A: As I am currently serving on the board of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians and as a board member of Pet Helpers, I have had the opportunity to see this issue from both perspectives.
The shelter organizations came into being for the most altruistic of reasons: to help creatures who could not possibly help themselves. The situation facing stray and owned pets was, and continues to be, appalling.
When you hear about someone with a yard full of abused or neglected cats, dogs, horses or a host of other species, who picks up the ball?
When animals are homeless through the neglect, cruelty and irresponsibility of humans, who picks them up, cleans them up, neuters them and finds them a home?
Who faces the unthinkably grim task of humanely euthanizing stray animals, by the thousands, that are unadoptable due to temperament, malady or sheer volume overload?
We all know the answers. Where would we be without these wonderful organizations?
They have educated the public about population control and have been the net that scooped up the animals that society forgot.
In recent years, shelter organizations have grown in number and size. This growth has coincided with a rapid evolution in the perception of veterinary and shelter facility standards.
The public has come to expect modern, sleek and professional environment and a higher quality of medical services, even for shelter animals.
The continuous flow of stray animals persistently strains resources. And donations, both government and private, may not keep pace. This may be pushing shelter organizations to expand their range of veterinary services to help provide for their public purposes.
These services are generally provided at costs well below those of the general veterinary practices. To veterinarians, this constitutes an unfair trade advantage.
Here, a shelter veterinarian is not held to the same standards of medical accountability, they are tax exempt and they receive donations and government subsidies.
The vets have a point.
By the way, this problem is not a new one.
The American Veterinary Medical Association dealt with this problem in the 1920s. Then, their code stated that humane societies should strive to “avoid conflict with the development of the veterinary profession and that their role should be to treat animals that would not otherwise have access to veterinary medicine either due to economic status or location.
The code’s first principle encouraged “the heartiest and most loyal cooperation between veterinarians and humane societies.”
In April 2012, the AVMA wrote an updated version of the policy in which it stated, “Veterinary not-for-profit and tax-exempt clinics and hospitals provide access to important medical and surgical services for animals owned by the indigent and otherwise underserved populations.” The policy also stresses testing recipients to confirm eligibility for services.
Now lets think about your veterinarian for a moment. You acquire a cat or dog and they are there at the beginning of your relationship. They neuter or spay him or her, outline a plan for vaccines and deworming and advise you on nutrition, health maintenance, and parasite control.
They know you and your pet by name, and when your companion has a health problem, they handle it or direct you to the right place. In them you have a true partner in your animal’s health. That’s an incredibly valuable, intangible benefit of a true client-veterinarian partnership.
Your dog ate your socks and needs surgery? You are a bit short on funds? Well, they will probably work something out because you have been a client for years. You have to make a difficult decision about treating your pet? Knowing you and your pet, who better to counsel you than your family vet?
This relationship is disappearing, eroded by the fragmentation of veterinary care between low-cost clinics, shelters and the general veterinarian. When a pet owner has spread out the care in such a way, where does he turn when his pet requires more involved medical or surgical management?
In my opinion, the system is out of balance. Both general veterinarians and shelter organizations fulfill vital roles in providing care to the domestic animal population, both owned and stray. They must coexist.
I do not really think that an expansion of services provided by shelter organizations is the problem, but I do think that shelters should adhere to the terms of their charters and their publicly stated purpose.
They are there to treat the animals of low-income individuals. The individuals who avail themselves of these services, which have been made possible by private donors, public subsidies and tax advantages, should have to verify their eligibility.
Otherwise, this is tantamount to cheating on welfare. As long as the shelters are limiting their services to those who would not otherwise have seen a veterinarian, there should be no conflict at all.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.