CHARLESTON -- It won't be long before Cali Elliott and Michael McCallion put their classes behind them and begin caring for pets.
But the two fourth-year students at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine are already getting some hands-on work with vaccinations, testing and other care.
They were at the Coles County Animal Shelter on Thursday, doing work that not only helps them prepare for their careers, but also provides care for pet owners who might not be able to get it otherwise.
It was the second week for the community medicine program at the Coles County facility.
"It's a wonderful way to get acquainted with the more real-life situations," Elliott said.
And she and McCallion agreed that providing the services was a good way to help the community and to interact with pet owners.
"It's nice to get the hands-on experience outside of a hospital," McCallion said.
Animal shelter manager Julie Deters said she's already seen how the community program has led to fewer pets surrendered to the shelter because their owners can't afford some kind of veterinary care or procedure.
"It helps people who can't afford vet care," she said. "A lot of times, we get pets in because they can't afford it. That's why the program helps."
Deters credited such programs, which also includes spaying and neutering services by UI vet students, for reducing the stray animal population in the county.
The community program started last year and now works at about 10 different animal shelters within a one-hour drive from the veterinary school in Champaign, veterinarian nurse Kristen Ragusa said.
People often call the school's hospital about getting care for their pets, but it's better all around to do it at the local shelters, she said.
"They help us work in the community and our students take on the show," Ragusa said. "It's a win-win."
Any of the vet school's students can take part in the community program, and about their only other chance for hands-on training is at the school's hospital, she added.
The program is available only for Coles County residents, Deters said, and they can call the shelter at 217-345-4112 to make appointments.
It's booked up through April 4. It takes place once a week, usually on Thursday, she said. It served 13 pets during its first session last week, she added.
The available services include vaccinations, micro-chipping, dental care and a variety of tests and surgeries. There's no charge but participants are asked to make a donation to the shelter if they can.
For pets that need care beyond what can take place at the shelter, owners can make arrangements to take their pets to the UI facility in Champaign.