CARES partners with local shelters to mutually benefit dogs and veterinary students

By Sarah Boudreau

In August, the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine began fostering dogs from local animal shelters through its new Canine Awareness and Responsibility Experience for Students program — better known as CARES. Dogs in the program will receive top-notch medical care and the socialization they would not receive in a shelter. Students learn how to conduct examinations, administer monthly preventatives, and perform basic medical procedures through their first-year Professional Foundations course and Normal Animal Clinical Skills labs.

Through CARES, the college will foster dogs during the fall semester. In the spring, the college will use student- and faculty-owned dogs for teaching labs.

In the lab classes, multiple faculty and veterinary technicians guide first- and second-year students through basic procedures like physical examinations, vaccinations, and catheter placement. Students practice techniques on a model before progressing to a live animal.

“A lot of other veterinary programs use shelter animals to help train their veterinary students, but they frequently just go out to the shelters for the day to learn techniques on the dogs, and they don’t have dogs housed in their facilities. Our students have had really positive things to say about their daily interactions with the dogs we house,” said Jennifer Hodgson, associate dean of professional programs and professor of microbiology. She described the program as “a win-win” situation.

Fostering frees up valuable resources and space in shelters while CARES dogs live in top-notch facilities that have been given the seal of approval by Virginia Tech’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and the American Association of Lab Animal Care.

“The dogs are so grateful. They’ve got food, they’ve got these wonderful people walking them, they’ve got clean runs and air conditioning — it’s pretty sweet. They think this is a country club,” said Mel Kegley, manager of multidiscipline laboratories.

The dogs were selected by Kegley and instructor Virginia Edwards (B.S. ’07, DVM ’12), a canine behaviorist, who spent countless hours assessing dogs for the program. The 28 dogs that made the cut were determined to be friendly, not dog aggressive or selective, and not food or toy aggressive. They also passed a screening for heart problems.

Kegley and Edwards arrived back at the college with a variety of dog breeds, ages, and personalities. This year’s CARES dogs range from 4 months to 5 years old, from 20 pounds to 80 pounds, and from terriers to shepherd mixes. Kegley noted that the variety represents what veterinary students might see in clinical practice.

Some of the dogs had underlying health issues like skin problems or Lyme disease, and they immediately received treatment upon arrival at the college. By the time they leave the program, all CARES dogs will be fully vaccinated and spayed or neutered and will have received other preventative treatment like flea/tick and heartworm preventatives donated by Boehringer-Ingelheim. Hodgson noted that if the dogs had medical problems while in the CARES program, they would immediately have access to the highly skilled specialists at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Four students and veterinary professionals examine dogs
Foster dogs in the college's CARES program receive top-notch care: (from left) Dakota Melton, a third-year DVM student, and Mel Kegley, manager of multidiscipline laboratories, examine Kane, while Bryce Cooper, a third-year DVM student, and instructor Virginia Edwards (B.S. ’07, DVM ’12) examine Darla.

The college fosters dogs from three local shelters — Pulaski County Animal Control, the Regional Center for Animal Care & Protection in Roanoke, and Mercer County Animal Shelter in West Virginia — building upon the college’s history of involvement with shelter medicine.

The college has a long-standing relationship with Washington, D.C.’s Humane Rescue Alliance, one of the oldest humane societies in the country, where students have completed rotations and earned valuable hands-on experience. On the local level, students gain further surgical experience through the Shelter Medicine and Surgery clerkship, where they work at local shelters, as well as Mountain View Humane, a low-cost spay and neuter clinic that serves southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.

“Veterinarians need to be involved in their local community. Veterinarians have a unique opportunity to give back to both humans and animals. You don’t get that in a lot of professions, so I try to emphasize to students that this is something we are offering to the community, and we should continue to figure out how they could give back to their community once they’ve graduated,” said Meghan Byrnes, the leader of the Shelter Medicine and Surgery clerkship.

Shelter experience is useful for veterinary students because even if they do not pursue careers in shelter medicine, many pets they might see in clinical practice have been adopted from shelters.

“Knowing what an animal has gone through previously living in a shelter system will give you a good perspective on how to educate a client about how to take the best care of their pet,” said Byrnes.

Through the CARES program, first-year students assist in the day-to-day care of the fostered dogs, socializing them and getting them prepared for their new homes.

According to Kegley, “Everything is a teaching moment. Students might think that they are going to just be performing surgeries, but they’re going to have a lot of people coming in with questions about their pets’ behavior: my dog’s doing this, my dog’s doing that, how do I get them housebroken? The socialization part and the behavior part  — you can't put a value on that.”

“Our students get to do daily handling, things that they wouldn’t get to do if they were just going out to a shelter. Having that day-to-day handling really makes a difference,” said Hodgson. She said that the experience is particularly valuable for students from large animal backgrounds or who have not handled many dogs.

Hidayah Martinez-Jaka, a fourth-year veterinary student, agrees.

“I and many of our student population didn’t really grow up with indoor pets like dogs. I didn’t grow up exposed to animals in that way, and lived far away from clinics where I could shadow or work at,” she explained.

“[In CARES,] it’s a really nice relationship we have with the animals, to learn from them and to also care for them and give them homes. Being able to have that behavioral experience from the very beginning is amazing. From the student perspective, having shelter dogs in our program is invaluable to our education.”

Adoption applications began pouring in within weeks of the dogs’ arrival at the college. Many of those applications came from first-year veterinary students who fell in love with the dogs they worked with.

As Martinez-Jaka put it, “What better home for a pet than with a student who’s going to be a veterinarian?”

— Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. ’21 is a writer with VA-MD Vet Med.