Small Animal Surgery Day At Foothill College Makes A Little Love Go A Long Way

A colony of 1,500 abandoned rats sparks the opportunity for education at Foothill College’s Small Animal Surgery Day.

Small Animal Surgery Day began with helping a group of rats, but it also offers spay/neuter to rats, mice, guinea pigs and chinchillas in animal shelters. Courtesy of Foothill College

By Tessa Buchin

“Small Animal Surgery Day,” hosted tri-annually by the Bay Area’s Foothill College Veterinary Technology program, began under extraordinary circumstances. In November of 2010, an anonymous phone call tipped off the “Hoarders” A&E television team and animal protection agencies to a colony of 1,500 abandoned rats in a Los Angeles townhome. The rats, originating from a single pregnant female, desperately chewed their way through the drywall of the flat. The Humane Society of the United States and United Animal Nations intervened, and word spread through the community of rat lovers. Sandy Gregory, RV., M. Ed., CCRA, instructor and former Foothill College program graduate, conceptualized “Small Animal Surgery Day,” and teamed up with Dr. Carolyn Harvey of House Rabbit Society for the first of these novel events.

This year marked the 11th Small Animal Surgery Day, at which the Foothill College student chapter of the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America works with local rescue groups to spay and neuter rats, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas. The program waives the otherwise $100 to $300 surgery fee per animal and gives pocket pets a boosted chance of finding a forever home. The surgery offers all kinds of benefits, extending the life expectancy of these species by reducing cancers of the reproductive organs and eliminating sex-related behaviors. A neutered rat, for instance, tends to be calmer, exhibiting less destructive behavior and sexual aggression than an intact male.

shaving small animal for surgery
Courtesy of Foothill College
Shaving the fur is part of pre-op for spaying/neutering a small animal pet.

Small Animal Surgery Day In 2015

The 11th Small Animal Surgery Day was organized as an emergency response to North Star Rescue’s interception of more than 500 rats that were pulled from an East Bay home this summer. Nearly 50 percent of the rats were pregnant.

“We often see specific injuries from hoarding and being overcrowded … behavior and health problems such as malnutrition, social aggression, absent tails and feet,” said Jenn Paz, director of North Star Rescue, which recently merged with the guinea pig-oriented Coastside Cavvy non-profit organization.

Paz has managed small animal abandonment cases throughout the years, rescuing animals from city streets where they are subject to starvation and illness — and often become prey.

“People dump suitcases of pregnant animals,” she said, referring to one past case, and abandon them in public spaces such as the iconic San Francisco Dolores Park.

The Many Benefits Of Small Animal Surgery Day

The Small Animal Surgery Day event counters the challenges of shelter crowding and overpopulation by opening doors to local rescue groups for a unique opportunity.

“As veterinary professionals,” Gregory said, “we need to know how to care for small animals. No event is quite like this, especially involving veterinarians and students who want to learn. Meanwhile, we are helping the community.”

The Foothill College program, accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association, slots graduates for an associate science degree and eligibility for state licensing. Students undergo intensive labs, lectures and clinical internships.

According to Dr. Lisa Eshman, students thrive when they are helping small animals and improving their skills. She credits the success of Small Animal Surgery Day to, “the serious and efficient tone set by the leader, Sandy Gregory, and the experienced students who mentor those who are new.”

small animal surgery
Courtesy of Foothill College
Monitoring anesthesia during the 20- to 60-minute surgery requires constant attention.

Behind The Scenes Of Small Animal Surgery Day

The eight-hour event, which involves students in pre-operative, operative and post-operative planning, is a perfect stage for hands-on learning.

Students first familiarize themselves with the patient by performing a health exam. The patient is weighed and pre-operative drug dosages are calculated. A bolus of warmed subcutaneous fluid is given between the shoulders to keep the patient’s blood pressure stable. A prophylactic antibiotic is given to prevent post-operative infection. The pre-anesthetic drugs of choice, administered to the patients, work to keep cardiovascular systems functioning and prevent blood pressure from dropping during surgery. The animals are masked down with oxygen and isoflurane, the anesthetic agent, then shaved, scrubbed and transferred into the surgery suite.

During the 20- to 60-minute procedure, students practice monitoring anesthesia, which is a task requiring unwavering attention. Vitals are recorded every three minutes: heart rate, respiration rate, mucous membrane or tissue color, oxygenation and temperature. A slight change in any of these numbers could indicate that the patient needs more or less anesthetic agent, another delicate analytical skill that is only gained from experience.

Once the surgery is completed, the patient is transferred to recovery where passive warmth is offered. Vital signs are once again recorded regularly. Post-operative medication is then administered and a blood sugar-boosting banana is offered to the rats to mark their recovery status.

Veterinary technology students not only get to practice skills, such as auscultating a heart rate of over 350 beats per minute, but they play a role in transforming the lives of an otherwise underrepresented small animal demographic.

small animal surgery
Courtesy of Foothill College
The spay/neuter surgery reduces the risk of the animal developing reproductive cancer and can improve behavior.

North Star Rescue’s Role In Helping Small Animal Pets

“These animals are therapeutic … sweet, social and smart and are great companions for those with professional lifestyles,” Paz said. “Their whole life can be contained in a small sphere.”

Paz also owns the store Dandelion Dreams in Pacifica. Dandelion Dreams is North Star Rescue’s primary rescue center. The store sells small animal habitats, locally grown food, bedding, handmade toys, hammocks and accessories to pocket pet owners. Paz, who is versed in zoology, psychology, and studied for a Ph.D. in biology, finds ways to impact the public on a large level.

“It is important for the next generation or two of people to embrace knowledge of small animal welfare and care,” Paz said. “We look for clients who commit to filling out an application and an agreement.”

North Star Rescue Is A Place Of Many Champions

Part of the allure, she adds, is keeping adoption prices below competing pet shops, and by offering nutrition and health advice. Paz partners with the SPCA to offer classes to 1st and 2nd grade students to teach “knowledge, respect, and awareness of small animals.” Children get to see the joy that small animals can offer, behaviors such as “popcorning,” which is a guinea pig-specific trait resembling jumping for joy. Rats also exhibit the “bruxing” and “boggling” phenomena, which is grinding of the incisor teeth and movement of the eye muscle, both indicative of pleasure.

“We aim to keep the momentum going and try to keep people positive,” Paz said, as care fatigue is a major malady among professionals in the animal shelter medicine community. North Star Rescue keeps things fun by hosting community-oriented Pignics, guinea pig socialization picnics, and Ratapalooza events with costume contests.

What Small Animal Surgery Day Means

“It’s an extremely rewarding event to see everybody come together from all levels of experience, and to send these animals off knowing that they’re going to get adopted fast and they are going to live longer lives,” Gregory said.

The beauty of Small Animal Surgery Day is in the community of animal lovers, students, volunteers, professionals and soon-to-be professionals dedicated to spreading the common public message: make adoption the option.

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Critters · Lifestyle