Emily McCobb, director of the shelter medicine program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, says there’s an important connection between healthy animals, healthy people and healthy communities.

“At its core, shelter medicine is community medicine,” McCobb explained. “Vulnerable people have vulnerable animals. By caring for those animals, we not only meet the animal’s need but we can improve the quality of life for a pet’s owner and improve the community environment.”

McCobb, who is also a clinical assistant professor, added that experience in shelter medicine is beneficial to Tufts students.

“This work makes veterinary students better equipped to work with underserved animals,” she said. “It improves their ability to interact with a range of animals and owners – which ultimately makes them better veterinarians.”

This spring, McCobb will help oversee several pet wellness visits for the Worcester Housing Authority. Started four years ago as a one day vaccination clinic, this student initiative has grown every year and been supported by Tisch College’s Civic Engagement Fund since its inception.

 Run in partnership with the Worcester Housing Authority (WHA), the program provides benefits for everyone involved. Pets get the care they need, the WHA can be sure pets are up to date on their vaccinations, students gain valuable experience and pet owners – who often rely on their pet as their only companion – get the chance to show off their pet and make sure it’s being well cared for.

“The program has received a tremendous positive response from the community,” McCobb said.  “These residents love their pets dearly but often don’t have the resources to ensure they’re getting care.  That’s why it’s so important to have these opportunities to bring clinical practice to the community.”

McCobb added that this work often raises ethical questions for students.

“When students see owners who love, but can’t care for, their pets, it raises the question – does everyone have the right to own a pet?” McCobb said.  “In some ways, that question is irrelevant. Ignoring a vulnerable pet doesn’t change the problem – you still have an animal that needs care. Where animals are having problems, people are having problems. Ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away, but as veterinarians we can help treat a piece of that problem.”

While the vaccination clinic has grown every year, last year increasing its partnership with the Veterinary Technician program at Becker College, McCobb has looked more broadly for partnerships in Worcester.

As a Tisch College Faculty Fellow, McCobb has been working on building partnerships in order to expand the services available for animals in need. She hopes to engage public officials in Worcester, working with landlords to encourage pet friendly rental policies and working with the town council and animal control officers to promote responsible pet ownership and encourage dog licensure.

Originally published February 2012