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By Linda Lombardi
When a well-loved dog breaks a leg, it's an emergency, but generally not a life-threatening one. Surgery can usually repair the limb so the dog can go on to lead a normal fourlegged life. In a shelter, though, where resources for vet care and aftercare are often limited, the outcome can be far more dire.
"If an animal comes in with a fractured leg, it is either deemed not adoptable, or they have to do something, and if they don't have facility to fix the fracture - which most shelters don't - they amputate the leg," says Dr. David Holt of The School of Veterinary Medicine, The University of Pennsylvania (Penn Vet).
And the words "not adoptable" can be a death sentence. "These animals get euthanized in many jurisdictions, when the fracture would be perfectly treatable if the dog were in a home," says Dr. Paula Kislak, who serves on the board of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA). "Even amputation is expensive, and then it's not that easy to find a home for a dog that has an amputated limb. A lot of shelters can't undertake the expense or the length of time it would take to find a home."
Holt had an idea to both save these dogs and contribute to saving more at the same time by training vet students at Penn Vet, which is already home to The Penn Vet Shelter Medicine Program in partnership with the Richard Lichter Charity for Dogs. The proposal, called Saving Lives by Saving Limbs, caught Kislak's eye. Also the chair of the Kislak Family Foundation, she had a long-standing interest in involving the foundation in shelter medicine programs. She recalls that when she was being trained, students learned how to do surgery on fractures using dogs that were scheduled to be euthanized. "That was one of the points of wanting to get behind this program - to change the curriculum in veterinary schools to show them that they could partner with animal shelters to treat animals who had naturally occurring fractures," she says. "The students could learn in a humane way, and the dogs could be returned to the adoption pool."
With HSVMA and the Kislak Family Fund offering to fund the program for its first five years starting in 2015, Holt also looked for support with supplies. "DePuy Synthes Vet very kindly offered to supply us with implants through their charitable arm," he says. "DePuy Synthes has been a wonderful supporter of the vet school. We have had a long connection with the company and it's just wonderful that we've been able to continue this through this partnership."
As a result, to-date seventeen dogs from Philadelphia-area shelters and rescues were treated, using over donated 100 implants – and along with saving those dogs, students gained valuable experience in treating fractures. "This has been a wonderful experience for our residents, our interns and our students, because they've had the chance to participate in these surgeries, and the preoperative evaluation and the postoperative management of these cases as well," Holt says. "That's very important training experience for them."
Holt also found that many of the students were interested in the shelter medicine aspect of the program. Kislak doesn't find this surprising. "Shelter animal medicine has become a recognized field, so there are a number of veterinarians going into it in and of itself," she says. "But also, students are hungry for more surgical time. Usually there are two or three or four students on a single surgery, and the resident does the majority of the work. Students are hungry to learn more and be more proficient."
A program like this brings together animals that have a need, and students who need to learn how to heal them. It sounds obvious, but it takes support and coordination. "You need two basic things: you need money and you need a committed lead surgeon - a committed surgical professor," says Kislak. "That all came together at UPenn."
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