AMLCstudent-with-catWalk through the big glass doors at the Oregon Humane Society (OHS) in northeast Portland and you enter a stylish room with vaulted ceilings and polished floors. It feels like the lobby of a nice hotel until you look to the left and see the Robotic Cat Playroom. A glass-walled space full of cat toys that are wired to move, the playroom hosts groups of cats on a one-day trip to kitty Las Vegas. Behind the scenes, cat-lovers from around the country are using the internet to control the spinning neon fuzzy tails and bouncing doo-dads while watching the ensuing mayhem through a webcam.

The Robotic Cat Playroom is just one of the many impressive features at the OHS, which takes in nearly 1,000 animals every month. Almost one third of those come from other shelters on the west coast who do not have the resources to keep them.  With this many animals to save, it is astounding that the OHS has a 98% adoption rate. None of this would be possible without the work of more than a thousand volunteers who do everything from foster care to running with dogs.

Another piece of this highly successful animal welfare organization is the Animal Medical Learning Center (AMLC). Half the animals that arrive at OHS need spay or neuter surgery, and a significant number need medical care. The AMLC is a unique partnership between Oregon State University and the OHS. In it’s high-tech surgery suite, fourth-year students from the College of Veterinary Medicine complete a two-week rotation as part of their graduation requirement. These extra pairs of hands help the shelter treat and heal pets faster, and reduce the average animal’s stay by 20 percent. It is also an invaluable real-world experience for the students.

OSU students live onsite at the AMLC and perform an average of 50 surgeries during their rotation. “Their skill and confidence increases tremendously during their time with us,” says Dr. Kirk Miller, an AMLC surgeon and OSU faculty member. “They have an idea of what to do when they start,” he says, “but their hands are shaking and they need a lot of guidance. By the end of their rotation, they are doing most of the surgeries on their own and I just monitor their progress or assist if there are any complications.”

Recent graduate, Rachel Hector, completed her rotation at the AMLC in the spring and describes the experience as very busy. “There are cats, dogs, rabbits being carried everywhere, being examined for medical problems, spayed, neutered, or having fractures repaired. Pretty much everything you can think of.” But Rachel appreciated the opportunity to think on her feet and work through many different problems. “You spend three hours every morning doing surgery and this often consists of multiple abdominal procedures. Each surgery provides you with an opportunity to become a better doctor.”

This was especially true for OSU students who were on rotation when 30 Shar Peis arrived from a bad breeder in Washington state. Shar Peis are known for their folded, wrinkled skin and are prone to eye and skin infections. All of the Shar Peis that came into the OHS in May needed treatment for medical conditions. Nearly a dozen needed corrective surgery for severely wrinkled skin that affected their health and ability to function.

Most of the Shar Peis have since been adopted, but some are still recovering from surgery in foster homes and expect to be placed soon.

Hector values her clinical experience at the AMLC, but also the opportunity to work in an environment where everyone around her is dedicated to the welfare of animals. “Everywhere you turn there are so many people who clearly love what they are doing and if you ask them, they will tell you that shelter medicine is exactly what they want to be doing with their lives.”

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