S.C. veterinarians vs. low-cost clinics

Gracie Woodward dropped off three cats and a dog at Pet Helpers' s spay and neuter clinic Friday. Woodward drove from Summerville Friday morning to take advantage of the organization's low-cost services. Those services could be limited if the General Assembly approves a bill pushed by a state veterinarians' association. Leroy Burnell/Staff 10/25/2013

People stream into Pet Helpers’ low-cost spay and neuter clinic every morning, dropping off animals in need of those procedures, veterinarian Janet McKim said.

If those animals haven’t received all of their vaccinations, or they need flea treatments or other care, she likely will provide those services as well.

But if a bill that’s being pushed by a state veterinarian’s association is passed in the upcoming legislative session, she would have to limit her services to spay and neuter, rabies shots and microchipping, she said. If she did more, she would put her license in jeopardy.

McKim is a member of the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians, the group that’s pushing the bill. “When my association tries to tell me I can’t give a distemper vaccine to a kitten that could die without one, I have a problem with that,” she said.

Patricia Hill, a Simpsonville veterinarian and president of the 700-member association, said the bill, which is sponsored by state Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, has two important goals: It would set standards of care for animal shelters and place limits on the services those facilities could provide to the public. Her group is in Charleston for its annual conference. On Saturday, members will discuss the bill, which still is being modified.

Hill said she thinks shelters need to adopt higher standards of care. In recent years, as the no-kill movement has grown, she and other private-practice veterinarians have seen more animals adopted from shelters that have diseases or are in poor health, she said. “They are so overloaded at this time.”

For instance, she said, a man recently brought in a puppy to her private practice that he had adopted from a shelter. “But the puppy had an eye problem that required surgery, and the man was told the puppy had no problems,” she said.

She doesn’t think shelters have proper oversight, she said, and many employees simply don’t have sufficient training.

And, she said, she thinks its acceptable for shelters to offer to the public only low-cost services that could affect public health, such as spay and neuter surgeries, rabies vaccinations and microchips, But she doesn’t think they should be able to offer services beyond those. “Rabies vaccinations are essential,” she said. “Preventing unwanted pets is essential, but boarding and grooming are not essential.”

Shelters receive donations, grants and money from government agencies, she said, while private-practice veterinarians must purchase business licenses, pay taxes and pay full-price for supplies and drugs. Shelters have an unfair advantage when they offer services to the public, including things such as boarding and grooming, she said. In some cases, taxpayers are supporting shelters that compete with local veterinarians.

But many animal shelter groups are strongly opposed to the bill.

“It’s all about money. That’s what it’s all about,” said Joe Elmore, chief executive officer of the Charleston Animal Society.

Shelters have high standards for how they take care of their animals, he said, and those standards haven’t declined in recent years. “I challenge them to provide data that proves that assertion,” he said. “Public policy can’t be based on unproven assertions.”

And, he said, he doesn’t think shelters compete with private-practice veterinarians. He cited a study by a national veterinary group that found veterinarians compete with each other, not shelters.

His group doesn’t offer to the public services beyond those the bill would allow, he said. “But we don’t want to be prevented from offering that in the future.”

McKim, who had a private practice for 25 years before working at Pet Helpers, said she thinks some of the tension between private-practice veterinarians and shelter employees center on changes in the profession.

There simply are too many veterinarians competing for clients now, she said, and many of them need to make money because they finish school with more than $180,000 in student-loan debt.

But she doesn’t think people who turn to low-cost clinics at shelters cut into private-practice veterinarians’ businesses. For instance, she said, South Carolina law requires all cats and dogs to have a current rabies vaccine, but only 25 percent do. She doesn’t think people are leaving local veterinarians for care at shelter-based clinics. “I think they are shooting at a ghost that’s not there.”

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.