Animal shelters— a literal life saver

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animal shelters

Thousands of rescued animals are given a second chance at life thanks to dedicated shelter vets. Clea Sherman reports

At three months old, Clark the kitten found himself in desperate need of help. Living on the streets but struggling to survive due to a rib deformity and a case of pneumonia, he didn’t have much hope of a happy life. 

After being picked up by the local council, Clark was delivered to the helping hands of RSPCA Victoria’s Epping Animal Welfare Facility in Melbourne. Here, he was able to access the safe environment and medical treatment he desperately needed. 

Clark is one of more than 25,000 domestic animals who are collected by councils and community members in Victoria each year. Of the cats and dogs picked up, many are homeless. A significant percentage of these require emergency medical attention and behavioural support. 

“The majority of the animals entering a shelter are stray, feral or victims of cruelty,” says Dr Ida Liu,  who is one of two vets at the Epping Animal Welfare Facility. “There is often very little to no information regarding their history.” After being on the streets, stray animals are also likely to have an infectious disease like cat flu or panleukopaenia virus.

Dr Liu joined RSPCA Victoria as a vet after working in private practice for several years. “I sometimes felt frustrated in private practice because money was an issue. On occasion, it would come between the animal’s needs and the treatment it was given,” she explains. 

“Working for RSPCA Victoria means I can help animals directly without having to factor in reluctance over the cost. I find the job really fulfilling and feel as though I am able to make a difference.” 

Shelter medicine plays an important role in the humane treatment of ownerless animals. “We only ever euthanase on humane grounds,” explains Dr Liu, “It is never due to lack of space. Each animal will be given every available treatment option possible.” 

Every animal that comes through the doors at the Epping Animal Welfare Facility is examined and given assistance by a vet. Often, the cost of procedures can run into the thousands. The money to pay for operations, medicine and treatment is supplied by RSPCA Victoria. Their funding comes from donations, fundraising efforts and money raised from adoptions, private clinics and council contracts.  

Beyond giving each animal medical attention, vets at animal shelters must temper the risk of infection and try to minimise the stress of confinement. “Ensuring a proper balance of physical and behavioural health is crucial,” explains Dr Liu. 

Shelter medicine’s impact

Shelter medicine literally means the difference between life and death for many animals. “If someone takes a sick or injured stray to a private practice vet but can’t pay for surgery, often the vet will refer the animal to us. We are able to step up and save the animal’s life,” says Dr Liu. 

If someone takes a sick or injured stray to a private practice vet but can’t pay for surgery, often the vet will refer the animal to us. We are able to step up and save the animal’s life.

Dr Ida Liu, vet, RSPCA’s Victoria Epping Animal Welfare Facility

Most of the animals treated by shelter vets go on to be listed for adoption. “The treatment we provide includes desexing, microchipping and vaccination.” 

Thanks to the care they receive, thousands of homeless animals are able to go on to live happy lives with loving families. The risk of them spreading disease or going on to become parents of unwanted litters is greatly diminished. Being microchipped also means they are far less likely to wind up back at the shelter as an unclaimed stray. 

Prevention vs cure

To advance her knowledge, Dr Liu looks to the US, where shelter medicine is formally recognised as a specialty by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. “I am always interested to learn about what they are doing and am currently studying a shelter medicine course through the University of Florida,” she says. 

While Australian shelter vets usually only have the budget and resources to work within their own practice, US shelters send staff into the community. Through outreach programs, they provide free health checks, flea/worm treatments and vaccinations. 

“Teams are sent out to educate people and provide care for animals which may not otherwise get the assistance they need. They are also able to offer high-volume desexing. At RSPCA Victoria, we are unfortunately restricted by our numbers and aren’t able to offer this as much as we would like to,” says Dr Liu. 

This year, RSPCA Victoria was able to host two mobile cat desexing clinics in the Glenelg Shire in South West Victoria. At the clinic, healthy cats were offered desexing at only $25 for males and $50 for females. This was supported by the local council as part of their Domestic Animal Management Plan. 

When considering the statistic that one fertile female cat and her fertile female descendants can produce 2000 kittens in just two years, a preventative measure like this can go a long way to reducing the number of unwanted animals on the streets. 

In the future, Dr Liu and RSPCA Victoria would like to work with more councils on a preventative approach. Establishing more outreach programs and low-cost desexing clinics would give at-risk animals and their owners the veterinary attention they need. 

Clark’s happy ending

After meeting little Clark the stray kitten, Dr Liu took him into foster care, giving him the medical attention he needed to recover from pneumonia. However, the temporary arrangement is now a permanent one. 

Clark is six months old and living comfortably with two other cat companions and the vet who saved his life. “It’s very rewarding to see him doing well,” smiles Dr Liu.

Vets in Victoria can support RSPCA Victoria by adding a fundraising box to their front counter. Visit: rspcavic.org/fundraising/wombat-boxes

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