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  News from the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association                                                   Spring 2013

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Veterinarians Can Help Ease the Transition for Animals Moving from a Rescue into an Adopter's Home
by Dr. Mary Zink, Veterinary Medical Director, Baltimore Humane Society

In the last issue of the The Maryland Veterinarian, I talked about the shelter data that every veterinarian needs to know. Today, I’d like to discuss how a veterinarian can help keep adopted animals in their new home. Veterinarians can play an important role in reinforcing the choice to adopt. In doing so, they are establishing a new bonded client for the practice, and saving the life of an animal.

When animals are obtained through adoption, veterinarians will need to take a few things into consideration as they deal with the initial client visits.

  • Recognize that every shelter is different in the amount of behavior assessment and medical evaluation that each rescued animal receives prior to adoption. There is a wide range of experience, knowledge, and resources that individual rescues have at their disposal. Some have access to trainers, behaviorists, and veterinarians but many do not. Some have access to wormers, vaccines, spay/neuter services, etc. but x-rays, dental services, and extensive blood work are either not available or cost prohibitive for most rescue organizations. If you or the client is looking for a perfect dog with a behavior and health guarantee, than adoption won’t be able to meet that unrealistic expectation.

  • Animals come to the shelter with little or no behavior and medical histories. The shelter behavioral and medical evaluations are performed at a moment in time (often on a very active/exuberant adolescent animal or a very confused/fearful middle aged pet). Sometimes a complete physical exam can be performed but sometimes they are unable to examine things such as hips, knees, mouths, deeper in the ear canals, retinas, etc. The animals just move too much, are too tense to palpate effectively, or too afraid and too unfamiliar to the shelter for their veterinary staff to safely push through a good face to face retinal exam etc.

  • A shelter’s goal is to evaluate the pet’s current physical state and determine if any health concerns exist that might require immediate medical care. Then they determine if treatment is possible (physically and financially) in the shelter setting. The rescue wants to get the animal in an adoptable condition, without immediate medical needs, so that a bond can grow between animal and owner so they will be willing to proceed with reasonable routine veterinary care in the months and years ahead.

  • Animals coming from a rescue have potentially been under a lot of stress in a kennel setting, especially after recently being abandoned. Their immune status may be compromised, their new vaccines might not yet be protective against infectious disease, and the kennel can easily house a high volume of animals, in close proximity, with subclinical incubating disease. As a veterinarian, you are going to see URI’s, parasitism, GI disease, etc. in newly adopted animals. Even the best run shelters occasionally send out animals with these conditions. Many animals don’t break with the infectious disease until they are in their new adoptive home.

  • Keep in mind that many of your middle aged patients have some pre-existing chronic skin/ear issues, dental needs, GI symptoms, and/or possible musculoskeletal issues. Relinquished, middle aged shelter animals also have some of these same medical issues. They are very treatable, so they will be adopted out with some of these conditions.

  • Good rescue organizations attempt to disclose everything that they know about the animals that they send out because they want the adopter to know what they are getting. They want the adoption to be a success! But sometimes there are issues that had not yet been identified, or in a very busy (high volume) shelter, issues that were inadvertently missed during their short stay in the busy facility. The fact remains that all of these animals are adoptable and the best thing that can happen to them is adoption and a good relationship with a full service veterinarian. Behavior and health guarantees from a rescue are not possible because they are extremely expensive to maintain and they set the organization up for far too much liability.

  • Adoption prices vary from free to several hundred dollars. Often the price is dictated by the financial status of the rescue and the amount of medical care that the pet received prior to adoption. Often, your new client has just spent several hundred dollars to adopt and out rig their new pet with collar/leash, crate, food, bedding, treats, toys, etc.

  • Shelters desperately need adopters, otherwise animals die unnecessarily. If a client doesn’t go to a shelter to adopt, they go to backyard breeders, pet stores, etc. to get their pets. Those options can also be risky and they actually perpetuate the unwanted pet problem that your community is facing. Each pet purchased from another source, takes up a home that could have been filled by adoption of a homeless animal.

Here’s a common new adoption scenario. A client brings a newly adopted animal to your clinic because the shelter recommended that they see a full service veterinarian within the first two weeks of adopting. They are excited, proud of the fact that they helped “Save” an animal, and a little confused about how they should proceed with any behavior or medical issue that they have noticed in their initial days together.
This situation can be handled in several ways. Some ways will promote adoption and save more animals lives while others will discourage adoption and cost more lives.

  • The “WRONG” way to transition an animal from rescued to client owned:

    • If you examine the animal and note some health issues such as skin/ear issues, dental issues, gait abnormalities, etc., please don’t tell the owner that this pet is in horrible condition, you can’t believe they would adopt an animal out in this condition, and that the pet needs extensive medical care. When you do this, you are telling an often extremely conscientious pet owner that the animal was suffering, the shelter was terrible or negligent, and they chose poorly and picked a “broken” pet or were “swindled” into taking a “broken” pet.

    • This is not the time to tell them that they need to run extensive diagnostics, purchase expensive medications or foods, or schedule expensive elective procedures. These are good clients. They will do what you recommend. Try to remember that they feel so bad for the pet to begin with (because he was a rescue) that they feel guilty if they don’t immediately do everything that you casually suggest. So now the dog that they “saved” is costing them hundreds to thousands of dollars in their first few weeks together. You have taken a person who is sensitive to the importance of adoption, and taught them that it’s not worth getting a pet from a shelter or it’s too risky to adopt.

  • The “RIGHT” way to transition an animal from rescued to client owned:

    • Focus on making the pet’s transition into the new home a successful one. If there are medical issues, reassure the new pet owner that many animals face these issues at some point in their life, that they are reasonable to see in an animal that is “saved,” and that you will institute affordable treatment on their new family member. Consider working up the health issues that aren’t immediately pressing at a later time, and help them prioritize how and when they spend their limited funds. This will allow the pet to settle in and the family to fall in love with the pet before they have to spend a bunch of money on that pet.

    • Praise the client for adopting and be sensitive to the fact that the client might have just spent quite a bit of money “saving” this pet and getting it settled in the home.

    • Reassure the client that it’s okay if their new pet needs some medical care. After all, as their veterinarian, you are there to help them help their newly adopted pet. If behavior or medical issues arise, you are there for them. Give them some time to fall in love with their pet before you push for the level of healthcare that you are accustomed to recommending to your regular clients. Most of those clients have been bonded with their pet for years before they consider extensive diagnostics, medical therapies, and elective procedures. The new adopter will come back to you in time, and they will become a fabulous client. You just can’t expect them to do everything today if you want this new relationship to blossom and grow.

    • Remember, going back to a shelter (or an animal not being adopted) is the most life threatening thing that an animal can face. Any health issues that you find during their first visit are less of a threat to their life than not being adopted. Don’t overwhelm the new owner with the animal’s medical needs during those first vet appointments. Many health issues can be addressed over time so the client’s budget isn’t broken and they don’t regret choosing adoption.

    • If you sense a problem at your area shelter with medical policy or procedure or have an issue with a single animal after adoption, call the management of the shelter (preferably the medical director) and voice your concerns so that issues can be resolved and adoptions can flourish.

As veterinarians, if we want to really help animals, we can’t ignore the shelter data and we need to influence more of our clients to consider adoption. Using the right approach in clients with newly adopted pets is critical to the success of that adoption. We need to praise and reward those clients that do adopt, so they continue to adopt and convince others they know, to adopt. Veterinarians will save more lives in their lifetime (and get more clients) if they work with their area rescue organizations and increase adoptions in their community. Everyone wins if we put the animal’s wellbeing above all else!

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Baltimore Humane Society

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