7 a.m.: You have the early morning shift before the rest of the hospital staff arrive for the day. As you enter the hospital and flip on the lights, you hear the dreaded “beeping” of five different IV pumps blaring at you. Dogs and cats are calling out to you with their woofs and meows for food and toilet time, but that has to wait for now.
First things, first! You do a sweep of every hospital ward (shelter kittens, dogs, cat-isolation, rabbits and guinea pig ward, private dogs, and cats with rabbits) to check all patients are okay before you start treating individual animals.
7:30 a.m.: More vets and nurses arrive, some helping you quiet the IV pumps that have now become your morning motivational music. The first vet comes in and you know you have to bombard them for more than 10 different restricted drugs (such as Temgesic or fentanyl patches) so you put on a smile, say good morning and hand them the list ASAP. They reply with a smile because you asked nicely and they know you are just doing your job.
8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.: Time to treat hospital patients depending on how busy the hospital is, which can range from 50 to 110 per cent capacity (never empty).
10:30 a.m.: Tea break. This is the point you get your first chance to refresh and organize yourself for the rest of the morning. You check your Fitbit—already done 10,000 steps! As I said, the hospital is never *insert Q-word.* If it were, I think something would be wrong with the universe.
11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: You get assigned a shelter vet (who usually cannot stick around too long, as they get pulled from whatever job they are doing due to the ever-growing tide of new patients coming through outdoors). Only five minutes after your break, your vet is gone into the abyss of the shelter. Once again, you are running around helping where needed. You might be lucky and get stuck doing ten ultrasounds scheduled when your external-specialist vet arrives. Otherwise, you’re helping your nurse team treat and care for animals who have found themselves lost, who had a difficult first home, or were born into this world without a family.
1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.: LUNCH. A chance to de-stress and discuss with your colleagues the day you are having. You laugh and reflect over all the hardships and good things that have been thrown your way and luckily you have a team that 100 per cent gets it.
2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.: By now, all your patients have beautifully handwritten chats with a detailed plan. You’re constantly thinking about which patient can get out of the hospital and how can we get them through the shelter and onto their forever homes as soon as possible.
We know all too well that the shelter is a short-term home, a pit-stop to getting better, a place for rehabilitating, and hopefully eventually finding their long-lost home. We try and make it as warm, comforting, and safe as possible, but it is just not the same as being in a loving home.
Many of the shelter nurses and vets I have worked with, go above and beyond for their patients. After all, we are their owners (at least for that period they are in the shelter). We get to know their little quirks and write things on their charts like, “loves chin/belly rubs or difficult to medicate but fine when burrito wrapped.” We see their lowest points where they are on the brink of turning that tricky corner. We see them come in scared, distrusting, and confused, and then at peace, loved, and on the road to recovery. In reality, we are there to hold their paw and send them across the rainbow bridge because it is sometimes the best thing to do. We give them the love and care that they may not have received before entering the shelter and try to put the pieces back together. As a shelter vet nurse, you learn how to cope with difficult situations. Wearing it like a badge of honour, so you have the strength to treat the next hurt pet coming through those doors.
Decisions are made for the entire shelter-population, instead of focusing a single individual. The most common reason would be for infectious disease control—as many of you are aware, having Feline Panleukopenia ravaging through a shelter filled with hundreds of cats and kittens would be devastating. Navigating the reasoning behind these decisions is something some people cannot fully come to terms with. Sometimes you do have to look at the bigger picture to understand the risks and consequences involved.
All in all, here are my top tips on surviving a shelter medicine role:
1. Mentorship and support:
You won’t make it through the week without it. Your colleagues are your safety net, the shoulder to cry on, or people to share joy with when a patient finally leaves out of the wards.
You need this both physically and mentally. Large volumes of animals will be coming in and out of your hospital, all in very different clinical presentations. You need to be confident in your skills and be sure to ask for help.
Not only are dealing with the animals coming in, but you are also dealing with clients coming from various circumstances, many without funds or the means to provide for patients. You will expect to have conversations with them on preventative health and the demands in ownership of the animal. For example, I had one client I spent 45 minutes trying to convince to go ahead with desexing her animals. She finally agreed, dropped off her pets and then never returned.
Hopefully, I have painted a picture that represents the true nature of a job in shelter medicine. It is a rewarding career, in which I was so thankful to be a part of it. And who knows? I might return as a vet one day!