It’s About the Animals — and Humans, Too

Shakuntala Makhijani, a 2020–21 Maddie’s Shelter Medicine intern, conducts a wellness check on Beau, a Labrador mix
Shakuntala Makhijani, a 2020–21 Maddie’s Shelter Medicine intern, conducts a wellness check on Beau, a Labrador mix at the Dane County Humane Society.

UW’s Shelter Medicine Program provides a needed resource for at-risk animals and those who care for them each day.


Written by Stephanie Haws | Photos by Bryce Richter

I sit next to Sandra Newbury DVM’03 in her silver Subaru hatchback — Peanut, her 14-year-old rescue pup, is in the backseat.

It’s a Wednesday morning in October 2019, and we are en route to an animal shelter in Illinois, where Newbury — the director of UW–Madison’s Shelter Medicine Program — will meet with a group of fellows who are there to learn how to improve the welfare of shelter animals.

Known as the Northern Tier Fellowship, it’s one of several efforts that the program, housed within the UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine, carries out for veterinarians and shelter leaders around the world. Started more than five years ago by Newbury, the program is a leader in the relatively new field of shelter medicine, which focuses on caring for animals in need.

The program conducts its work through education and outreach-based research — findings based on work with shelters rather than through clinical trials. Each year, this particular fellowship invites shelter directors and managers in northern states to visit shelters that the program has previously worked with to gain exposure to new ideas and practices that help improve animals’ lives.

It’s a Balance

Back in the car that afternoon, Newbury, Peanut, and I return to Madison to meet a second group of fellows at the Dane County Humane Society. This time, Peanut shares the backseat with three mewing kittens, who are being transferred to help lower the Illinois shelter’s cat population. The kittens — whose mother no longer wanted them — will receive the attention they need at the Dane County shelter.

Stephanie Koester, assistant director of the UW’s Shelter Medicine Program, says hello to a kitten at the Dane County Humane Society
Stephanie Koester, UW Shelter Medicine Program assistant director, says hello to a kitten at Dane County Humane Society.

That morning, Newbury demonstrated to fellows how to identify and manage overpopulation; she noticed that the shelter’s number of cats was over capacity and made recommendations to lower it, such as starting a cat adoption sale and relocating the kittens to a different shelter.

Among the many practices covered during the fellowship, the program staff also emphasize an unexpected point: in what can be an emotionally taxing field, human welfare is critical to improving animal care.

Although the reasons aren’t fully understood yet, veterinarians have high suicide rates. According to a 2019 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, female veterinarians are 3.5 times as likely and male veterinarians are 2.1 times as likely to die from suicide compared to the general population. The Shelter Medicine team aims to teach veterinarians and shelter staff the value of work–life balance. Newbury – a white-water kayaker, local circus performer, and aerial dancer – leads by example. Sometimes she will build in time for yoga and other activities during the fellowships.

“You can see how sheltering could really be consuming,” she says. “What I try to teach, especially my veterinarians, is to balance their lives so that their career in sheltering will be sustainable and that they won’t just come in, work in shelters for a year, and be so burned out that they never want to help again.”

A Need for Structural Change

Formerly a full-time artist, Newbury was inspired to volunteer for a local shelter after seeing stray cats near her Chicago studio. As she gained more responsibility in the shelter, she saw firsthand veterinarians’ limited involvement and was concerned by their lack of knowledge about shelter care.

“At that time, there really weren’t veterinarians who were interested in animal shelters,” she says. “There was no such thing as shelter medicine.”

Sandra Newbury DVM’03, director of UW–Madison’s Shelter Medicine Program, is pictured with her 14-year-old rescue pup, Peanut
Sandra Newbury DVM’03, director of UW–Madison’s Shelter Medicine Program, is pictured with her 14-year-old rescue pup, Peanut.

In addition, veterinarians working in shelters were often criticized for their role in making euthanasia decisions, especially those made to control crowding. No one wants to be called “Dr. Death,” and veterinarians would quit after a year, contributing to a shortage of professionals and creating a knowledge gap and missing skill set for animal care and welfare.

Even later on, as Newbury helped build a shelter medicine program at the University of California–Davis in the early 2000s, there was misunderstanding around what program staff meant when advocating for population management.

“People thought that all I wanted to do is euthanize animals,” Newbury says. “I got to a point where, when I would give presentations on this, I would say at the beginning, ‘If at any point you think I’m saying I want you to euthanize more animals, euthanize animals faster, or anything of the kind, please stop me and raise your hand, because I don’t mean that, and I want to try and clarify that right at the time.’”

Starting in her early years of working for a shelter, Newbury sought to counter the spiraling negative trends she was noticing. She created a protocol to make the most of the shelter’s limited veterinarian access, providing staff and volunteers with methods to try when a problem arose with one or more animals. If the protocol didn’t help an animal, that informed staff members that the animal needed the veterinarian’s attention — maximizing the veterinarian’s time and helping as many animals as they could, as quickly as possible.

Give Shelter

The Shelter Medicine Program is a national leader — but it wouldn’t be at UW–Madison without the assistance of private support.

“My position is one of the only UW Shelter Medicine positions that’s funded by the university,” says program director Sandra Newbury. “The rest of the program is funded through donations.”

Deep commitment to the program by Dean Mark D. Markel, the School of Veterinary Medicine, and the university impressed philanthropic partners. Because the university was supporting the primary faculty position, foundations and donors stepped in to offer additional support. Almost instantly, the UW’s Shelter Medicine program became one of the most respected in the country. Jeff and Sara Wiesner, who had previously supported the program through a scholarship, established a shelter medicine endowment, making the UW program one of only a handful in the country with this type of support.

After Newbury was hired, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies (MACP) invited the UW to apply for a grant to help establish a shelter medicine outreach program that, today, is national and international in scope. UW Shelter Medicine is honored to work in strategic partnership with MACP in its animal welfare funding. Maddie’s Fund, a family foundation, has funded the program’s educational branch and outbreak response work, supporting fellowships, internships, residencies, and a shelter medicine rotation for veterinary medical students.

With this financial help, the UW program has been able to train the next generation of shelter medicine veterinarians and leaders and is able to help shelters around the country face disease outbreaks. “That’s one of the most important things I think we do as a program is really offer sound diagnostic testing and interpretation to animal shelters,” says Newbury.

The program, Newbury notes, “has really been an amazing philanthropic partnership.”

— John Allen and Stephanie Haws

“I realized pretty early on that what was needed were these structural changes to animal shelters, instead of just trying to deal with each individual problem — which of course doesn’t mean you don’t deal with the individual problem. It’s just a way of dealing with it more efficiently,” she says.

Even with the protocol, Newbury was frustrated by the shelter’s problems, such as outbreaks resulting from a veterinarian’s distrust of vaccinations in cats. That’s when she reached out to the UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine, seeking input from Ronald Schultz, now a professor emeritus in the Department of Pathobiological Sciences. “I decided I should go to vet school after all, because there needed to be veterinarians who knew about animal shelters,” she says.

Following veterinary medical school, she became the medical director at the Dane County Humane Society before working for UC–Davis, where she helped build the first shelter medicine program at any university. (The director of that program, Kate Hurley, was the first in the world to become a resident in shelter medicine.) Although employed by UC–Davis, Newbury continued living in Madison and teaching at the UW. Meanwhile, a few other universities, such as the University of Florida and Cornell, started their own shelter medicine programs. Then, in 2014, Newbury was invited to apply for a grant that would soon create UW–Madison’s Shelter Medicine Program.

Limits to Superpowers

In a highly emotional field in which animals are in need of homes and at risk for health and behavioral problems, it’s natural to want to help every animal. However, this feeling can often translate into shelter staff members taking in more animals than they can manage, which may lead to ongoing problems. Today, the UW’s Shelter Medicine team provides veterinarians and staff with the guidance they need to increase adoption rates and improve animal care, while also helping them work within limits that set up both shelter animals and workers for success.

The program’s staff members teach shelters a series of best practices aimed at upping adoption rates and enhancing animal care, such as giving vaccinations upon intake, decreasing animals’ lengths of stay, and increasing shelters’ capacities for care. They also recommend making adoption applications and processes more approachable and less discriminatory; giving each animal separate spaces to eat and defecate; and offering preselection, permitting visitors to view animals and apply for adoptions before pets’ holding periods are over.

These efforts also mean setting limits, which can be counterintuitive, Newbury says. For instance, the program encourages staff to monitor pet intake and think critically about whether being in a shelter is the best choice for an animal.

“There is recent research to show that, for example, cats are significantly more likely to get back home if you just leave them where they are than if you pick them up and bring them to an animal shelter,” she says. “For a really long period of time, people would pick up every cat that was out walking around and bring it to an animal shelter, but national reclaim rates for cats were 1 to 2 percent.”

To help shelters implement these practices and function within their limits, the program empowers them to tailor practices to their individual needs. If a shelter does not have a full-time veterinarian, for example, the program works with staff members to enforce protocols that help them work efficiently.

“There are limits to your superpowers, and so you’ve got to be sure that you’re using them effectively,” Newbury says. “We talk a lot about making choices for how [shelters are] investing their resources and energy and time.”

When consistently executed, these methods help shelters stay in what Newbury calls the “positive cycle.” That means shelters adopt out animals more quickly, avoid overpopulating, and increase their capacities for care so staff are able to give more attention to each animal. This compares to a “vicious cycle,” in which shelters are not effectively managing these factors, leading to issues such as overpopulation and higher risks of infectious disease and behavioral problems in animals.

This approach helps shelters manage environments where stress levels can run high, as veterinarians and staff are required to make choices that can be matters of life and death for animals.

“We’ve seen [our practices] work enough times that we believe, and we know, [they’ll] work,” Newbury says.

A New Support Network

Some members of the UW Shelter Medicine team pose in July
Some members of the UW Shelter Medicine team pose in July. Top row, from left to right: Shakuntala Makhijani, Sandra Newbury, and Uri Donnett. Bottom row, from left to right: Elizabeth Roberts, Peanut, and Stephanie Koester.

Newbury and her team not only give shelters recommendations for improving animal welfare, but also foster a support network that, not long ago, didn’t exist.

Marta Pierpoint, who attended the program’s inaugural Northern Tier Fellowship and returned as a mentor, says it’s hard to count the number of ways the fellowship has helped her.

“You’re not only learning from the experts at the University of Wisconsin. You’re learning from your peers, you’re taking away big-picture thoughts, and you’re also taking back small things that you can implement,” says Pierpoint, who is executive director at the Humane Society of Western Montana. “I have no hesitation if I have a question — whether it’s medical or administrative — I know that I can pick up the phone and call. And that kind of professional support is priceless.”

Newbury says she’s “overwhelmed” with happiness knowing that the fellows will leave feeling more knowledgeable and empowered to make change at their shelters. “[Our work is] about the animals, but these are great people, and they’re trying so hard to do these amazing things, and so whatever we can do to support [them] is incredible to me.”

This article was originally published in the fall 2020 issue of On Wisconsin magazine and has been edited for length. To view the full article, visit go.wisc.edu/sheltermedicine.


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