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Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

Shelter Medicine Resident Working to Save More Cats

January 16th, 2014
CVM Shelter Medicine Resident, Dr. Lena DeTar, operates on a cat at the Animal Medical Learning Center.

CVM Shelter Medicine Resident, Dr. Lena DeTar, operates on a cat at the Animal Medical Learning Center.

As a young woman, Lena DeTar thought she wanted to be a doctor. In college, she majored in pre-med and anthropology but soon discovered that the real world of medicine often ran counter to her desire to help people. “I was really turned off by all the HMO stuff and all the influence of insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and all the disparity in care,” she says. So she went to work on a masters degree in journalism and science writing. “I was writing a piece on the dog genome and it hit me that I could be a doctor, but I didn’t have to be a human doctor. I’ve always loved animals so I applied for vet school and haven’t looked back since. It’s been absolutely the best decision I have ever made.”

DeTar is now the CVM shelter medicine resident, and is stationed at the Animal Medical Learning Center (AMLC) in Portland. With support from Maddie’s Fund, the CVM Shelter Residency Program is a partnership between OSU and the Oregon Humane Society (OHS); it enables a student to pursue a master’s degree and complete the requirements for board certification while working at the AMLC.

From the beginning of vet school, DeTar was focused on shelter medicine. “I was looking for a way to be a veterinarian but not be a business person,” she says. “I really like working in the non-profit world; I like working with animals and people who really need the help. Shelter medicine is the right place for me.”

DeTar comes to the OHS Animal Medical Learning Center with prior experience as a staff veterinarian at the Arizona Humane Society and the Utah Humane Society. She likes the Maddie’s Fund residency because it allows her to both treat animals and do work that impacts the shelter as a whole. “I think there is a misconception among some shelter workers that the veterinarian knows how to spay and neuter and cure disease, but doesn’t understand how a shelter works,” she says. “From previous experience, I know it can be difficult for a veterinarian to have input on policies that have been in place for a very long time. People have done things one way, with good intentions, but they may not understand that a really good shelter vet can make their shelter shine, and reduce their euthanasia rate, and reduce their death rate from certain diseases. For example, I believe that you can actually treat diseases like parvo, and even distemper, successfully in a shelter without spreading it to the community.”

The research DeTar is doing for her residency is directly related to her interest in changing nationwide shelter policy toward certain diseases. She has structured a clinical investigation of ringworm at the AMLC that she hopes will show shelter workers it is not as scary a disease as they may think.

Ringworm is widely misunderstood by the general public and therefore is a PR nightmare for shelters.  The name ‘ringworm’ has conjured up many urban myths, the most common that it is caused by a parasitic worm living inside the body. Many people do not realize that ringworm is a fungus that is not dangerous and is easily treatable.

DeTar began her ringworm project by doing a lot of research and speaking to experts in the field. Then she set about making OHS ringworm treatment the best it could be by changing the bathing and medication protocols. “We now have a beautiful quarantine facility just for ringworm,” she says.

Ringworm treatment takes a couple of months, then a final ‘all-clear’ test is done. With the fungus taking 7-10 days to culture, current protocols mean cats spend an extra week in the shelter after they are ringworm-free. The research part of DeTar’s project is testing a new protocol for getting cats into homes faster:  adopting-out cats before their final test results are in. DeTar then does follow-up with the new owners to make sure everything went well. “Primarily, I am making sure that we can do this without spreading ringworm to people and to other animals,” She says. “We want the animals with ringworm to have a shorter length of stay.” She also wants to investigate how the shelter community reacts to the project. “There are a lot of shelters that euthanize ringworm cats automatically because it takes so long to cure and is extremely difficult to decontaminate.” So far the project has adopted-out eight cats and is planning to enroll at least 50, in order for the results to be statistically significant.

DeTar stresses that ringworm is not the ‘big deal’ some people think it is. “It’s a fungus; you have a rash, it’s kind of itchy; you take the medication, it goes away,” she says.

DeTar really appreciates her residency at the AMLC. “The program is very unique,” she says. “It is the only shelter medicine residency that is actually run out of a shelter. The others are run out of universities and residents don’t get the clinical experience that I get.” Because fourth-year OSU vet students do rotations at the AMLC, DeTar also enjoys the teaching aspect of her position. “I really want the next generation of veterinarians to understand that shelter medicine is not just something you do if you can’t get a job anywhere else, but that we are really passionate about this,” she says. “You can make a humongous difference in the lives of these animals by being a good vet at a shelter. You would not catch me working anywhere else.”

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