I was the director of veterinary services at a municipal open admission shelter for over two years. I was the only veterinarian responsible for the care of over 14,000 dogs and cats yearly. Our live release rate (which is calculated by taking the number of cats leaving the shelter alive and dividing by the total number of cats entering the facility) was less than 50%. So if you were a cat or kitten entering my facility, you were more likely to be euthanized than leave alive. And, sadder still, this was an improvement from where the live release rate had been prior to my hire.
The litter today was 3 black kittens, the least adoptable color. They were 4 weeks old but were 25% underweight for their age. They were dehydrated, anemic, and lethargic. They were spewing awful smelling liquid yellow diarrhea and had ringworm on their feet and tails. Oh, and I had euthanized the fourth kitten of the litter earlier in the day when it came in gasping in the throes of death.
When I was at the shelter, the decision to euthanize would have been automatic. The reasons for euthanasia were numerous – poor prognosis, intensive care required, long-term ringworm treatment needed, inadequate isolation options to stop infection from spreading, the potential for ringworm to infect people, limited financial resources, and on and on.
So I would euthanize litters of kittens just like this, either personally or by setting our medical policy that instructed my techs and other euthanasia certified staff to do so. Thousands of kittens. Just like these kittens. I would be responsible for accepting the logic of this herd health decision, explaining and justifying it to staff and volunteers, and providing our staff and volunteers training on dealing with the compassion fatigue that results. This challenge was not unique to me. I was a shelter veterinarian.
Today I had two owners that found a litter of kittens. I’ll repeat – I had owners. These people wanted to get the kittens healthy for adoption into new homes. They wanted to nurse them back.
They cared and were willing to spend their time and resources to help these cats recover instead of dumping them on someone else. All of this despite my candid assessment of the poor prognosis, long term treatment and time commitment required.
And in helping them by donating my time to help ease the costs of all the tests and treatment, I realized how much I needed this. How much I wasn’t ok with all of those previous decisions to euthanize these kittens, even though at the time I thought I was. I thought that here, 3 years later and back in private practice, I had dealt with the pain and heartbreak that comes along with being a shelter vet. I was wrong. Sometimes you do not realize how deep the wounds you hide are until something comes along to heal you.
Dr. Caroline Olausen is a small animal and exotics veterinarian at Avian and Animal Hospital in Largo, FL. While she’s gone back to the dark side of private practice, she will always consider herself a shelter vet.