Graduate focused early on career in shelter medicine

By Sarah Carey

Lauren Rockey with her dog, Gulliver, at the beach.

When new UF College of Veterinary Medicine graduate Dr. Lauren Rockey turned 18 – the age she had to be to volunteer at her local county animal shelter – she visited the shelter to begin the paperwork. In the coming year, she fostered neonatal kittens and cats with upper respiratory infections, exercised and performed basic obedience lessons with dogs, and visited the local farmer’s market every weekend with dogs and cats for adoptions.

That year was when she decided she wanted to become a veterinarian- but only if she could focus on shelter medicine in her career.

“I absolutely became addicted to being at the shelter and wanted to do what I could to decrease the excessive number of euthanasias our shelter was required to do,” Rockey said. “We had no staff veterinarian, and I thought: ‘wouldn’t that save lives, having a vet here to manage disease outbreaks and do life-saving surgeries?’ Immediately I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian, but only if I could become a shelter veterinarian.”

At the time, there wasn’t really a field for training shelter-oriented veterinarians, but that changed when UF became, as Rockey puts it, “a powerhouse for shelter medicine.”

Over the past five years, thanks to funding from Maddie’s Fund, UF’s Shelter Medicine program has grown significantly, supplementing the shelter medicine clerkship program with additional community and statewide outreach opportunities that benefit students and professionals already working in the field.

Rockey came to UF for undergraduate school in 2004. She soon began volunteering with Operation Catnip and in Dr. Julie Levy’s research lab, where she worked on projects involving shelters, disease prevention and population management.

“I can’t believe how amazingly it worked out,” Rockey said. “I wanted to be this ‘thing’ called a shelter vet, and here was the strongest shelter medicine program in the U.S. at UF. Dr. Levy became my mentor and has fostered my career path from day one.”

Rockey’s efforts resulted in her receiving the Grevior Shelter Medicine Award and the Maddie’s Award for Excellence in Shelter Medicine, both of which were given at the senior banquet the evening before commencement.  Now that she has finally finished veterinary school, Rockey is headed to the Oregon Humane Society in Portland, Ore., where she plans to perform an internship in shelter medicine.

“I am so excited for this opportunity, as this is a gold-standard shelter with a 98 percent live release rate and an annual animal intake of more than 12,000,” Rockey said, adding that she will be working with four other veterinarians who are “progressive” in the field.

“I know I will learn so much,” she said. “After that, I’m not sure what happens, but my dream would be to be a medical director at a shelter in Colorado. But who knows.”

Rockey said she would be forever grateful to the “amazing doctors and mentors” she had worked with at UF, including Levy, Dr. Natalie Isaza and others.

“Dr. Levy has mentored me since undergraduate school, Dr. Isaza taught me surgical skills I will use for the rest of my life,” Rockey said. “Drs. Brian DiGangi, Cate McManus, Cynda Crawford and Katherine Polak have all taught lectures, hosted web labs, supervised students at Operation Catnip and worked with me at three separate cat hoarding busts around Florida.”

She said she knows she has a team of professionals she can contact if she ever needs help down the road in her career.

In addition, Rockey praised the shelter medicine certificate program, saying it had provided resources she needed to become successful in the field. The Maddie’s Certificate in Shelter Medicine program now has 45 students enrolled – the largest number of any certificate program at the college. Rockey is one of five students who received their certificate this year and one of seven total who have received it.

“I’m used to seeing puzzled expressions when I mention what I want to do after veterinary school,” Rockey said. “Some people say I will grow out of it, get tired of it or get bored. I think this just means they have never spent an entire day in a shelter.”

Shelter medicine is such a diverse field that there’s no limit to what you can do, she added.

“Animal behavior, surgeries, disease prevention, public health, population management, animal forensics, animal abuse and neglect prosecution, disaster relief…the list goes on and on,” Rockey said.

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June 2012

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