Building a Foundation for a New Generation to Save Lives

PetSmart Charities puts an emphasis on funding veterinary student education

Veterinary intern Sonya Sia’s surgical skills go well beyond that of her peers, even some more established professionals.

“I’ve learned to do spay/neuter surgeries in about 20 minutes. Some new vets can take 2 to 3 times as long,” Sonya said. Today, she’s putting these skills to work during her rotating internship at the Veterinary Specialty Hospital in San Diego.

You could call it a gift, but Sonya said she learned these lifesaving skills thanks to a special class she took while she was a student at Purdue University Veterinary School. That class was funded by PetSmart Charities.

It’s called Priority 4 Paws. It puts fourth-year vet students on a mobile spay/neuter surgery unit that deploys to about a dozen shelters in rural areas. During the first 2 weeks, the students take the bus to 12 rural shelters in the area 3 to 4 days out of the week. Then they spend a week practicing shelter medicine at PAWS in Chicago, Ill., or they practice surgery and shelter medicine at the Montgomery Animal Resource Center in Dayton, Ohio.

priority for pawsIt’s a heavy load for the students. They perform about 15 surgeries each day, under their professor’s supervision. By the end of Sonya’s class, she barely needed assistance during surgeries.

The intense experience gave Sonya the efficiency she never would have learned in a classroom. “You don’t get a lot of hands-on experience where you’re the primary surgeon. This is the best thing I could have done for my career,” she said.

PetSmart Charities awarded Purdue University a 2-year grant totaling $495,000 to support a new elective of training for fourth-year veterinary students in spay/neuter surgical techniques, including early-age spay/neuter. The second installment was awarded in October 2013.

It’s not just the students that benefit. Dr. Lynetta Freeman, DVM, MS, DACVS, is an associate professor of small animal surgery and biomedical engineering at Purdue University. She said the real winners are the homeless pets. “We’re teaching important life lessons about the value of contributing back to the community and creating win-win situations. From the animals’ perspective, they need advocates. Through this program, we’re creating advocates for them,” she said.

The shelters involved in the program saw increased adoption rates thanks to the surgeries. It helped the shelters save money on the surgeries, and pets that are spayed or neutered have a better chance at finding forever homes.

Spay/neuter surgeries stop the problem in its tracks. Research shows 35% of pets aren’t spayed or neutered. Fixing just one pet can prevent 55 unwanted puppies or kittens from being born without a home to go to.

PetSmart Charities Executive Director Jan Wilkins said funding veterinary education is a top priority for PetSmart Charities. “Spaying or neutering pets can make a huge difference in reducing unwanted litters. That’s why we’re focusing on making sure veterinary students learn the skills to perform early-age spay/neuter surgeries. Our goal is to provide all veterinary schools the opportunity to offer these programs to their students by 2015,” she said.

Right now, PetSmart Charities has granted funding to nearly half of all vet schools in the United States.

The Priority for Paws program almost didn’t happen for Sonya. “I’m so glad I got to do it. It was a new program at the time, and I got lucky. It’s a program all vet schools should have,” she said.

veterinary student“It benefits the students, the pets and the owners in the end,” Sonya said. “We need that hands-on experience before we go out in the real world. We’re more efficient, we’re more confident, we use fewer resources by not having to ask for help and we have a shorter anesthesia time for the pet.”

Now, Sonya is happily practicing her lifesaving skills in her rotation that’s taking her through all aspects of being a veterinarian, including surgery, neurology, cardiology and medicine.

She’s hoping to pursue a surgical internship or residency next. Her experience at PAWS, she said, made it clear she wants to be a board-certified veterinary surgeon. For her, it’s about making a difference in the lives of homeless pets.

“I’ve dedicated my life to providing that quality of care to any pet I come across. Homeless pets do not have the luxury of having someone bring them to the hospital when they are in need of care,” she said. “It’s our job as vets to make sure they have that opportunity.”

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