Building Bridges Between Vets and Shelter Professionals

Building Bridges Between Vets and Shelter Professionals – The Latest Updates

Three animal welfare leaders led a general session about the changing dynamics between animal shelters and the veterinary community. Gary Weitzman, DVM, MPH, CAWA, President and CEO of the San Diego Humane Society, Michael Moyer, VMD, Director of Shelter Animal Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and owner of Bridgewater Veterinary Hospital and Sharon Harmon, CAWA, Executive Director of the Oregon Humane Society, led the session.

The current picture

Dr. Weitzman opened the session by discussing the current status of the relationship between animal welfare leaders and the veterinary community. He noted that the relationship is always evolving but that most vets go to vet school to save pets, just like many shelter professionals.

Weitzman noted that twenty-first century veterinary medicine is “completely different” than what previous recent generations learned. Most schools graduate 80-90% women now, and buying a practice is less common than it used to be. Higher debt and lower salaries relative to the amount of training have impacted what vet school graduates need and want from their early careers.

Animal shelters have also evolved – they’ve changed to become rehabilitation centers and are providing many of the the services traditionally provided by vet practices. Vet practices have also changed due to new technology and new services and approaches, including the emergence of shelter medicine as a distinct discipline.

Now, shelters and veterinary practices are competing more and more, especially in some areas like euthanasia and spay and neuter. This has led some to question if there is there an oversupply of vets despite the current low unemployment rate for veterinarians in the United States.

Given these dynamics, Weitzman questioned how the future of veterinary medicine will look. The answer? It will likely be quite different. Vets will probably specialize more and more as the practice advances. Additionally, the high cost of vet care has outpaced what many pet-owning families can afford.

Trends for the future

The issues of both accessibility and affordability will also need to be addressed by the next generation of vets. The pressure of helping families make financial decisions around medical choices is stressful for both vets and the families they work with.

Trust has also diminished for vets due to cost pressures. As a result, barriers need to be discussed, including costs, difficult business management, better digital capabilities and more widespread use of pet health insurance.

Dr. Moyer shared some information from a recent AVMA study outlining how and why these changes are happening, as well as the trends for the future.

Here are some important highlights:

  • Pet practices have lost primacy as the channel for veterinary products, information and services due to the emergence of new resources including: online services, big box retailers, shelters and mobile clinics
  • There have been large declines in productivity with many vets not working at full capacity
  • The relative cost of vet prices versus the consumer price index has been growing sharply while spending has been going down on vet services, suggesting that raising prices is having adverse effects on customer satisfaction
  • Predictions of a vet shortage haven’t happened, and more veterinarians are unemployed right out of vet school
  • School costs and student debt is going up while vet salaries are on a downward trend

Partnering with shelters

Discussions with SAWA leaders began in 2013 and continue today. The goal of the conversation is to create better communication and understanding between private practice vets and shelter leaders. Sharon Harmon ended the presentation with a review of places where partnerships with shelters are working best, including Oregon Humane Society, San Diego Humane Society, Cleveland Animal Protective League, Humane Society of Charlotte and more.

Harmon then discussed some of the many reasons that better collaboration between vets, shelters and pet owners would benefit everyone. She noted that better partnerships would help preserve or improve the lives of a greater number of animals, which is a shared goal for all groups.

Here are some of the areas of potential partnerships that Harmon identified:

  • Shelters are the best source of new clients for vets as people adopt animals and will need medical care in the future, often for animals who are medically needy
  • Vets rarely have time to address behavior issues, which are a top reason that owners relinquish their pets while shelters have staff experienced with pet behavior issues
  • Partnering on animal cruelty investigations and advocacy to improve animal lives and identify problematic individuals in the community
  • Shelters have high volume needs that present excellent learning opportunities for vets in training
  • Referral programs to help pet owners get the right care at a price they can afford, serve to stop the flow of relinquished pets that are due to the high cost of vet care and help to avoid animal cruelty
  • Advocacy for pet insurance to help owners avoid unplanned high costs and keep animals out of shelters; currently, less than 1% of pet owners have pet insurance according to VCA

“I can’t imagine taking my son to the emergency room with a broken leg and being in between jobs with no health insurance, and having to give up my son.”

This discussion, and many like it in communities across the country, are productive ways to bridge the gap between vets and shelter staff. As Harmon  noted: we need each other. All of these issues will help vets and shelters better serve pets, and the humans that love them.


This article was written live during the 2015 Annual Society of Animal Welfare Administrators Conference. This post reflects our bloggers’ understanding of the session and the materials shared by presenters.


The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement is a community of professionals committed to excellence in the management and operation of animal welfare and control organizations.

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