Caring for the Community through Service

Dec. 5, 2022

Students at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine are putting their veterinary skills into practice in local animal shelters.

Veterinary students prep for surgery on a shelter pet.

Students at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine are putting their veterinary skills into practice in local animal shelters. Simple procedures like spays and neuters, deworming, and tick control make a substantial impact on animals in need of homes. Our students’ efforts bring relief to overwhelmed shelters, resulting in more adoptions, more smiles, and more wagging tails. We talked to Dr. Sarah Carotenuto, an Assistant Professor of Practice, about our students’ community aid efforts. 

Three veterinary students in scrubs examine a small brown puppy.

Dr. Carotenuto began mentoring CVM’s Shelter Medicine Club to mentor, support and train students to become excellent shelter medicine providers ready to fill this essential area of veterinary medicine. Due to increased animal ownership and the retirement of practicing veterinarians, limited veterinary care is available in general practices and animal shelters. Dr. Carotenuto, already active in animal care outreach efforts in low-access areas, felt a natural connection to shelter medicine and mentoring our students became an extension of her commitment to the community. 

“Sometimes the need is closer to home. You don't have to travel hours and hours to fulfill a need, and you don't have to travel overseas to fulfill a need. There's plenty of need right here in Arizona. And that's very apparent with what we're seeing with the Shelter Medicine Club.” 

Compassion inspires Shelter Medicine Club members to reach out and become a part of shelter animals’ adoptions, changing the lives of dogs and cats eager to find their new families. Local shelters have reached out to Dr. Carotenuto and asked her to bring students to spay and neuter events to prepare patients who are otherwise ready to be adopted. With the aid of CVM students, animals can be adopted more quickly, said Dr. Carotenuto.  

“It would be very irresponsible to adopt out an animal without spaying and neutering them and depending upon the goodwill of people to come back and get those services. [A local shelter] helped by the Shelter Medicine Club has a couple of veterinarians that they will use to get [animals] in, but they could only get in one or two animals at a time. The wait list would be three to six months long for animals to get spayed and neutered. And so that creates a huge backup in the system, and these puppies and kittens are then in a shelter environment for months and months more than they need to be, rather than being adopted.” 

Two veterinary students examine a small tan puppy.

Typically, a team of about 15 students goes to a local shelter, sets up a field style clinic, and spays and neuters about 40 pets over a weekend. After this, the animals are ready to find their forever homes. 

When shelter animals find homes, our whole community wins. When animals become adoptable quickly, space in the shelter is freed for other ‘underdogs’ ready for their second chance. Dr. Carotenuto stated, 

“[When animals] end up on the streets, they can create more overpopulation. So truly, with the risk of zoonotic diseases like rabies, intestinal parasites, and even just bites or dog fights, trying to prevent overpopulation is a huge thing. Alleviating that backup in the system is huge. Also, with low-cost spay and neuter, it's providing services to those people who otherwise would have a lot of financial difficulty affording it. It meets a need in that regard. And then it doesn't always have to just be surgery. There could just be services that are needed, like shot and deworm clinics. There's a great organization that some of our students work with called Dog on the Street. It's an organization aimed at providing services for homeless people. There are a number of different efforts in Arizona, and in Southern Arizona in particular, that our students are active in participating in.” 

Students who take part in these events exercise their compassion and expertise as they reach out to pets, and, indirectly, people who need their skills the most.  

Giving back to their community also benefits students personally. Students learn vital skills and techniques in their classes, and then can apply them in a new context when serving animals in need. Dr. Carotenuto shared,  

“The students are exposed to a different level and type of medicine. Field work is very bare bones. They learn to depend on each other as a team. They learn to depend on their senses, you know, touching and feeling rather than running tests. It's a very hands-on experience. They also learn injectable anesthesia and how to move quickly in surgery. So, it's a completely distinct experience for the students. That's very valuable. It meets two needs. It meets a need for the shelters and humane societies to have surgeries done quickly and it meets a need for the student to learn and gain a different perspective. It's a win-win situation for both.” 

Veterinary students prep for surgery on a shelter pet.

Giving back not only supplies a vital service, but also “reminds students why they chose this profession in the first place. It’s something that kind of fills your mental health bank so that you can go back to class and study for those hours each day to finish your education.” 

Our VetCats keep their hearts open and their hands busy as they serve the shelters in our community. Everyone wins when compassion is the name of the game: individual animals in shelters gain a new ‘leash’ on life, while families of all kinds can meet their newest family member in a local animal shelter. Communities are healthier when animals are off the streets and in loving homes. Finally, real-life experience in shelter medicine builds student confidence and allows future veterinarians to apply their skills at once and carry their experiences into their future medical practice.