Peacemaking efforts under way
The CATalyst Council is one veterinary group making efforts to bridge the divide. Jane Brunt, DVM, is executive director of
the organization, which also champions improved feline healthcare in traditional practices. CATalyst's effort to smooth relations
between shelter medicine and private practice is called "Top to Top" and she says it pivots on "the handoff"—the transition
of the client from low-cost shelter services to a lifetime of care by a private practitioner. "That's going to be the game
changer," Brunt says. "But we're a ways from saying exactly what that entails."
Brunt says CATalyst strives to be "evidence-based and evidence-driven." Toward that end, Top to Top is prepraring to survey
communities, shelters, veterinarians and pet owners. The survey will provide a benchmark, she says, to assess whether shelter-veterinary
initiatives "move the needle." The organization lists five cities—Omaha, Neb.; Wichita, Kan.; Baltimore, Md.; Albuquerque,
N.M.; and Ledgewood, N.J.—with initiatives in place to improve communication and collaboration.
The first step, Brunt says, is to evaluate the current relationship between veterinarians and low-cost clinics in a city.
In some areas, she says, the sides are at the "We don't speak to each other and we don't get along" level. At others, the
temperature is more "We know each other and we shake hands." The goal, of course, is "We're dating and we get along really
well," or even "We've got an intimate relationship going." The Top to Top goal, she says, is to develop ideas communities
can use to move their relationships from level to level. "The holy grail," Brunt says, "is that when adopted pets—dogs for
sure—go to the veterinarian within a short time after adoption, there's much less chance they'll be returned to the shelter
or relinquished. So the idea is, let's keep these animals in homes by involving veterinary care from the get-go.
"This is particularly important with cats because some people think, 'I adopted a cat, it's been spayed or neutered, it's
had all its vaccines, it's had parasite prevention and I'm not going to let it go outside. It's done. I don't need to bring
it to the vet unless it's sick.' We know there's a whole lot more education that has to happen to provide that continuity
of care. The question is, how can we make sure the adopted pet gets an appointment with a veterinarian and goes there within
a short period of time? That's the handoff."
An important point, she says, is for private practitioners to be realistic about the existence of shelter medicine. Municipally
funded or privately funded low-cost services are not going to go away, she says. "So how do we make that a good thing?"
Smith, of the Animal Rescue League of Boston, says relationships between her organization and private practitioners in the
area are already good. "We haven't experienced much tension because we established what animal welfare organizations would
do in the beginning, and in other areas of the country this is a new phenomenon; therefore it's seen as a threat.
"I think what's most vital in our relationship is professional regard," she continues. "We are a profession with a long and
rich history of respecting one another. If you're a shelter veterinarian, the key is understanding the pressure the private
practice veterinarian faces. And if you're a private practice veterinarian, the key is understanding why somebody would be
motivated to practice veterinary medicine in a shelter."