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Shelters Spotlight: How Being a Veterinarian for a Day Teaches Students Unexpected Life Lessons

This 10-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are...

This 9-part series is brought to you by GOOD, in partnership with Purina ONE®. We've teamed up to highlight inspiring organizations that are doing innovative and unexpected things to connect with their local communities and promote positive perceptions of shelter pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

Dressed in lab coats and scrubs, with stethoscopes around their necks and nametags labeling them as doctors, students ranging from five-year-olds to seniors in high school are learning how to write out prescriptions and analyze digital X-rays. But they’re not practicing to become the next generation of Doogie Howsers. They’re learning what it’s like to be a veterinarian.

Three or four times a year, when students in Virginia get the day off from school for teacher in-service days, some take the opportunity to spend a day at the Virginia Beach SPCA. Former school teacher Kathy Shambo, creator of VBSPCA’s Be a Vet for a Day program, says the shelter’s educators respect and trust the students by giving them a true experience of what it’s like to be a veterinarian: “Everything we do, we do as realistically as possible.”

To ensure that kids in the program experience valuable career-training moments, educators train different age groups to measure liquids with syringes, weigh animals, learn from anatomically correct models, scan microchips, and perform basic pet CPR. As kids measure and compare animals’ heart rates, they’re also learning what affects the heart rates. They practice the right way to use real dental tools by picking chocolate chips out of cookies, while learning about how teeth relate to animal diets. Students also learn how to diagnose heartworm and other conditions based on animal behavior. “We even have them ask veterinarians questions while witnessing real animal surgeries,” says Shambo.

Student uses a real microchip scanner on a stuffed animal.

Student holds an anatomical model while a classmate in the background learns to read digital X-rays.

When people think of their local animal shelter, they might not think of it as an education and career-building organization. But the success of VBSCPA shows how shelters can help educate the community. Even without any advertising, the Be a Vet for a Day program is extremely popular and always full. In fact, the program has outgrown VBSPCA’s conference room and now has an official classroom. Many young prospective vets return to VBSPCA for the summer Critter Camp, where they learn about wildlife and visit state parks. Some students become junior shelter volunteers and eventually enroll in veterinary school or a science-related program. Shambo says, “When I hear these kids are participating in fundraisers or spreading the good word at their schools, and when they say they do those things because of what they learned through our program, it humbles us that we had that impact because we don’t have them for a great amount of time.” And while seeing animals in pain from an illness or injury makes some students realize they may not be cut out for a career in the veterinary world, Shambo sees it as another kind of valuable experience that can help steer students in a different direction that’s right for them.

With almost 28,000 eager student volunteers last year — due in part to a community service requirement for Virginia schools — the shelter’s education programs are thriving. To make an even bigger community impact, they’ve taught Standards of Learning lessons to about 56 school classrooms across Chesapeake, Norfolk, and Virginia Beach, and launched an award-winning reading program and green after-school “Scoop the Poop” program. They’ll also be implementing a counseling program in schools for behaviorally challenged kids. As VBSPCA’s programs continue to grow and expand, Shambo says she hopes youth in Virginia will not only learn how to treat animals more humanely, but also explore how pets and wildlife might fit into their career goals.

Photos courtesy of Virginia Beach SPCA

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