Monday, November 09, 2009

Rotation #13: Public Health

For vet students, Public Health is a bit of a catch-all subject that includes any situation in which humans and animals interact and may or may not spread diseases to each other. Our Public Health classes have taught us how to recognize lots of different zoonotic diseases (diseases spread from animals to humans) and how we can control the transmission of those diseases. We've also learned about food safety and production, human-wildlife interactions, and how the government prevents and monitors for diseases such as Foot and Mouth. The Public Health rotation was more about seeing these ideas in action through a series of field trips around the Twin Cities and beyond.

Our first visit was to the St. Paul Animal Control, who are responsible for protecting people from animals (as opposed to the Animal Humane Society, who protect animals from people). Animal Control are the people who come to check out dangerous dogs, deal with nuisance wildlife, pick up dogs and cats who are running loose (the traditional "dog catchers", a la Lady and the Tramp), and respond to complaints about people keep illegal pets (like tigers, bears, or in St. Paul, more than three chickens). Our trip to Animal Control was short, but we saw a number of dogs that were examples of the worst sorts of trauma humans can inflict on dogs. Terrified, leaping at their cages doors with barred teeth and fierce barks. No dogs should ever have to feel that scared when they see a human.

The next day was food safety day, with trips to two very different meat processing facilities. The first was to Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, MN, a small USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. This is the same slaughterhouse mentioned in Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma," in which the Lorentz family was commended for their commitment to local food and local farmers, as well as high standards for animal care and welfare. The Lorentz facility has a glass abattoir, meaning that anyone who wants to come see the process of slaughter from start to finish can. I was a little unsure of how I would react to seeing the animals killed, as the only animal deaths that I've seen have been through euthanasia- but after watching the process several times, I was surprised at how gentle and fast it all was. First the animal was standing there quietly, then the next second it was down. No screams, no thrashing, just poof, gone. The rest of the process wasn't much different than performing a necropsy, except that the workers were much much cleaner than we were and much more efficient.

We followed that trip with a visit to a live animal market in South St. Paul. While facilities that produce meat for sale to the public have to be USDA inspected, facilities that slaughter or process animals for one's personal consumption are considered exempt from inspection. The most common example of this would be the places that process deer from hunters. In South St. Paul, you can walk into Long Cheng Livestock Market, pick out a live chicken (or pig, goat, sheep, or cow), hand it to a worker who will slaughter it for you, and get it back to finish the rest of the process yourself. The market serves primarily immigrants who are unused to buying meat already processed or who want their animals handled or slaughtered in a specific way. At first the whole place is a little shocking, but I have to admit, I admire anyone who has such an intimate connection with the food they eat. We're often so distanced from where our food comes from that it was quite a change of pace to see people- even whole families with kids- come and take such an active role in their food. From a public health standpoint, while the facilities aren't as pristine as Lorentz Meats, the meat also is much less likely to stay in refrigeration for extended periods of time, reducing the risk of bacterial growth. People who are involved in the processing of their own meat are also more likely to have been exposed to pathogens in small amounts, likely building up some immunity to organisms that might otherwise make people very sick.

Bet you didn't know you could shop for a live chicken in St. Paul, huh?

After our day of meat processing, we checked out some of the interactive animal exhibits at the Minnesota Zoo. The Family Farm exhibit offers several areas where kids and parents can pet animals like goats, sheep, and chickens. We talked about what diseases each species can spread to humans and looked at how the zoo designed each animal enclosure to keep both animals and people safe. Then we went to visit the dolphins because.. well, dolphins are adorable. ;)

We spent one morning at Urban Academy in downtown St. Paul working with third and fourth graders. Each group of three vet students was assigned to a topic like "What Vets Do" or "Food Safety". I ended up with "Hand Washing," which was really more of an exercise in wrangling 15 fourth grade girls into one bathroom than an educational experience. At least they all ended up with clean hands!

We visited the Animal Humane Society in Coon Rapids to talk about how shelters manage their unique population of cats, dogs, and pocket pets, and how they work to prevent disease transmission. As always, it was a bummer to see so many homeless cats and kittens (and everything else too, but there seemed to be cats pouring out of every corner). They said during busy months, they take in 2,000 cats a month... ouch. Diseases that are normally simple, like upper respiratory infections, can become life threatening in a situation where you have that many stressed out cats in one place. I resisted the temptation to bring a kitty home, but if you're thinking of adding a cat to your family, please adopt!

Finally, we visited the Dellwood long-term senior care facility in St. Paul. This nursing home follows the Eden Philosophy, which believes that people are meant to be surrounded by living things. Centers that follow the Eden Philosophy try to incorporate animals, plants, and children into the daily life of their residents. At Dellwood, there were 10 cats, 2 dogs, and numerous birds and fish that lived at the center. The cats and dogs are free to roam throughout the building, although each one seemed to have particular people that they liked to stay with or visit on a rotating schedule. The cats were especially mobile, including one who traveled by elevator (he would enter the elevator with someone, peek his head out when it stopped, and if it wasn't the floor he wanted, continue to wait patiently in the elevator until it moved again). The animals helped transform the place from a sterile, hospital-like environment to a much homier living space. The animals helped everyone connect and provided an instant opening for a conversation ("Have you seen Maggie today?" "No, but go check Charlie's closet in room 203, she's usually asleep in his laundry til about 11!"). The animals present a few challenges as far as patient safety, but in the 6 years that the program has been in place, they'd never had a bad patient-animal encounter. I sure hope that I get to be surrounded by critters when I'm 90...

Although the rotation didn't have much to do with caring for patients in the small animal hospital, it was a good way to round out my experiences with food animal medicine. It was also a great refresher for the major zoonotic diseases (rabies!!), and a reminder of how many different roles animals play in our communities.

This rotation marked the midpoint of fourth year. I am 13 rotations and six months away from graduation. I have one month and two days until I take my National Boards, and just under a month until I have to submit my application for an internship. This next month will be a busy one!

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