At Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, the shelter surgery program provides the venue to spay/neuter approximately 3,200 dogs and cats a year. That’s 3,200 pets that cannot contribute to Oklahoma’s pet overpopulation problem. That’s 3,200 pets ready for immediate adoption into their forever homes. That’s 3,200 surgeries performed helping tomorrow’s veterinarians hone their surgical and anesthesia management skills.
“We partner with 33 to 35 animal shelters,” explained Dr. Kimberly Carter, clinical assistant professor and section chief of shelter medicine and junior surgery techniques at the Center’s Veterinary Medical Hospital. “Some come less frequently while others come every week or sometimes multiple times a week. In Oklahoma, a law requires that animals adopted through a rescue agency must have a voucher program or be spayed/neutered before their release.
“It’s been proven that voucher programs do not work with less than 60 percent compliance,” she continued. “So if you pay up front and give a voucher, the adopting people simply don’t follow through. So most shelters, if they have the resources, have their animals spayed and neutered before releasing them to their adopter. We help by performing the surgeries.”
Junior veterinary students perform a total of 12 spay/neuter surgeries during the semester. Each has three spays and three neuters as an assistant surgeon and then again as a primary surgeon. Senior veterinary students perform anywhere from 30 to 40 spay/neuter surgeries as a primary surgeon and the same number as an anesthetist.
“Currently an elective for seniors, shelter surgery will soon be a core course,” said Carter. “Depending on our case load and individual speed, by course end seniors will perform roughly 80 spay/neuter surgeries as either the primary surgeon or an anesthetist. If you are a bit speedier, you get more cases. Our goal at the end of the rotation is to have these students hone their surgical skills and confidence to become an independent surgeon.”
“I think this is actually my favorite rotation so far this year,” said Elizabeth Shrode, senior veterinary student from West Palm Beach, Florida. “I elected to take it because I felt in need of improving my surgical skills and my anesthesia skills. We get so much of it here in a really condensed fashion. It’s an awesome experience. I liked the size of the caseload and being able to do multiple surgeries every day. I’ve gained so much out of it and I think it really sets Oklahoma State graduates apart from graduates of other vet schools.”
Class size at OSU’s Center has increased from 88 to 106. The increased class size coupled with switching shelter surgery from an elective to a required course means the program must grow.
“Going forward if we’re going to do more surgeries on more animals, challenges include reconfiguring our space and getting more staff and more clinicians to handle the increased case load,” added Carter. “Ultimately, more animals will be getting spayed/neutered. We do have very generous sponsors. Grants from PetSmart, Maddie’s Fund, and Petco help with equipment and supplies which enables us to offer shelters a very low cost spay/neuter. What our shelters contribute as a payment doesn’t even cover the cost of a surgery. We depend heavily on grants to help subsidize our program.”
In addition to making the animals more adoptable by spaying and neutering them, the shelter surgery program provides ancillary services.
“We vaccinate and microchip each animal,” said Carter. “We do dentals, which is a huge benefit because dental care is one of the extreme costs. Some of these animals have simply terrible health in their mouth. If we can give them a dental cleaning, do some x-rays and get their teeth in good shape before they are adopted, it’s huge. We perform other small surgeries like entropion surgeries where the eyelid is rolled inward against the eyeball, cherry eye surgeries, and limb amputations if they have a catastrophic break. Most shelters do not have the resources to do any sort of pinning or plating. We will do limb amputations to save a dog’s life. Three-legged dogs and cats live very happily with three legs and get adopted readily. These other procedures are a really good thing that we can do for our shelters and it gives our students hands-on experience at that same time.”
“I chose this rotation as an elective because I feel it is imperative that we are able to do castrations as well as spays whenever we leave as a practicing veterinarian,” said Kelsy Eastwood, senior veterinary student from Cherokee, Oklahoma. “This rotation has been fantastic. I expected to do mostly spays and neuters, and that’s what we’ve done for the most part, but I have also had the opportunity to perform a forelimb amputation as well as a laceration repair. Those are hands-on experiences I would not have gotten otherwise without this rotation.”
“The other important thing is to spay animals young,” Carter continued. “Through our program we do a lot of pediatric surgeries. You can spay/neuter anytime over 8 weeks. Shelter standards and shelter medicine industry standards are .9 kilograms. So we’re talking a kitten about the size of a Coke can. Our students get very comfortable doing pediatrics because we do a lot of them. It’s the best bang for your buck so to speak. The most return on your investment is to spay/neuter early before any litters are born.”
Carter said most people don’t realize how young a cat can come into heat.
“Kittens as young as four months of age can come into heat and have unwanted litters. In the shelter industry, we call these ‘oops’ litters. The animal gets out in their first heat cycle and gets bred. Then the owner is presented with a litter they didn’t expect or want. Simply spaying them young takes care of that problem.”
Oklahoma currently has a high euthanasia rate in shelters. The hope is to have a 90 percent live release rate by 2025 and Oklahoma State’s shelter surgery program can help.
“One of the challenges Oklahoma faces is adequate resources in spay/neuter for owned animals,” explained Carter. “Our rural communities really suffer and some counties don’t even have a county shelter. There’s nowhere for these animals to go. So that leads to high euthanasia rates. Reducing the unwantedness and overpopulation will have the biggest impact on these rates. We help by obviously serving our shelters in that capacity.”
The OSU Center’s shelter surgery program only deals with contracted animal shelters. Private owners must schedule surgery for their pets through their own veterinarian or the Hospital’s community practice service, which is open to the public.
“We are grateful for our sponsors and need more resources to grow our program,” concluded Carter. “Our students leave this program with very good surgical skills. This program gives our students a leg up. When our students go to other universities, they come back and say, ‘Oh, Dr. Carter, they only do blah, blah, blah surgeries and we get to do so many more.’ They’re really appreciative of this program. It’s a win-win for everybody. It’s a win for our students, it’s a win for our shelter animals, and it’s a win for our shelter clients.”
If you would like to support the Center’s shelter surgery program, please contact Ashley Hesser, constituent relations associate with the OSU Foundation at 385-0715 or email@example.com.