Laura Parkhurst recently joined the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine as a clinical instructor in the shelter medicine and surgery clerkship. 

Parkhurst joins the college during an ongoing crisis for the nation’s animal shelters. During the COVID-19 pandemic, adoption numbers went up due to people wanting companionship during tough, isolating times, but now, more and more people are returning or surrendering their pets to shelters. Shelter professionals have noted that many of these animals are under-socialized and have behavioral problems that make finding them a home even more difficult. As a result, shelters around the country are operating over capacity. 

Parkhurst and other shelter veterinarians are doing their part to care for shelter animals, and through the veterinary college’s shelter medicine and surgery clerkship, the next generation of veterinarians get hands-on experience in the demanding, vital world of shelter medicine. 

Teaching the spectrum of care

In her new position, Parkhurst spends most of her time in animal shelters around the New River Valley, working with students to care for shelter animals. In addition to spay and neuter surgeries, Parkhurst often tackles skin, eye, and ear cases, along with other medical and/or surgical cases that may need veterinary care within the shelter setting. 

Shelter medicine gives veterinary students the opportunity to engage with a wide spectrum of care. "In vet school, we learn the gold standard of everything, but in the real world, that’s not necessarily what we encounter or what may be feasible. For example, an animal shelter may not be able to afford extensive bloodwork or expensive diagnostic tests like an MRI. Being able to teach students at the shelter level helps them think outside of the box—I have this many resources, I have these financial considerations, I have these constraints that I am working within. What can I do with these limited resources but still be able to practice good medicine? You learn can do a lot with very limited resources."

A Hokie through and through, Parkhurst earned bachelor’s degrees in wildlife science and biochemistry in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and received her executive master of natural resources degree in 2012. The alumna returned to the university to enter the veterinary college’s dual degree program, graduating with her doctor of veterinary medicine and master's in public health degrees in 2020. After graduation, she completed an internship in northern Virginia in emergency/critical care, and she has worked in shelter medicine ever since. 

As an alumna, Parkhurst can connect with students because she understands the program and the struggles they encounter. She loves working with students because of the “lightbulb” moment they experience when performing a medical or surgical procedure for the first time or successfully completing a challenging task.

"A lot of students I work with are getting ready to graduate, and some of them are feeling angst about their first jobs. They do not feel like they are ready for the real world, and they do not know what to do—I feel like I can give them advice and tell them, 'You got this! You are going to be okay, I promise.'" 

The Human-Animal Bond and One Health

Parkhurst is a big believer in One Health, the concept that human, animal, and environmental health are linked. Through caring for animals, Parkhurst and other veterinarians also care for people.

"It's called shelter medicine because we mainly work within shelters, but a lot of what shelter medicine encompasses is actually working within the community,” said Parkhurst. “Instead of relinquishing your pet to the shelter, what can we do to help you keep your pet? What kind of programs, training, medical care, or other resources can we offer so you do not need to relinquish your pet?" 

She also works with Street Dog Coalition, an organization that provides free veterinary care for people experiencing homelessness or at risk of losing housing. Parkhurst says that because most homeless shelters do not allow animals, many people choose to remain on the street because their bond with their pet is what keeps them going and is what is most important to them. 

"We need to start looking closer at the human-animal bond and all elements of pet ownership. We need to look at how we can work towards having places such as homeless shelters and nursing homes not only welcome people but also their beloved animals. The mental and emotional bond of pet ownership is just as important as the physical aspect of care,” said Parkhurst. 

As the Street Dog Coalition puts it, that’s caring for the lives on both ends of the leash.

Looking to the future

Parkhurst is working towards board certification and to expand the college’s shelter medicine program. 

"I'm really looking forward to expanding this program—working with more humane societies, shelters, and hopefully getting a mobile unit going so we can really get out into communities more,” she said. 

Through mobile clinics, outreach, and instruction, Parkhurst is working toward a better future for the community and her students.

Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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