Nina Stively wanted to increase welfare and lifesaving for shelter animals. She also believed it was crucial to the goal that the level of professionalism in the sheltering field rise. When she heard about the Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program online Masters in shelter medicine, she knew that was how she’d make both goals a reality — even though she’s not a veterinarian.

Animal welfare had always been Stively’s passion as well as her profession, but she’d struggled with some of the field’s challenges. “I felt there was a lack of standardization,” she said, “a gap of much-needed protocols like those the Association of Shelter Veterinarians published, but for the entire profession, not just veterinarians.”

She also saw how this lack influenced how the community saw its shelter, as well as the experience of shelter workers. “Frankly, we struggle with a perception that animal welfare is a hobby, not a profession,” she said. “People would come into the shelter and think we’re all volunteers.”

After seeing an ad for the University of Florida (UF) online shelter medicine course on Facebook, she contacted the program to see if it was open to a non-veterinarian. They assured her that it was — although she would be the first. She enrolled.

“The program is geared toward shelter professionals, and toward operations,” she said. “It covers how to manage disease, how to manage behavior. It offers an opportunity to learn from the best, the ‘Hollywood stars’ of animal welfare.”

Stively was still working toward her shelter medicine Masters when she was hired as Director of Loudon County Animal Services, a municipal shelter in Virginia. “The shelter was struggling with disease outbreaks,” she said. They were struggling with kitten season, with a high population. The fosters and staff were burned out, there were kittens and cats everywhere, and all of them had upper respiratory infections.”

In the past, Stively was told, the response to an outbreak of URI was depopulation. “That’s just how the shelter operated here for years,” she said. “There were points where the live release rate for cats was 45 percent, and this is literally the wealthiest county in the country. The staff had been told this was the best way, and they honestly thought the cats were suffering and euthanasia was the most humane way to handle it.”

In fact, Stively said, the staff believed treatment of sick cats was actually cruel, and fought her plan to save them instead of euthanizing them. Thanks to the education she was receiving in the Masters course, and her access to colleagues in shelters around the world and the experts who teach the online course, Stively was able to show them a different way.

“The shelter had no cleaning protocols in place even after 60 years of operation,” she said. “We got cleaning and disease-management protocols in place, and the first thing I did was to establish a URI protocol. As time went by, we started managing intake and addressing disease in a more effective fashion.”

One of the best things to come out of the program was an organization-wide understanding of how critical it is to de-stress the shelter environment, and that the cats’ mental health is just as important as their physical health.

“You need to know what you’re doing regarding all aspects of the cats’ experience in the shelter,” she said. “How are you addressing their mental health? When they’re sick, where do you move them? How are you isolating them? Have you taken care to have familiar bedding travel with them, and someone to interact with them socially every day? And what are you doing to get them adopted quickly?”

It used to be if the shelter was going to treat cats, they’d put them in one little room, and provided only minimal care in the form of administering medications, providing food and water, and cleaning litter boxes. Do not touch was the rule. “It was terrible,” said Stively. “They were miserable, terrified, traumatized. If they survived, they were slow to recover because of the stress. There were so many holes that needed to be plugged.”

Thanks to her shelter medicine training, all that’s changed. “Now, we have volunteers whose sole purpose is to spend time with the sick cats,” she said. “They’re candy stripers for cats. All they do is have positive, friendly interactions with them, and the transformation is amazing. They no longer have to go on repeated courses of antibiotics, and don’t hide when they go back onto the adoption floor — which means they’re adopted much more quickly now.”

The staff took time to overcome their original reluctance, however. “One of our first ‘big saves’ was Juanita, a hyperthyroid tortie,” said Stively. “This condition is very treatable. She wasn’t super ancient, maybe 10-12, when I told them put her on the adoption floor and treat her, the staff freaked out, saying that would be very stressful.”

Stively prevailed, and soon a little girl with cystic fibrosis came to the shelter specifically looking for a cat with special needs! “She and her family picked Juanita,” she said. “They sent us pictures of her in her new home, where the little girl was so happy to have a cat to take care of.”

Experiences like that had a profound effect, and today, the shelter staff has made a complete turnaround. “Everyone here has said they feel so much better,” Stively said. “This is the first time I’ve worked for a shelter where people are actually excited for kitten season! They know we have a program in place, we have trained fosters and staff ready, we have our hiding boxes and toys — we’re set up for success!”

In fact, she said, “They’re saying, ‘When are the kittens coming? Can we get kittens from another  shelter?’ They want to help other places, teach their skills. They say, our cats are surviving and thriving, but others aren’t so fortunate.”

It wasn’t just cats who benefited, but dogs, too. “In the past, our behavior assessments were black and white. But dogs aren’t black and white, behavior isn’t black and white, and stress affects how dogs react.”

They took in one dog, Georgie, who in the past would never have been seen as a candidate for adoption because he was resource guarding. “With a little bit of time and some hand feeding, he completely stopped resource guarding,” she said. “What’s even more interesting, we found out the shelter he’d come from had not seen him display any resource guarding at all. It was new behavior due to stress.”

Stively says she can’t say enough about how the UF program helped her. “Shelter medicine is at the forefront for shelter vets, and this Masters degree is the same for sheltering professionals. It gave me an excellent overview of sheltering, and what I learned there is now setting our shelter apart as a municipal agency.”

What’s more, she said, “I love what I’m doing. I want more in our field to pursue this degree. I want working in a shelter to be a recognized profession. I want kids to go to career day, and learn this is valuable.”

Stively may have been the first non-veterinarian to enroll in the course, but she wasn’t the last. “The degree shows there are lots of professionals out there, that this is a true career path you can pursue with excellence in lifesaving outcomes. Finally this field is coming into its own.”

Maddie’s Shelter Medicine online learning program at UF was established with financial support from Maddie’s Fund®. For more information, visit their distance learning website.