As South Carolina lawmakers consider limiting the veterinary services animal shelters can offer, Pet Helpers on James Island is heading in the opposite direction, offering more services plus discounts for people with lower incomes.

On Tuesday morning, veterinarian Jack Love was doing dental work on a cat at Pet Helpers - just the sort of thing that the S.C. Association of Veterinarians considers unfair competition from nonprofit animal welfare groups.

Pet Helpers founder and President Carol Linville said her goal is to help people who can't afford veterinary services, whether it's a rabies vaccine or something more serious, such as surgery.

"We're reaching out to rural communities, and we're reaching out to Spanish-speaking communities," she said.

Pet Helpers is now offering veterinary services during limited hours, several days a week, in addition to its full-time mission of providing low-cost sterilizations and finding homes for animals.

"They know that not everybody has $3,000 to spend on a cat, ever," said Charleston resident Jenny Broe, who took her 3-year-old cat Oiseau to Pet Helpers after he was hit by a car. "This little guy is my friend, and they saved him."

Broe said Pet Helpers charged her $750 and offered a payment plan for surgery that she assumes would have cost thousands elsewhere. Typically, Pet Helpers offers discounts of up to 30 percent on veterinary services, based on income.

Some veterinarians have been upset by what they see as unfair competition from shelters and clinics, and at their association's urging, state Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, introduced legislation that would put limits and new requirements on shelters. The bill is currently in a House committee.

"The purpose of the bills is to allow shelters to be doing what they are supposed to be doing, which is spaying and neutering animals and preparing them for adoption," Hiott said Tuesday. "The way the bill is written, I would not be able to walk in there (to Pet Helpers) and get services because I can afford to pay."

If people can afford to pay, they should go to a regular vet, Hiott said.

The problem, according to Linville and veterinarian Janet McKim, who works with Pet Helpers, is that many people don't go to veterinary practices because they can't afford to, and animals suffer as a result. The Lowcountry, for example, has high rates of heartworm disease, which is potentially fatal but is routinely prevented by giving cats and dogs monthly medication.

"I can't imagine a single citizen out there who would say, 'Oh, yeah, don't let shelters help us,'" Linville said.

McKim said Pet Helpers won't undercut other vet's prices but will offer discounts based on income.

For example, a single person earning less than $11,490 would get the maximum 30 percent discount, and the discounts would shrink at higher income levels, according to a fee sheet provided by the group. A family of four with an income below $29,438 would get a 25 percent discount, while a family of four earning more than $49,455 would get no discount.

Pet Helpers Director of Philanthropy Leigh Handal conceded there could be exceptions, such as with her friend Broe, who paid a small portion of the normal cost for surgery on her cat.

"If you've got your back against the wall, we want you to be able to save your pet," Handal said.

Several attempts to contact the S.C. Association of Veterinarians for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Hiott said his proposed legislation is still a work in progress, and he wants to find a compromise between the shelters and the veterinarians association. He said people with low incomes wouldn't be prevented from getting services at animal shelters under the current version of the bill, but people with higher incomes would have to use a regular vet.

"I don't want to shut anybody down or hurt anybody, but if there's some common ground, let's reach it," Hiott said. "If we can't come to some consensus or agreement, then come January we may not push it any further."

Reach David Slade at 937-5552.