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As a veterinary student in 2006, Brian DiGangi found himself in a setting quite unlike the cozy University of Florida campus he was used to. He was in the town of Tunkas, Mexico, caring for cats and dogs in an open-air, MASH-style clinic. At night, he slept in a hammock.
"It's always an eye-opening experience to spend a significant amount of time in another country, but this program was my first experience using my veterinary skills in such a setting," recalls Dr. DiGangi. "We learned how to provide high-quality medical care without all the 'bells and whistles' of the university setting. In fact, we usually didn't even have electricity or running water."
The Global Factor
DiGangi was participating in Project Yucatan, a student exchange opportunity that's part of the University of Florida's certificate program in international veterinary medicine. Started in 2003, the program is part of a growing trend in veterinary medicine to give students a global perspective on their profession.
A paper recently published in the journal Preventive Veterinary Medicine provides an overview of the relatively new program and its goals, which can be lofty. "Animal medicine is not much different than people medicine," says Amy Stone, D.V.M., an assistant professor at University of Florida and co-author of the paper. "If the animals in a community are well cared for, it is likely that so are the humans. If we can teach people how to care for animals, their food supplies, homes and workplaces will be safer.” She adds, “If we can fight disease together with the human medical professionals, then we can stop outbreaks, pandemics and possibly bioterrorism. If we go and extend a hand through medicine, it helps our relationships with other cultures."
Health Benefits for Pets and Vets
The University of Florida program is not just for people who want to do missionary-style work abroad. Dr. Stone was part of a program in Honduras that focused on zoonotic diseases, or diseases that pass from animals to people.
"These folks were getting parasites from their pets and they were at risk of disease," she says. She believes there are many parts of the U.S. where the education about zoonotic diseases is lacking. Intensive training like she experienced in Honduras can therefore become valuable when dealing with cat and dog owners back home.
Skills Better Learned Abroad
Dr. Stone additionally points out that training in a country where the standard of care is lower can actually give students a unique set of skills they might not get at a university back home. "Not everyone [in the U.S.] has the resources to care for their pets in the way that most veterinarians would advise," she says. “The no-frills nature of international projects gives the students the opportunity to practice what I call 'street medicine.' They learn how to prioritize and deal with the situation that they are given.”
Many veterinarians are all too familiar with sad cases where pet owners come in with a troubled cat that they can't afford to have treated. Having a bag of tricks and quick fixes learned in countries like Mexico or Cuba is better than denying care for lack of funds.
Help for Less Fortunate Felines
Then there are those whose international experiences inspire them to come home and care for the least fortunate of our feline friends. That's exactly what happened to Dr. DiGangi, now a D.V.M. specializing in shelter medicine as a University of Florida resident. The stray cats he cares for that come in off the streets of Gainesville aren't all that different from the semi-domesticated cats he tended to in Tunkas.
"All the animals that came through our clinic were brought there by their owners,” he shares. “That said, many of the cats were not as accustomed to handling as pets in the United States, and most of them probably lived exclusively outdoors." These cats usually require even more care, since outdoor living comes with many perils, including more exposure to pathogens.
Dr. DiGangi believes that receiving training abroad helps veterinarians to focus on working with the underserved animals in our country as well as their caretakers. “My participation in Project Yucatan was one of my first experiences working with such a population and undoubtedly played a role in my current career path," he says.
Brad Kloza is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover. He is a frequent contributor to The Daily Cat.