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The Importance Of Veterinary Care At Your Animal Sanctuary

a vet restrains a red hen on the exam table while another hen looks on
Newly rescued hens receive a thorough veterinary exam. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / Animal Equality / We Animals Media

Appropriate veterinary care is a crucial aspect of animal care. Over time, a person working closely with a particular species will learn more about their care and may be better able to identify some specific health issues, but even the most experienced caregiver will still need to (and should!) rely on their veterinarian for a variety of things. If you care for multiple species, you may very well need multiple veterinarians. This is important to keep in mind particularly if you care for species with vastly different care needs. Consider the differences between pigs and tortoises, or turkeys and betta fish. It is always worth seeking veterinarians who are specialized in the care of the particular species you are caring for. While finding a vet who has a recognized specialty can help, it’s also important to remember that some veterinarians have long years of experience or special interest in some species, and thus may be enthusiastic about working with them. To learn more about how to find a veterinarian for your residents, check out our resource here

Be Aware Of The Law Around The Unauthorized Practice Of Veterinary Medicine!
It is important to realize that the practice of veterinary medicine is legally regulated and licensed on a state-by-state level within the United States. Veterinarians have extensive training and knowledge to practice animal medicine, and as experienced as an unlicensed caregiver may be, there is no substitute for veterinary advice when it comes to critical care decisions. In fact, most states have penalties for the unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine. It is important to be aware of the boundaries and limitations that unlicensed personnel must observe, as well as the penalties associated with violating such rules. When it comes to questions around what constitutes the practice of veterinary medicine at your sanctuary, we recommend you consult your state laws, your veterinarian, and legal counsel in your jurisdiction.

Veterinary Examinations

Performing regular health examinations yourself is an important part of caregiving, but these are not meant to replace veterinary examinations. And while you may primarily think of veterinary care as important when a resident is sick (and it is!), there are other types of visits your residents may benefit from. Your veterinarian can provide:

Open Sanctuary Project's Ambassador Llama
  • Wellness Exams (routine exams to evaluate resident health)- There are many benefits that come from wellness exams. In addition to potentially catching signs of concern early, by assessing an individual routinely over the course of their life, your veterinarian will be able to gather information specific to them that may come in handy later on (for example, baseline blood work and vitals).
  • Sick Patient Exams (to evaluate someone who is ill, injured, or showing signs of concern)- If one of your residents is not feeling well, is injured, or simply isn’t acting like themself, your veterinarian can conduct a thorough exam to determine the best course of action (which may require diagnostic testing described below).
  • Medical Progress Exams (to follow-up on medical conditions)- If one of your residents is recovering from a health issue or has a chronic issue you are managing, your veterinarian can assess their progress through follow-up exams. This follow-up allows them to evaluate how the individual is progressing and make changes to their treatment plan if needed.

Emergency Care

a black and white calf with a bandage around his neck lies down while a veterinarian works in the background
Sonny receives a life-saving blood transfusion. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / The Ghosts In Our Machine / We Animals Media

Unfortunately, not every situation can wait for an appointment to be scheduled or for your veterinarian’s office to open. This is why having emergency veterinary care lined up for your residents is imperative. While some veterinarians may be able to provide emergency care some or all of the time, not every veterinary practice has 24-hour services available. In order to ensure care is available to your residents 24/7, you may need to find a separate emergency clinic in your area. Do not wait until you have an emergency to figure out options in your area! Ask your veterinarian what happens if one of your residents requires care after hours or on a weekend or holiday. If they cannot provide care in these instances, ask if they have recommendations for after-hours care in the area.

Even during the hours when your veterinarian’s office is open, if someone needs immediate care, would they be able to see the individual immediately, or would you have to wait for an available appointment? If it is unlikely they’d be able to accommodate a visit without an appointment, ask for their recommendations regarding where to go.

A veterinarian should be able to provide supportive care to a resident who is in critical condition. This might include administration of fluids, intravenous medications, or oxygen therapy, among other things. If you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, they may also be able to talk you through how to provide immediate care to an individual either before bringing them to the veterinarian’s office or while waiting for the vet to arrive at your sanctuary.

Diagnostic Testing And Interpretation

Your veterinarian can help determine when diagnostic testing such as blood work or bacterial cultures are warranted and can interpret the results. While it can be tempting to try to interpret blood work yourself by comparing the results to normal reference ranges, interpreting blood work is more nuanced than just seeing which levels are out of the normal range – it also involves understanding what causes the various levels to be out of range, the relationship between different analytes, as well as how to interpret the results in conjunction with the individual’s clinical signs and any external factors that can impact results, such as stress from handling or how long the blood sample was sitting before being tested. You should always ask your veterinarian to explain in detail any abnormalities they report and ask to receive a copy of all diagnostic reports.

Your veterinarian can also help determine when advanced diagnostics, such as radiographs, ultrasound, or a CT scan are warranted. In cases where they cannot perform the procedure themselves, they can refer you to a specialist.

Surgery Or Other Medical Interventions

Should one of your residents need surgery or other advanced medical interventions, your veterinarian can perform these or refer you to someone else who can. This may include more routine procedures, such as neutering mammalian residents, or performing surgery in response to a health issue.

Open Sanctuary Project's Ambassador Turkey - Upset

Unfortunately, when it comes to farmed animals, there is quite a bit of information out there about do-it-yourself surgeries (for example instructions for performing bumblefoot surgery at home). This do-it-yourself mentality reflects the way most people view these species and not the actual needs of the species.

All surgical procedures should be performed by a licensed and experienced veterinarian using appropriate anesthetics and analgesics. 

Treatment Plans

It’s important to have a veterinarian involved in the creation of treatment plans for individuals who require medical intervention. This may include pain management or antibiotic treatment. Improper use of antibiotics contributes to the growing issue of antibiotic resistance, so be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine when and how antibiotics should be used and to have cultures done whenever possible. In addition to needing a veterinarian to prescribe medications, they can create treatment plans tailored to the individual’s specific needs. While some medications may be appropriate, generally, to treat a particular condition in a certain species, that does not mean the treatment is appropriate in every instance. When determining the most appropriate treatment for an individual in your care, your veterinarian can take the individual’s overall health into consideration, as well as any other medications or supplements they are currently taking.

If you have a good relationship with your veterinarian and they feel it is appropriate, your veterinarian may feel comfortable teaching you how to perform more specialized or advanced treatments if one of your residents requires it. This might include how to administer injectable medications or fluids, or how to continue managing an open wound after veterinary assessment.

Open Sanctuary Project's Ambassador Duck

Maintaining A Good Relationship With Your Veterinarian
There may be times when you and your veterinarian do not agree, but it is in your residents’ best interest for you to maintain a good relationship with your veterinarian. For more information, check out our resource on the subject here.

End-Of-Life Care

Because sanctuaries provide lifelong care to their residents, it’s important to have a relationship with a veterinarian who can provide compassionate end-of-life care if necessary. This includes palliative care and euthanasia. Unfortunately, as many of the species cared for at farmed animal sanctuaries are killed before reaching old age, some veterinarians may not have experience providing elder care or palliative care and may not have experience performing euthanasia in a way that is appropriate for sanctuary residents. 

Though it can be painful to think about the possibility of one of your residents being euthanized, it’s important to have a discussion with your veterinarian (or prospective veterinarians) before you are in a situation where euthanasia is needed. There are multiple forms of euthanasia that are considered humane by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) but should not be considered for sanctuary residents or companion animals. Be sure to have a discussion about your euthanasia policies, and ask them upfront about whether they’d be comfortable and qualified to euthanize residents using gentle, non-physical methods that would also be commonly used for a companion cat or dog.

Necropsy Examinations

Your veterinarian can perform or facilitate a necropsy examination to help determine a resident’s cause of death. While it can be difficult to think of our loved ones’ bodies being examined in this way, it can be a very useful tool that can not only protect other residents if you are dealing with a potentially contagious disease, but can also help both you and your veterinarian better understand, and therefore better respond to, similar health issues in the future. It can be frustrating if a necropsy report doesn’t give you a specific cause of death (which, unfortunately, happens depending on the disease process and cause of death), but try to remember that simply being able to rule out other diseases as a result of the necropsy examination can be very helpful in knowing what precautions, if any, you need to take with the rest of your residents.

Healthcare Protocols

In addition to treating the individuals in your care, your veterinarian can play an important role in establishing healthcare protocols for your sanctuary. By working with an experienced veterinarian who is familiar with your region and the specifics of your sanctuary and resident population, you can create healthcare protocols that are tailored to your specific needs. This may include:

Open Sanctuary Project's Ambassador Pig
  • Incoming testing protocols– While fecal testing is a typical part of incoming procedures for new residents, there may be other incoming testing you should consider implementing. Your veterinarian can talk you through the various testing options available based on the species you care for and also the issues that are prevalent in your region. They can also explain what a positive result would mean for your sanctuary.
  • Parasite screening/ deworming– Your veterinarian can make recommendations about routine parasite screening, fecal testing, and deworming protocols based on the parasite issues at your sanctuary or in your region. If there are signs of anthelmintic- resistance (resistance to deworming medications), they can make recommendations regarding how to revise your protocols so as to prevent/reduce resident exposure to parasites and avoid overusing anthelmintics. 
  • Vaccine protocols– Your veterinarian can make recommendations about what, if any, vaccinations your residents should receive, as well as how often. Some vaccines must be administered by a veterinarian, in which case, they can also administer these and provide the necessary paperwork for your records.
  • Preventative care– Your veterinarian can recommend, and if necessary provide, preventative care to help protect your residents from certain health conditions. This may include dental care or hormonal implants, depending on the species you care for.
  • Infectious disease outbreak response plan– Your veterinarian can play an important role in ensuring your sanctuary is prepared in the event of an infectious disease outbreak in your region, helping to create a response plan to ensure your residents are properly protected (if you care for birds, check out our resource about avian influenza for information on how to protect your residents from this disease should it be detected in your area). In the event that one or more of your residents test positive for or are showing signs of an infectious disease, your veterinarian can help create a response plan to ensure they receive the care they need while other residents are protected from becoming infected.

Nutrition Plans

Depending on their experience and training, your veterinarian can either assess your residents’ diet or refer you to an experienced nutritionist. By working with a professional who is experienced in the dietary needs of the species you care for and who is familiar with the specifics of your region, you can get the best information about what your residents need, which depending on the species, might be a commercial food, dried forages, and/or vitamin and mineral supplementation. If a resident requires supplementation to their diet, they can also make recommendations tailored to the individual’s specific needs.

Open Sanctuary Project's Ambassador Residents around a compass

Veterinary care is about more than just treating individuals who are sick. In addition to providing direct care to your residents, the right veterinarian (or veterinarians) can play an important role in creating care standards and protocols that are tailored to your residents’ unique needs. And as things change, which they always do, your veterinarian can play an important role in updating and revising those care standards and protocols to ensure your residents continue to receive the best care available. 

Updated on February 9, 2022

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