a new opportunity emerged for DCHS to help even more animals in our region.

“We were hearing from other organizations that veterinary assistance was desperately needed. We found we had the surgical capacity to help other groups with these needs,” says Dr. Uri Donnett, DCHS’s Lead Shelter Veterinarian.

Sophia Chao transfers Sampson to an exam table

DCHS started to formalize our Shelter Support Program, which included creating a contract and yearly price list, as well as establishing new partnerships to pilot the program.

“Our goal is to provide broader access to care and vet services, while also generating some additional revenue for DCHS,” Uri continues. “One of the main needs we fill is to give our partners timely access to spay/neuter so they can keep their populations moving. We provide our services at low costs to ensure they are accessible to other shelters.”

Many of DCHS’s shelter partners previously needed to use private veterinary clinics for procedures like dentistry, eye surgeries, and mass removals. Some of these surgeries can be prohibitively expensive, thus limiting which animals could get them — sometimes resulting in euthanasia of the animal needing the procedure.

Now, those animals can receive low-cost treatment at DCHS. And sometimes, Uri explains, “On a case-by-case basis, we have been able to transfer animals with more extensive medical cases into our care, so we can get them what they need and adopt them out, removing the cost from our partner shelter and helping increase their lifesaving capacity.” (Read some examples!)

It soon became clear DCHS would require a veterinarian dedicated to managing shelter partner cases. “DCHS is very lucky to have a close relationship with the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and to have veterinary interns, students, and a clinical instructor,” Uri says. But that veterinary staff, along with DCHS’s veterinarians, must prioritize DCHS’s animal population to ensure we continue providing the high-quality care our own shelter pets deserve. “In order to grow these services and help more organizations, we needed another veterinarian who could see these partners at DCHS and travel to the other organizations as necessary.”

Dr. Sophia Chao had recently completed her Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Internship with DCHS when she was hired in July of 2023 to fill the new position of Shelter Support and Community Veterinarian. Sophia maintains monthly schedules and regularly communicates with our shelter partners about surgery dates and medical cases. She also travels to partner shelters to perform surgical services and medical exams. For groups that bring their animals to DCHS, Sophia performs veterinary exams and most of their surgeries, and she prepares their medications and paperwork before they return to their shelter or rescue. She also continues to develop new partnerships with additional animal welfare groups.

“We try to provide our partners with timely alternative medical and surgical options, so they can get animals in their care the medical assistance needed,” Sophia explains.

For Moxie, Sampson, and Cleo, Sophia examined each of them before Moxie and Cleo underwent spay surgery, while Sampson received a vaccine and had bloodwork completed. Cleo also needed some diseased teeth removed. With these procedures completed, they were ready for Angel’s Wish to help them find their new families.

Sophia Chao preps Cleo for surgery

In 2023, the first full year of our shelter partner program, we provided surgical and medical services to three organizations, including Angel’s Wish, on a weekly basis and four partners on an as-needed basis. AMS performed 780 surgeries, mostly spay/neuter and dentals, for these groups and nearly 1,000 exams, including Certificates of Veterinary Inspections — documents required for transporting animals.

Last year, DCHS also facilitated the transfer of eight critical medical cases from local Wisconsin shelters, exemplifying our commitment to collaborative care and animal welfare. Among these cases were two cats with broken pelvises, a kitten with a dislocated jaw, and two kittens battling panleukopenia, a potentially fatal virus.

We bolstered the lifesaving efforts of both DCHS and our shelter partners struggling to access veterinary care thanks in part to Maddie’s Fund, a national family foundation established by Dave and Cheryl Duffield to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals.

We are also immensely grateful for our community’s support, which helps us provide compassionate care and save lives throughout the Greater Madison region and beyond. Because of you, DCHS can address a wide range of medical needs, ensuring that every animal in our care receives the necessary treatment to thrive while extending much-needed support to other organizations.

With continued support, we will grow the program. “We want to make sure that we are able to support any additional partners,” Uri says. “Our goals in the future are to be able to provide more services to our partners at their locations, opening up new spots for partners at DCHS and also helping to limit the stress on the animals travelling back and forth.”

Adds Sophia, “I’m passionate about this program because we are providing low-cost veterinary services and increasing access to care for shelters and rescues that would otherwise face impossible decisions for the animals in their care.”

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