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Australian outback to James Bay: Vet goes the distance for pets

'I really love the concept of helping animals that come to the shelter, helping people who have needs for accessible vet care, and I really love community medicine,' says Dr. Stephanie Dam, who started as the Georgian Triangle Humane Society vet in February 2023
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Dr. Stephanie Dam is the veterinarian at Georgian Triangle Humane Society.

The new veterinarian at Georgian Triangle Humane Society has been knuckle-deep in dog abdomens completing hundreds of spay/neuter surgeries and seeing to the health of dogs and cats looking for homes. 

Dr. Stephanie Dam spent her day on Aug. 16 performing some of those surgeries on a litter of puppies headed to Barrie PetSmart Pup-up adoption event on Saturday. As she snipped, sliced, and stitched, she told CollingwoodToday about her career spanning from Australia to James Bay and the big and small animals she's helped along the way. 

Once she discovered that post-secondary education was possible, even with the learning disabilities she dealt with in childhood, Dam realized biology was one of her strongest subjects. Without knowing what she wanted to do, but knowing she loved animals, she headed to the Australian outback where she made her decision.

“I worked there for about nine months … on a cattle station in the outback treating injured animals with a vet,” said Dam while adeptly cutting a small incision into a puppy’s abdomen. 

“Because the vet only came so often, I’d have to do all the treatments in between … and I loved it.” 

She completed her undergrad and vet school at University of Guelph and graduated as a large animal veterinarian. 

“I thought I’d be a large animal vet my whole career,” said Dam.

However, she developed a life-threatening allergy to a topical antibiotic commonly used on large animals, which cut her large animal veterinary career short. 

She worked with small animals in general practice and then in emergency and shelter medicine, and she had a mobile clinic she used for in-home end-of-life care. She also worked with First Nations communities near Caledonia and took trips to James Bay to offer veterinary services to the animals in remote areas. 

The veterinarian job at the GTHS animal centre rolled all those jobs into one, and prompted the Hamilton resident to accept in February of this year. 

“All vets care for animals, but I think shelter medicine is a unique area … it’s not for everybody … it’s definitely something that some people have a passion for, and I have a passion for,” said Dam, twisting stitches around the puppy's uterus so it could be removed. “I really love the concept of helping animals that come to the shelter, helping people who have needs for accessible vet care, and I really love community medicine.” 

She aims for a holistic approach that combines education, support, and veterinary medicine. 

“I think that’s kind of underneath the umbrella of shelter,” she said. 

The umbrella has been crowded lately for not only the Georgian Triangle Humane Society, but for most animal shelters in Ontario. 

“COVID changed everything,” said Dam, now ready to close the incision for the latter half of the spay surgery.

At the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns, the demand for pets skyrocketed, while vets were simultaneously severely limited in the number of services they could provide. It was emergency medicine only, so preventative medicine, like some vaccinations, was put on a back-burner, creating its own epidemics. 

“I was working in emergency medicine at the time and we saw increased rates of diseases we haven’t seen for a while, because in that year, 2020, things were not getting done,” said Dam. 

For example, there were litters of puppies coming to the emergency room with canine parvovirus, a highly-contagious virus with a high fatality rate in puppies. 

“In 2021, every weekend I worked in emerg. I had parvovirus cases, and it would be $5,000 worth of treatment, and only half of them would survive, it was disastrous,” said Dam. 

The next disaster was a balloon in the puppy population to meet a pandemic-induced demand that had dwindled off before the puppies were born. 

Those puppies made their way into the shelter system, and people also started surrendering pets as they went back to work following the lockdowns when they realized a pet didn’t fit with their life. 

January 22, 2021 was a historic day for the Georgian Triangle Humane Society when every one of its cages, rooms, kennels and cat hammocks were empty because all the animals in shelter care had been adopted. 

But the story has been different this year with not only the Georgian Triangle Humane Society full to capacity, but most shelters in Ontario and other parts of Canada and the US also bursting at the kennel hinges. 

“I hope we’re getting towards the end of that COVID effect, we probably are, but now we’re heading into the recession effect,” said Dam, noting inflation and financial constraints can often leave people in a difficult choice between feeding their kids or feeding their pets. 

Over one week in April, the GTHS took in two adult dogs and four puppies, all suspected of being abandoned. 

Staff at the animal centre are also hearing from pet parents who are struggling to feed their animals. The GTHS pet food pantry is in high demand. 

“At our animal centre, we are hearing stories of puppies abandoned in the countryside, and dog owners are admitting to releasing their dogs so animal control will pick them up, because waitlists are too long,” said GTHS executive director, Sonya Reichel, in a news release last month. 

In the first half of 2023, the GTHS served 1,937 pets through various programs, including sheltering 655 animals, that’s 23 more than last year. By July 2023, about 492 dogs had been adopted, but more and more people are returning animals they adopted, for various reasons. Observations from the GTHS indicate some of the reasons include challenging medical and behavioural cases entering the shelter system. 

The average length of stay for dogs at the shelter has increased by three days to 19.4 days. Cat stays have decreased by about six days to 22.6 days. Volunteers helped foster 176 pets in the first half of the year.

A recent story out of GTHS celebrated the adoption of Chicco, a small dog that had been in the local shelter for 104 days before finding a home. 

“The fact that so many Ontario shelters are at capacity is shocking,” said Dam. “We’re left with so many animals staying for so long.” 

She said, ideally, an animal would be in a shelter for less than a week. But there are animals staying in Ontario shelters for more than a year. She’s worried that will start to happen in Collingwood as well. 

GTHS does use foster care volunteers to keep animals in a home environment instead of inside the shelter when possible. But that’s limited to the number of foster homes available. 

Running four days a week, the GTHS animal hospital completed 1,150 spay/neuter surgeries by July 2023, nearly all of them by Dr. Dam. She wrapped up another on Tuesday, Aug. 16 with a tiny tattoo on the puppy’s abdomen to mark the surgery complete. If all goes well, the three-inch scar she sewed up won’t be visible for very long so the tattoo will be the indicator the surgery was done. 

There are plans in the works to expand the animal hospital to five days a week, and when a new building is complete, to hire more veterinarians and open more surgery rooms. 

The shelter staff subscribe to the motto: "helping pets and people," and Dam said it lines up with her own philosophy on pet ownership. 

“I think that everyone should have the right to have an animal, I see how helpful they are for a lot of mental health statuses and how valuable they are in everybody’s life,” said Dam. "So treating pets is not just pets exclusively, I think we need to look at the pets and their people and support them in several different ways.” 

For example, with education, accessibility to veterinary medicine, and even temporary support through tough times. 

“That’s something I’ve always been passionate about,” said Dam. “Obviously, there’s a responsibility with owning a pet … and you have responsibility for care, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have certain times in your life when you need assistance.” 

She focuses on ways to keep pets in their families and out of shelters, and sometimes that's as simple as a well-stocked pet food pantry, like the one at GTHS.

To find out more about GTHS programs, education, support, volunteer opportunities, animal adoption and veterinary care, visit gths.ca