Priority 4 Paws Boosts Student Surgery Experience and Animal Shelter Adoptions

Purdue University's College of Veterinary Medicine is impacting Indiana and beyond in a major way through the Priority 4 Paws (P4P) Shelter Medicine and Surgery Program.  Begun in 2012, the program incorporates an elective course that allows fourth year DVM students to travel to a number of Indiana animal shelters and perform spay/neuter surgeries in the Priority 4 Paws mobile surgery unit. P4P students spend two weeks on the mobile unit and one week volunteering under the direction of a veterinarian at an animal shelter. During six days of surgery, each student performs an average of 35 total surgeries. This opportunity provides the soon-to-be graduates with crucial hands-on surgical experience on older animals as well as kittens and puppies younger than five months of age, ensuring that they are prepared to perform both standard and early-age spay/neuter surgeries.

Dr. Carol Fellenstein, mobile shelter surgery clinician and head of the mobile unit, said the students are gaining a lot of confidence along with the extensive surgical experience. "The employers who are hiring our graduates say that they have the confidence level of someone who has been out practicing for three years. That's huge," said Dr. Fellenstein. "They require a lot less mentoring, both in the exam room and in surgery, and they are actually being offered higher starting salaries because of this."

Maryssa Hatt, a member of the DVM Class of 2016, cares for a shelter dog named Harley awaiting surgery in the Priority 4 Paws unit. (Photo courtesy of Nestlé Purina PetCare – “The Inside Scoop” e-newsletter)

Maryssa Hatt, a member of the DVM Class of 2016, cares for a shelter dog named Harley awaiting surgery in the Priority 4 Paws unit. (Photo courtesy of Nestlé Purina PetCare – "The Inside Scoop" e-newsletter)

Looking back, Dr. Lynetta Freeman, associate professor of small animal surgery, said she didn't know the impact Priority 4 Paws would have when she began the program. "I'm a surgeon—my intent was to expose DVM students to surgery," Dr. Freeman commented. However, she said she was surprised by the number of nice animals in shelters just waiting to be adopted. "This realization made me more sympathetic to these animals' needs and helped develop my passion for the plight of the animal," Dr. Freeman said. "This has developed into a personal passion for shelter medicine, which was a field I didn't really know about before P4P."

Priority 4 Paws not only serves the educational needs of DVM students, but also helps Indiana animal shelters. The P4P mobile surgery unit travels around the state to 20 partner shelters, where pre-adoption surgeries are performed free of charge for the shelters. Jim Tate, director of the Humane Society of Clinton County, said that Priority 4 Paws has helped to lower the cost of taking in animals. Dr. Fellenstein said P4P's services provide a huge financial relief for shelters. "The state of Indiana just recently passed a law stating that all animals that are adopted out of shelters need to be spayed or neutered before adoption. That's a huge financial responsibility being put on those shelters. I think that this is going to make the demand for our services even higher. When we go on site, we usually do anywhere between 15 and 40 surgeries in a day. That's a massive impact financially," said Dr. Fellenstein. "When shelters save that money, they roll it right back into their animal programs." Priority 4 Paws only asks shelters to provide lunch for the surgical team.

Priority 4 Paws also contributed to the Henry County Humane Society's first no-kill year for healthy animals. Henry County Humane Society Director Linda Bir-Conn said that because the Priority 4 Paws Program taught her and her staff proper methods for housing animals and how to perform tests, countless animal lives have been spared. "Many more animals have been saved due to simply running tests here at the shelter and us being able to care for various conditions versus euthanizing for lack of funds," Bir-Conn said. Dr. Fellenstein adds that partner shelters are seeing adoption rates increase since an animal that's been spayed or neutered prior to adoption is much more adoptable.

"In a meeting we had with our shelters, they told us that their adoption rates were going up by 50 to 70 percent. Fewer animals are showing up in shelters, more are getting adopted, and less are being euthanized," said Dr. Fellenstein. "The animals' length of stay in the shelter after they've been spayed or neutered is significantly shorter, too."

Dr. Freeman is also pleasantly surprised with the impact P4P has had on its partner shelters. "Our program saved enough money for one shelter to hire another person to take care of shelter animals. Without that employee, those animals would suffer," Dr. Freeman said. "Since the start of P4P, Indiana euthanasia rates for healthy or treatable animals have decreased by over half. We are saving lives."

PVM's Priority 4 Paws Program also has served as an inspiration for other universities. "Ours was the second program of this type, following Mississippi State University's original mobile unit program," said Dr. Freeman. "We've helped a number of other schools develop plans for their own mobile spay and neuter clinics." Dr. Fellenstein added that even schools outside the United States have taken notice of P4P. "We were just visited by a Colombian veterinarian who is very interested in the mobile unit, and bringing that idea to the National University in Bogotá, Colombia," said Dr. Fellenstein. "She is interested in getting a mobile unit to help control the feral cat and dog population in their city. That's international exposure."

Dr. Fellenstein said P4P is making a difference in even more ways. "We're getting a reputation. Students are actually choosing Purdue for this program. People who interview potential students have told me these prospective students are commenting on our program and want to get involved," said Dr. Fellenstein. "It's really making a difference. We're also working with Indianapolis Animal Care and Control which works with the International Business College Veterinary Technician program. They bring vet tech students in when we are in Indianapolis doing surgery, so their students can get practical experience in surgical recovery and that process." Dr. Fellenstein added that high school students are also benefiting from P4P. "In New Castle, Ind., there's a veterinary technology high school program for students who are interested in veterinary technology and medicine. They come and work the recovery days in New Castle. The first group gets the animals ready for their day, and a second group does all of the animal recovery in the afternoon," said Dr. Fellenstein. "Not only are we influencing our own Purdue students, but also high school students and veterinary technology students."

Though P4P is already a major success, Dr. Freeman's goal is to someday have enough funding for all DVM students to take the P4P rotation, or even for PVM to develop a full shelter medicine program with a clinical rotation offered through the P4P Program. Dr. Fellenstein said they are in the early stages of expanding the program. "We hope P4P will be a part of a bigger program, so this is what I'm focusing on now: what would the program look like, how can we develop it, and where do we go for funding?" Dr. Freeman said that she's thankful for this possibility. "These are ambitious goals, but six years ago I would have said running a mobile unit was also an ambitious goal," Dr. Freeman explained. "I think a lot of our success can be attributed to our team, including Dr. Carol Fellenstein and our awesome veterinary technicians; the students who have been so wonderful to work with; our donors; and the PVM administration that has stood behind this program."

Drs. Freeman and Fellenstein stressed that funding is a big issue for P4P. Initial funding was provided by PetSmart Charities.  "Now the College is looking to find funds needed for ongoing support of the program," said Dr. Fellenstein. "The Dean is working hard to find funding to not only keep the program going, but also expand it so that all the students can go through it. If there's anyone who is interested in the program, please come talk to us. We are more than willing to spend some time with you and let you know what we do."

This story is part of the 2016 Annual PVM Report.

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