Beyond the Barnyard: The Urban Farm Animal Dilemma
with Alissa Wilhelm
MVC 2024 Preview Series See All Episodes »
Pet ownership is on the rise, and it’s not just cats and dogs. More and more, small livestock—pygmy goats, potbellied pigs, and backyard chickens—are being kept as pets in urban and suburban areas. But what happens when that miniature pig reaches maturity and its unprepared owners can’t properly care for the 200-pound animal in their third-floor apartment? What happens when the baby goat outgrows its pajamas, and the reality of caring for a farm animal sets in?
Finding veterinary care for food animal species can be difficult in the big city, where most practitioners specialize in small animals. And when the owners are ill equipped to care for farm animals, the unfortunate reality is, many are surrendered to shelters that may not be outfitted to house or care for them. Worse yet, they are abandoned or even seized.
In today’s episode, we’re continuing our 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference Preview Series with Dr. Alissa Wilhelm, a mixed-animal practitioner and assistant professor at OSU Large Animal Services. From husbandry and wellness plans to common diseases and treatment, she offers a sneak peek into her sessions in the Shelter Animal track. Her goal is to equip shelters and small animal veterinarians with basic knowledge of nontraditional pets, so they are better able to treat these animals and educate their owners.
Featuring 325+ hours of live and on-demand CE in 25 tracks, 100+ expert speakers, and nearly 200 exhibitors, the 2024 Midwest Veterinary Conference is packed full of opportunities to learn and engage. Registration is now open!
Krysten Bennett: Welcome to the show, Dr. Wilhelm. How are you doing?
Alissa Wilhelm: Very well. It’s been a great but busy week at our clinic.
KB: Well, we can definitely relate to being busy. We at the OVMA are pretty busy too, planning this little thing called the Midwest Veterinary Conference! And speaking of which, the reason we invited you on the show is to talk about the sessions you’ll be leading at the 2024 MVC in February.
But before we get into that, we want to learn a little bit about you. Can you introduce yourself to our listeners and give us a quick summary of your background?
AW: Yes. So my name is Alissa Wilhelm and I graduated in 2015 from Ohio State. And initially I started in a private mixed practice in northwest Ohio, and I was in mixed practice for about a year and a half and really enjoyed it. And then kind of life took a turn and a job opened up at OSU Large Animal Services in Marysville and was encouraged to apply and kind of declined. And one thing led to another and I eventually took the job. So I have been at Ohio State University Large Animal Services as a clinical instructor since 2016. And while here I’ve worn a lot of different hats. I do a lot of dairy medicine, but our clinic jokes that if you can ride it, eat it or wear it, we are willing to work on it. So we do a little bit of everything large animal, and we are solely a large animal practice and being associated with the university, we are a branch of the veterinary school and our clinic requires students in their fourth year regardless of their career or any of them, just to rotate through. So we have seen your students year round, spend two weeks with us at a time. And so we are in the business of teaching.
KB: And that is the perfect segue way into why you’re here today. Dr. Wilhelm, you will be speaking at the embassy and the shelter animal to track on Friday, February 23rd. And this particular block of programing will be focusing on something a little different than what people might be used to seeing in our shelter program. And that is urban livestock. Can you tell us a little bit about the sessions you’ll be presenting?
AW: Yes. So there will be a series of four sessions and the first session we’re really exploring why more and more farm animals are being kept as pets and not just as pets in rural communities, but also in the suburbs. And kind of exploring why this is a trend and why all these formats are occurring. And while we all are aware of people wanting to kind of get in touch with their roots and be more sustainable, it definitely impacts our animal agriculture. And we’re seeing animals in environments that they haven’t been before. Within that we have folks that have never spent any time in agriculture or have grown up around animals that now they’re trying to figure out how to take care of a dairy goat, or they get a pig thinking that that will be an excellent tiny pet for their home, not realizing that it’s going to be 150 pounds. So we’re seeing a lot more potbellied pigs, goats, miniature cows in settings where there is maybe not large animal veterinarians that can reach out to them or service them because they are not in the enough farm area. So owners get into a situation where they can’t find care for the animal or it’s not what they’d expected. These animals might be voluntarily surrendered to a humane society or in other unfortunate situations they get taken because owners are able to provide them the correct care. So really, the goal in the first session is, why do these animals end up in a humane society in a shelter, and what are the basics of their husbandry? Once you have them, whether it be the shelter, trying to provide that care or is there a way to work with the owners as the veterinarian at the shelter to help them with husbandry and diet and just examination and basic care of these animals? So what’s the correct type of harness use for these animals? How do we hold them so that we don’t injure them? How do we flip them over? You know, what are all the things that we need to understand even before we get to chemical restraint? Well, we’ll really dive into that in the first session.
And then within the second session, I really want to look into the basic wellness plans for all these various species, just with a general goal to provide veterinarians and shelters with resources for themselves or owners. When you’re trying to figure out how to get an animal adopted out or placed in the right situation and, you know, just going through everything from a physical exam to vaccines and internal and external parasites, you know, how do you worm them? What do these parasites look like? What are products that you can use? Because while these are animals that are in pet situations, they truly are food animals. And we have to keep in mind those, you know, the food animal regulations and what are medications that we can or can’t use. You know, we don’t want to put lifetime withholds on chickens or, you know, for example, use Sevendust to deal out a bird or get it ivermectin if you have a living hen that you give ivermectin to, that is a lifetime egg withdrawal, right? So just going through what can we use from our small animal counterpart in the large animal realm that you already have on hand? Having a background in small animal medicine will really translate over in being able to recognize it. These are the things you have. These are the things that you can use and really trying to make shelter veterinarians a resource to any hobby ranchers in their area or really just a better resource and being more comfortable within their clinics so that they can kind of expand the portfolio of what they’re able to do within their shelter and doing that more comfortably so that they’re not just wrestling pigs, they might be able to understand how do they use Prasad own that they’d be using for fractious dogs and potbellied pigs so that they can flip them to take care of all of this and really diving into just the routine care for goats, sheep, rabbits, any sort of poultry. So it’ll be very practical. You’ll be able to walk away with immediately something that you can use at your practice, not just a concept, not something that you’re like, Well, in theory that would be great if, but things that you can say, yes, that is tangible, I can do that. You know, if you started not knowing how to trim a big seal finish, knowing how to do that, if you started not understanding the basics of deworming, a pet goat, and what are the primary types of parasites that we’re contending with and what resistance do you notice? Well, by the end of that, you’ll understand that.
In session three will get into some of the common diseases for these animals, and how do you treat them? How do you navigate goats that might need blood transfusions? What does Bumbo foot look like in a chicken? What are the primary diseases that you’d notice within birds that maybe haven’t had appropriate husbandry? What are these might look like? And just going through the basics of treatment and giving a brief overview of the various conditions in backyard animals, especially when you’re working with owners that also don’t have a baseline for normal. We see that a lot in our practice where we have people who haven’t owned animals before decide to go get several pigmy goats because they’re adorable. Right? And if you think about, well, if you have a dog, you go to the store and you buy dog food. If you have a cat, you go to the store and you buy cat food. Likewise, if you have a horse, you go to the farm supply store, you buy the bag of grain with a horse on it, right? Well, in goats, it’s counterintuitive because you would think, well, I just got this adorable pygmy goat. So you would go to the farm supply store and buy the bag of feed with the goat on it. Well, we really shouldn’t do that. You know, once our goats are grown, they do not need grain and it predispose them to developing stones. You know, when we talked about bumblefoot in a bird, I learned the hard way. Birds don’t like the color red. The first time I treated that condition, I wrapped it with red vet wrap and the other birds attacked it. So just going through like, Hey, if you’re going to do this, do it this way and use purple vet wrap. You know, just very simple things that would make people feel like they at least have a place to start.
Then session four is going to be going through What does neglect look like in farm animals? How do you use body condition to recognize if it’s neglect or just ignorance? You know, somebody not knowing how to take care of an animal. So I’d like to be able to help, you know, shelters or people that might be investigating these situations, understand when is it more appropriate to educate owners, When do you need to get humane agents involved? And at what point do these animals be seized? What needs reported? How can the livestock care standards and guidelines in place, especially in Ohio, we have those. How can you utilize those to help you? And then we’ll explore rehoming considerations for various urban farm animals, because taking that animal that’s lived in the city and dumping it in the middle of a ten acre pasture might not be the best thing for that. And then just also, when you go to re-home them, what kind of testing needs to happen before that goat enters a flock of other goats? So really just coaching veterinarians on how to handle and care for these different species and many different scenarios. So that’s my goal. And we’ve got 4 hours to cover all that. And I don’t think there will be a lot of downtime.
KB: Yeah, it sounds like you’re going to cover a lot of ground. Just as you were going through that, I was thinking of all these follow up questions that I want to dig into, but unfortunately, we just don’t have the time and we don’t want to, you know, give away the milk for free, so to speak.
Now, it sounds like your sessions are geared towards small animal veterinarians, but who else would benefit from attending?
AW: So that that is I think my general goal is making the session basic so that if you are a shelter animal veterinarian or even a small animal veterinarian in practice where your practice is routinely asked to see these animals, you’d be able to come to these sessions and leave with how to handle it. What can you bring in the building where you give injections? You know, how do you manage that? So while it is targeted toward the veterinarian, who clearly has a good baseline in medicine, my my goal is to bring them up to speed with managing these farm animals. So while it’s geared in that direction, I still think that there would be a lot to gain for veterinarians that are in mixed practice or doing to the animal, because as a studio animal vet, my training, going through school was, you know, very cow and horse heavy. And it’s been in practice that I have had to learn how to handle all these various species. So whether you are a small animal vet, a shelter vet, a mixed animal clinician, or even a food animal vet that now has to see birds or do some many pig work, you’ll be able to come and leave with some tidbits on things that will make it probably enjoyable.
I used to complain about having to see a guinea pig or a bird. And then I realized I’d much rather work on a bird than go care out a horse’s hoof abscess. By the time I’m done with a look at ethanol versus off my back is sore, I’ve sweat through my shirt. You know, I see a bird. They’re pretty amenable to being handled. You pick it up, you put its head in your armpit, and you can do your whole physical exam without breaking a sweat. So for me, it’s kind of a way to get spoiled as being able to work on these critters and the owners really, really appreciate it. So the long answer to your question is, yeah, it is geared towards smaller animal vets, but I 100% think that any mixed animal clinician could get a lot of out of it as well.
KB: I like what you’re saying about how attendees will leave with something they can use right away, because I think in these cases a lot of times you’re dealing with a lack of education on both sides. You know, you have the owners who maybe have no idea what they’re doing because like you said, they just want a cute baby goat that they can dress up in pajamas.
AW: Yes, I want to do yoga with this goat. Bring it on.
KB: Right! And then on the other side, you have a small animal vet who has never treated a baby goat. Maybe they haven’t even had any contact with food animals since vet school. And that just sounds like a recipe for disaster. So I think being able to walk out with usable knowledge without having to take, you know, an eight week course is a definite plus.
AW: We see a lot of very preventable diseases in our small ruminants because they’re owned by people who just don’t know what is normal in some of those diseases, You know, pregnancy toxemia in goats and, you know, humongous causing parasite resistance. Those are all very, very bad diseases that have generally terrible outcomes. Whether you’re a small animal veterinarian that’s just trying or a boarded surgeon in beauty, animal medicine, a block go is a really difficult piece.
And you know, some of these, it’s hard to be the hero once the animal’s sick. So if I can help a few veterinarians to get some tangible points or even just understand how much to feed it, you know, what do you do when they are pregnant? When should you reintroduce grain for those animals? I think those little things go a long way.
And even just understanding that, while we love Safeguard—because it’s in the name, it’s safe, right? It’s a fantastic wormer that we could give to too much and not have a problem. However, in our small ruminant species, there is incredible amounts of resistance, and that’s just not going to be able to be the mainstay of your plan. So, yeah, you’re absolutely correct. It’s hard to know how to help these owners, especially when you know the products that you would go to the feed store and pick up because it’s convenient and economical. They aren’t going to get you where you need to be. And many times the owners don’t know that they have a problem until the animal is pretty much on death’s door. So I’d also like to maybe give those veterinarians the understanding that even though it’s not their area of expertise, for those of us that it is, it’s still a very difficult case, just given the situation that these animals are in.
KB: Before you move on, I want to ask you about the logistics of sheltering and rehoming a farm animal, because I’m a pet owner and I live in a suburban area and I’ve adopted all my pets from shelters. But I’ve never encountered any teacup pigs or goats during those experiences. I mean, I think the weirdest shelter animal I’ve ever seen has been a rabbit, and that’s not really all that weird. So how does this work? Where are the animals that are being surrendered or seized? Because I don’t think that’s something that you see very often.
AW: Well, I think there’s a few reasons that you don’t see it very often and lots of reasons that we will see it more often. So I think many shelters just are not able to take on these animals for reasons, you know, like where do you put a goat at a shelter? Can a potbelly pig live in a dog kennel? You know, so partly it’s just having the means to provide a care in a home for these animals. So many shelters would just have to decline. You know, we’ve had pigs. I had an owner that was calling and calling and calling shelters in the county next to us that there was a pig that the owners moved and couldn’t take the pig and left it on the property and abandoned the pig. And they had been just feeding it for months, but they couldn’t find a shelter to take the pig. There was nothing to be done. I have a client who has a pig whose name is Street Pig, and this pig was loose in Columbus. It was a potbelly pig that this particular street pig was just left loose and they couldn’t find a humane society to take it. So it went home with the fire department. And now this fireman has a pig that we care for.
So the reason that some of these sanctuaries exist is because shelters haven’t been able to take care of these animals or figure out how to place them. I think we’re going to get more and more situations where they will be at the shelter. And I’d like to help people to understand, even if it’s for a temporary amount of time, These are things that you can do to provide decent care and housing for a pig or a sheep or a goat, or understanding like how do you help out a chicken that’s on the loose? Just making shelters able to take on these animals, I think would be a goal.
The sanctuary that we work with very routinely, they get calls about taking pigs every single week and we are up to, I think, 26 pigs that we have at this sanctuary. And we could be at 200. We just have to turn so many of them away. But, you know, even at 26, that’s a lot of pigs to provide routine care for. And it’s it is a challenge finding them new homes. And it does take a certain special someone. But I really think that having a pig in a shelter, it would probably have a better place of getting a home where it actually gets to be seen and people can learn a little bit about it.
KB: Do you think that’s something that’s coming in the future—shelters specifically for nontraditional pets like potbellied pigs and goats?
AW: I’m not sure if we will necessarily see shelters or state funded humane societies for these animals, but there are a lot of sanctuaries that exist because of it. And I think seeing these sanctuaries transition from just a place that these animals go to live, to being a place that is more like a foster situation would probably be the direction that will be more likely than having a farm animal-specific shelter.
KB: Do you have any resources for veterinarians or pet owners that have these animals and they can’t take care of them anymore? Where can they turn for help?
AW: That is a very difficult question. I think, you know, initially, yeah, reaching out to the Humane Society is probably the right start. But from there, a lot of times it is trying to be on social media. Social media is where we see a lot more activity for our humane societies that are networking with sanctuaries and different places to be able to create foster situations. So in this moment, I don’t know that there is a perfect resource when it comes to the rehoming of them, aside from finding somebody that knows somebody.
But when it comes to the care and feeding of these animals, there are actually a lot of very fantastic resources. You know, there are associations that exist, and I think some of those more professional ones are going to be a little bit better resource because when you just go online for guidelines, it gets to be a little bit tricky and you do have to be careful.
So my goal would be to provide some of those resources. So what those web pages look like and maybe even show like, Hey, here are some pamphlets that already exist, you don’t need to recreate the wheel, but this is where you can direct people to when it comes to the care. So I think half of your question will absolutely be able to cover.
But it is a little bit tricky right now, figuring out where to direct people when it comes to trying to rehome these animals. It’s just trying to find good hearted people almost like if you are working with a really fractious dog, those ones are difficult. And while there’s more resources, it’s still just trying to know the right people and raise awareness so that people find this to be a little less intimidating. And I think that will help overall.
KB: Yeah, that makes sense. And I swear there’s an association for everything.
KB: All right. Well, now that you’ve given a really good overview of what you’re to be talking about, if attendees want to connect with you in advance or after your sessions, where can they find you online?
AW: Email is fine. It’s [email protected]. Like any other veterinarian, it usually takes me a minute or two to get back with you. And our clinic is also a fantastic resource. I am one of seven veterinarians and we all work on mini pigs and chickens and goats. So you know, our clinic just calling in, if somebody has got a question like, Hey, I’ve got a duck here with a weird tendon, is this something I can fix? You know, just give us a shout. We are really good about hopping on the phone with people and providing that as a resource because the extension services in the state of Ohio have somewhat dissipated within the veterinary side. So we talk to a lot of veterinarians. So, you know, just calling into our clinic, it’s 937-642-2936. And even if I’m not readily available, somebody is usually able to hop on the phone with you. We have folks that are on call 24/7. And truly, if the phone rings at 8:00 at night and it’s not somebody with a cow that’s got a calf stuck inside, it’s a veterinarian that’s got a question about what do they need to do with X, Y, and Z patient. I am happy to take that call.
KB: Gosh, you must get the most interesting questions.
AW: Yes, we do. We get some crazy stuff. If I were more motivated, I suppose there there could be like a James Herriot sequel that we could easily draft from the doctors at our clinic. Yeah.
KB: What a great idea! You’ve just got to, like, clone yourself, or add more hours to the day to make it happen.
AW: Yeah, absolutely.
KB: All right, well, I think that wraps it up. Thank you so much. We’ll let you go and hope you have a great rest of your day and a good weekend.
AW: Wonderful. Thank you, ladies.