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Students in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine participate in the Shelter Medicine program, which helps local animal shelters care for cats and dogs.
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Eddy Perez | Photographer | Office of Communications & University Relations

LSU School of Veterinary Medicine helps local shelters

The day begins with an exam of an orange male cat. Two women in lab coats surround him, pointing out minor wounds from what appears to have been a catfight—a small opening on his neck and an abscess on his tail. For students in the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, such a scene is a large part of their curriculum.

The course, known as the Shelter Medicine Program, began in July 2007. Funding for the program is provided by a grant given to LSU by the Humane Society of the United States. The course is a two-week rotation, which involves one to four students at a time working alongside an instructor. This service is designed to give students hands-on experience in veterinary medicine, basic surgery skills, and shelter medicine.

“The visits serve as a clinical course,” said senior Sherri Andrews. “We rotate the different shelters we visit by going to a different one each day.”

There are approximately 17 shelters involved in the program, 10 of which are in frequent rotation for the students. Some of the shelters involved include the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Orleans Parish), the Jefferson Animal Shelter (Jefferson Parish), the St. Bernard Parish Animal Shelter (St. Bernard Parish), the Denham Springs Animal Shelter (Livingston Parish), and East Baton Rouge Parish Animal Control.

The orange male cat, quickly named “Kitty” by the students, knows Ascension Parish Animal Control in Sorrento as his home. The two students performing his exam, senior Catie Cook and junior Kelly Folse, participate in a mock client/veterinarian discussion lead by instructor Wendy Wolfson. The students explain Kitty’s possible treatment options: medicine in a pill form, possibly hidden in soft food, to mend his wounds. They also discuss the worst-case scenario of a tail amputation.

While Cook and Folse conclude Kitty’s exam, Andrews is several feet away looking at slides under a microscope. She is comparing samples from several cats, trying to identify a mild stomach illness in a black shorthair. What she finds is dubbed a “Mickey Mouse spore” because of its similar shape to the cartoon character’s head. The spore is the source of the stomach illness and, after a short discussion with Wolfson, the two determine the spore’s origin—pine tree pollen.

Wolfson, a 1986 graduate of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, joined the faculty in May 2007 to serve as shelter veterinarian and as an instructor of veterinary surgery. She worked in shelter medicine for more than 20 years at the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New Orleans and, along with assistant professor of small animal medicine Susan Eddlestone, created the Shelter Medicine Program to bring students out of the ordinary lab setting while simultaneously helping Louisiana animal shelters.

The students are humble in their work at the shelter. Wolfson makes it clear that the students are working together to create as many successes as possible. The participating shelters appreciate the assistance, as do the animals.

“By coming to the shelters, we can diagnose common illnesses in the animals,” Andrews said. “We learn what the shelters usually look for in diagnosing cats and dogs.”

Kitty returns to his cozy cage, while the group moves outside to the dogs’ domain. A set of four puppies, black Labrador Retriever mixes, is next on the examination table. Cook and Folse determine their ages—eight to 10 weeks—by looking at their teeth. They routinely check their heartbeats, eyes, and ears. The problem lies with their skin, and the students must remember information from their classroom studies to diagnose the puppies. After a skin scrape and a look through a microscope, the students conclude that the condition is most likely scabies. The puppies are de-wormed and placed back in their home.

Andrews admits that sometimes the shelters can be heartbreaking, but she considers the experience a pleasant one.

“I really enjoy coming to the shelters,” she said. “Of course, there are times I think I’d like to take a dog home, but then I remember the four dogs I already have.”

Typical visits include exams and minor treatments, but sometimes circumstances call for more serious action, such as surgery. In January, the veterinary school began taking a custom-made trailer to the animal shelters as part of the program. The unit includes a surgical table, lighting, a refrigerator, gas, scales, and 18 small cages. The unit can connect to a shelter for electricity and water, but also has a generator and self-contained water supply. The mobile unit was partly funded by the American Kennel Club Animal Recovery Emergency Response Unit Fund, and its primary function is to respond to natural disasters where small animals are injured; however, the students also take the unit to shelters that have no surgery center, mainly to provide spay and neuter services.

Holly Ann Phillips | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
March 2009