Shelter animals are also entitled to good care

The problem

Many of our companion animals spend a serious part of their lives in animal rescue centres or shelters. Life in one of these shelters is barely ever pleasant for the animal. Like you can imagine the stress of the new surroundings, with all of its unfamiliar scents, noises and people can all affect an animals immune system, and under these stressful conditions, dogs, cats, rabbits and guinea pigs are more likely to become infected with diseases that are already more common in shelters. Diseases such as cat flu or ringworm present few serious problems for our own pets, but they can be deadly for animals living in shelters.

Shelter medicine is the veterinary discipline that focuses on keeping animals in shelters healthy (according to Dutch law, shelters are ‘commercial animal holders’, no matter how many volunteers keep them running!), and working to relocate animals as quickly as possible in order to keep the time each animal spends at a shelter as short as possible. The best thing we can do for the health and welfare of our companion animals is to help them find a home of their own as fast as we can. 

What we want to do 

The new field of Shelter Medicine was first taught to students at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in 2012. Our colleagues who graduated before then may not have become acquainted with the approaches common in this discipline. In the meantime, all sorts of new research has being conducted in the rapidly developing field, which could dramatically change many of the widely-held insights in the animal rescue community:

What does it mean for the capacity of an animal rescue organisation if it is determined by the care that can be provided (such as 30 minutes of individual attention for each animal per day), instead of the number of kennels or the number of animals offered?

Can the key figures for animal shelters help us to measure the effects of interventions at the veterinary and operations levels in these kinds of companies?

What effect would it have on the large numbers of stray cats if we were to neuter all of the kittens in shelters at a young age?

Would specialist care for the large group of shelter dogs with behavioural problems, which occupy the shelter’s capacity for a longer period, be a more reasonable approach than the current method in which every shelter accepts its own ‘long-time residents’? 

The end result

Our goal is to develop a series of continuing education classes for our veterinary colleagues and to share this new information with one another at Shelter Medicine intervision meetings. We can only take our role as shelter veterinarians seriously if we have more knowledge about the commercial keeping of companion animals, allowing us to utilise our veterinary instruments more effectively so that companion animals can stay healthy and find a new home more quickly.




Who I am

I am Dr. Ruth van der Leij. I earned a degree in Biology from the University of Groningen in 1988, and then I spent 12 years working at a variety of Dutch and American animal protection organisations. The transition to the veterinary world presented a new challenge. Since I completed my veterinary studies in 2007, I have worked as a practicing veterinarian, but I continued to devote one day per week to my original calling at the Department of Animals in Science and Society in Utrecht.

What I do

In 2009, I decided to continue my education with a degree in Shelter Medicine at the Department of Clinical Health of Companion Animals. Since then, I have worked to continue the development of Shelter Medicine, the branch of veterinary medicine that focuses on companion animals kept in large groups. This can include breeders and kennels, but mainly involves animals living in rescue centres. Each year, around 115 animal rescue centres in the Netherlands take in thousands of dogs, cats and other animals. This form of animal care requires its own unique approach, so Shelter Medicine mainly focuses on preventing disease.

Disease prevention requires an evaluation of factors such as the infection burden (diseases and transmission routes, the proper use of quarantine and sickbays), the effectiveness of preventive measures (use of vaccines in various care situations, hygiene protocols and work procedures for personnel), the animals’ resistance (reducing stress by addressing the accommodations, getting animals through the shelter faster, all-in all-out system), with the goal of reducing the number of animals in the shelter and keeping those that come in healthy so that they can be relocated sooner.

In 2013, I received the 2012 Moyra Stava-Morena award for initiating and developing the field of Shelter Medicine. That was a great honour!

If you would like to know more about me, click here.