Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

March 21, 2013

Vet truck saves lives

Purdue offers student vets real-world practice.

By Scott Smith
Tribune staff writer

Tipton — Pet owners might balk at having their pooch undergo surgery in the back of a truck, but that’s probably because they’ve never seen Purdue University’s mobile veterinary clinic.

A self-contained, diesel-powered surgical unit, the truck is both a training ground for aspiring vets and a free service for local shelters inundated with abandoned pets.

Cages for animals awaiting surgery, a steel surgical table for prepping the animals, three surgical tables with racks for instruments and monitors make it cozy for the three students, one vet technician and their leader, Dr. Nancy Ferguson, DVM.

The day’s mission: drive from West Lafayette to Kokomo, park behind the Kokomo Humane Society shelter and spay or neuter more than two dozen dogs and cats, all of which will be put up for adoption at a reduced cost.

“This is basically saving lives,” humane society director Jean McGroarty said. “It’s hard to even talk about how much this means to us.”

The shelter passes along the cost savings to adoptive pet owners, and, as a result, more animals are being adopted and the shelter’s euthanasia rate has fallen, McGroarty said.

Pet-loving race car drivers Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, along with the PetSmart Foundation and other charities, support the Purdue clinic, which makes day trips to shelters around the north central part of the state between February and October.

Last Thursday, it was Kokomo’s turn.

Students Cassandra Waldman, Lauren Kimura and Jessica Petty were rotating among the surgical tables under Ferguson’s watchful eye.

Registered veterinary technician Carri McCoy was getting each animal ready by administering anesthetic, waiting until the animal was knocked out cold (tongue lolling noticeably from the mouth), inserting a breathing tube into the esophagus and shaving and disinfecting the area to be incised.

Once the animal was prepped, the clock started for the student performing that animal’s surgery.

Ferguson, with all of her lengthy experience, can do a spay operation in eight minutes flat.

Waldman, who is just a couple of months away from joining the workforce as a new vet, was running about 23 minutes for her spays Thursday.

It takes dedication to get to this point for all of the students, who are each signed up for a course which includes a three-week long practical lab section. Two of those weeks are spent on the mobile truck, performing spays and neuters and routine medical services for the animals at the shelters.

“A lot of people think the hardest thing for the students is all of the course work, but the hardest thing will be when they graduate and go into the field as new veterinarians,” Ferguson said. “There’s still so much they have to learn.”

Originally from Texas, Waldman had planned to go into the field of forensic science, made famous by multiple CSI television series. Once in school, she decide to move to veterinary science, beating the tall odds against getting into a veterinary program.

Slicing through three layers of tissue, finding and removing the uterus and the ovaries, and then suturing each of the tissue layers back together isn’t for the squeamish, but all of the students made it look easy.

“What we do, we hope, will help all of the practicing vets out there,” Ferguson said. “This program will give them tremendously skilled vets. And this surgery is a one-time event for each animal. They will require a lifetime of veterinary care.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, six of the felines scheduled for surgery Thursday were feral, trapped by residents and dropped off at the shelter.

Ferguson said the new thinking on feral cat populations is a trap-fix-release policy helps reduce the overall feral population, as opposed to simply trapping and euthanizing cats.

“You can only have so many feral cats in one geographic area,” she said. “If you get rid of them, that just encourages them to make more cats.”

It’s a long day for everyone concerned. They leave the school at 6:45 a.m., eat lunch (provided by the always grateful shelters), and work until late afternoon. The cats are usually done in the morning, as they are quieter and easier to handle.

Each domesticated animal gets a small blue tattoo on its belly to show it has been fixed. Feral cats get a notch in the left ear.

And they administer pain medication, which lasts for up to three days, to each animal.

The old thinking was that animals should be sent home with nothing, so they would be sore and less likely to move around and possibly tear their stitches.

Ferguson said there’s not much to back that theory, and said she’s not sure why so many vets operated that way.

“The old thought was that it doesn’t really hurt; it’s a dog, it’s a cat,” she said. “Well, we know that it does hurt.”

The mobile clinic isn’t a public service — it only performs services for animal shelters.

But with the spring here, it’s time for pet owners to think about having their pets spayed or neutered.

“Fix by six (months) and spay by five,” is the old refrain, and it’s still considered a good benchmark. Beyond keeping down the unwanted pet population, there are significant health benefits, especially for females, for an animal that is fixed before it enters puberty, Ferguson explained.

“This has really improved staff morale,” McGroarty said of the Purdue clinic, which is now in its second year of operation. “We’re more positive in thinking about outcomes for each animal, and we think that every animal is going to have an appropriate outcome.”

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com.