Shelter Snapshot: 6 steps to healthy shelter partnerships

January 8, 2019

Private practitioners and their shelter contacts can use these steps to build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships to help pet adopters today become veterinary clients tomorrow.

Could your veterinary practice make a closer partnership with a shelter actually WORK this year? (chrt2hrt/stock.adobe.com)Veterinarians and animal shelters share a common vision: healthy pets living in loving, lifelong homes. But as veterinarians and shelters immerse themselves in the (crazy!) day to day, it's easy, as the saying goes, to miss the forest for the trees. Misunderstandings, assumptions and previous conflicts-even local politics-can get in the way of recognizing the ways veterinarians and shelters can collaborate successfully to achieve healthier shelter pets, increased revenue for veterinary practices and happier veterinary clients and adopters.

As communities strive to reduce unnecessary euthanasia, the demographics in animal shelters are trending toward serving animals with more advanced medical and behavioral needs. At the same time, veterinarians are expanding their philanthropic reach, and many want to see more measurable impact from their charitable giving. Building healthy partnerships can benefit all involved.

How shelters have changed

From my experience as both a veterinarian and a shelter staff member, the similarities of our challenges are more numerous than the differences. Private practices and shelters face similar challenges with staffing, turnover, small business management, customer service and chaotic schedules. Understanding the viewpoints of potential partners helps pave the way for mutually respectful collaborations.

Shelters today are more like temporary homes where animals receive medical care and enrichment to help them find a new home more easily.

First, let's consider the evolution of animal sheltering. Sheltering has changed dramatically since the first dog pounds originated in the 1800s. The original pounds were focused on stray animal control, and reunification with owners and adoption wasn't a priority. Many animals were killed after their required holding periods, and methods for killing them were often inhumane. Shelters today are more like temporary homes where animals receive medical care and enrichment to help them find a new home more easily. Along with this evolution of sheltering has come evolved community expectations, with shelters expected to focus on reunification and adoption and to minimize unnecessary euthanasia.

With an emphasis on healthy, adoptable animals, shelters require more expert care and veterinarian involvement than ever before. The ever-expanding knowledge base in shelter medicine-courtesy of shelter medicine programs in veterinary colleges, along with increased funding for shelter medicine-is driving a higher quality of practice in shelters that balances population management with individualized care. The recent development of a board specialty has legitimized shelter medicine and is attracting more veterinarians to this field of work.

Regardless of funding sources, most shelters are limited by resources. They operate with less staff than desired, and volunteer support is critical to ensure operational goals are met. Donors require cultivation and stewardship, and income can vary widely with the economy. Shelters face a never-ending flow of animals needing help, and many of these animals have advanced medical and behavioral needs that require a substantial investment of money and staff time.

There are often a lot of opinions (from just about everyone!) about which animals are adoptable, the appropriate use of shelter funds, and how responsible the shelter is for the animal's health after adoption.

Shelters that can afford to hire staff veterinarians typically struggle to find doctors with interest and/or experience in shelter medicine and/or high-volume surgery. Paying for outside veterinary services is much more expensive, so shelters without staff veterinarians must limit the scope of care provided. There are often a lot of opinions (from just about everyone!) about which animals are adoptable, the appropriate use of shelter funds, and how responsible the shelter is for the animal's health after adoption, among other things.

Why veterinarians should partner with shelters

The benefits of partnerships between private practitioners and shelters are plentiful. Direct benefits to veterinarians include a constant source of new patients, shelter assistance with pets abandoned or signed over to the clinic, tax benefits, a direct line of communication with the shelter about post-adoption issues and a good image in the community. Direct benefits to the shelter include discounted or donated veterinary services for shelter pets, guidance from a licensed veterinarian, post-adoption support for sick or injured animals and legitimacy in the eyes of the community and other veterinarians.

Veterinarians can be amazing ambassadors for the shelter and play a key role in preventing relinquishment in the first place through spays and neuters, behavioral counseling and training referrals, client education about medical conditions and microchipping. Veterinarians are also potential donors, volunteers or board members. They may refer their clients to adopt from the shelter when the client is seeking a new pet. Veterinarians can serve as organizational advocates to donors and community groups and in times of crisis. They may also provide relief veterinary coverage or support in emergencies.

 

How veterinarian-shelter partnerships are built

Forming a new partnership is a big commitment for both parties. Below are six key steps to creating a fantastic partnership.

> Step 1: Take time to explore. Veterinarians and shelters should identify potential partners based on common goals and philosophies. Starting with existing personal relationships is usually most effective.

Veterinarians looking to start partnerships with a local shelter could visit or call the shelter or consider asking a client who is affiliated with the shelter (board member, donor, volunteer or staff member) to make an introduction.

If local veterinarians have negative perceptions of the shelter, that needs to be addressed first. I've seen this happen firsthand. A veterinarian originally struggled with working with our shelter, because the doctor couldn't consistently reach someone on the phone to get approval for treatment plans. To rebuild that relationship, we made sure that the veterinarian had a direct line to the shelter staff veterinarian with a cell phone specially bought for the shelter vet to carry when she was away from her desk.

> Step 2: Know what you want. Both parties should consider their missions, long-term plans and goals for the partnership. How do the goals of the shelter require the help of veterinarians? How do the shelter's goals potentially affect the community veterinarians? How could the shelter help the veterinary practice grow and reach its goals?

Some potential goals for the shelter may be free post-adoption exams for adopters, discounted veterinary care for shelter animals, financial support, reduction in returns due to illness/injury or better community relations through the prestige of the veterinarian partner. Potential goals for the veterinarian may be purely philanthropic or to gain clientele or goodwill in the community.

> Step 3: Start the conversation. The next step is to set up meetings with potential partners. Starting with one potential partnership will allow the veterinarian or shelter to focus on building that relationship first, and then the partnership can serve as a model for additional partners in the future. Discussion points in these initial meetings may include ideas and organizational goals, goals for the partnership and any existing concerns. Both parties should remain open to honest feedback and respectfully consider the other's viewpoint. No good relationship is one-sided, so both parties should consider the needs of the other party and whether they're willing to meet them.

> Step 4: Consider compatibility. Once initial conversations have started, both parties should consider whether it's a good fit. If goals don't initially appear to be compatible, is there a way to make them so? Some partners may want to help but not know how, so both parties should be prepared to suggest ideas for collaboration.

> Step 5: Write it down. At this point, creating a partnership agreement is recommended. The agreement should outline start and end dates, goals for the partnership, roles for each party, points of contact for each, the amount and type of any services or recognition to be provided, billing arrangements (if applicable) and core values for the partnership. This is an important step in building a new partnership, because many disagreements are based on unclear expectations. Don't skip this step!

> Step 6: Get to work. Agree on a start date and get started. Two-way communication is key to massage the relationship as it grows. Set up regular check-ins to evaluate how things are going and make adjustments. Ongoing communication about shelter events, disease outbreaks, shared customer issues or other concerns will ensure proactive management of the relationship.

How to make it last

Like all relationships, partnerships require effort. If you want to have a good partner, be a good partner. Establish a direct point of contact for each group that has decision-making authority. Discussing logistics is important; for example, whether a veterinary partner wants the shelter to schedule appointments or to just drop off shelter pets for care. Have a system in place for proactively sharing data and records. Shelters-and nonprofits and rescues in general-should remember to pace requests for help and rotate partners to prevent burnout from one or two overtaxed private practices. The tracking system we use in our shelter shows us how much work we have with each partner at any given time, what important conversations we've had with them, and the best ways to reach each partner effectively. We rotate who we ask for help, so no one clinic will feel overwhelmed. And we try to make sure that we ask each partner for help at least every six months, so they know we need and value them.

We rotate who we ask for help, so no one clinic will feel overwhelmed.

It's crucial to establish core values for each partnership that guide how both teams behave with each other and shared customers. Examples include honesty, open communication and mutual respect. Relationships can be destroyed when teams do not abide by the core values of the partnership. Badmouthing or blaming each other in front of clients and adopters hurts both partners and puts veterinary clients and pet adopters in an awkward position.

Despite our best efforts, conflict may sometimes arise. Any concerns or issues that come up should be discussed directly between the partners quickly and respectfully. Shelter staff and veterinarians and practice team members should always be willing to listen to the other party's needs and concerns, keep cool and work together to find a solution.

Good partnerships require commitment to maintain and grow, just like marriages. Following these guidelines like these could help shelters and veterinarians build lasting relationships that benefit the entire community.

"Shelter Snapshot" is a collaborative column between the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV) and dvm360.com to help inform veterinarians and team members involved in veterinary shelter medicine and in related aspects of veterinary general practice. To learn more about the ASV and to find more information on these and other animal sheltering terms, visit sheltervet.org.

Katie Broaddus, DVM, CAWA, is chief operations officer at Austin Humane Society in Austin, Texas.