Vets: Shelters hurt business

Rose Murray fills out paperwork at the Charleston Animal Society on Thursday, as her daughter Corinne, 3, pets their yellow Lab, Mason. Murray brought Mason there to have him neutered.

Rose Murray called a local veterinarian and the Charleston Animal Society checking on prices to have her 8-month-old puppy, Mason, neutered.

The choice was a no-brainer when Murray, a North Charleston homeowner, found out she was eligible for a special program at the Animal Society and the procedure would cost only $10. The private-practice veterinarian would have charged about $100, she said.

“We would have had to do it eventually,” Murray said of the surgery. But paying full price “would have made it harder.”

Not everybody is as thrilled about low-cost spay and neuter services as Murray. Some South Carolina veterinarians have become so concerned in recent years about animal shelters and nonprofit rescue groups offering a growing number of free and reduced-cost veterinary services that they have pushed legislators to file a bill in the General Assembly to limit the practice. The nonprofit groups often receive public money and grants so they can offer cheaper services.

The veterinarians say that gives those groups a competitive advantage, which is beginning to harm their private businesses. But local shelter group leaders say they aren’t competing with private practices because most of their clients simply wouldn’t take their pets to a veterinarian if free or low-cost services weren’t available. The bill, which was introduced by Rep. David Hiott, R-Pickens, continues to be modified as veterinarians and shelter groups work toward compromises. Both sides are scheduled to meet informally Wednesday to try to discuss the bill, he said.

“There may not be a consensus,” he said. “We may not reach an agreement. That’s the nature of legislation sometimes. This will probably take a little while.”

Both private veterinarians and local shelter leaders said much of the most intense conflict between shelters and private veterinarians is centered in the Columbia area, and that Charleston-area groups generally have better relationships with local veterinarians.

Patricia Hill, a Simpsonville veterinarian and president of the 700-member S.C. Association of Veterinarians, said her group pushed legislators to file the bill, which also addresses establishing standards of care at shelters. The controversial aspects of the bill would limit the kinds of service shelters could provide to animals not living in them, and to whom they could provide services.

The public has a place in its heart for animal rescue groups, she said, so the association knew their move would be scrutinized. “You tap a powder keg when you suggest animal shelter work should be done differently,” she said.

The growing tension between private-practice veterinarians, who must purchase business licenses and pay taxes, was exacerbated by the Columbia group Palmetto Lifeline, Hill said. The group, which receives public money and grants, offers mobile veterinary services in several parts of the state, often competing with local veterinarians, she said.

She doesn’t think shelters should offer services such as dental work, declawing and boarding services. “It’s not a level playing field,” she said.

And many shelters have drifted from their original missions of rescuing homeless animals, she said. “They’ve become fundraising machines.”

Lucy Fuller, veterinarian at the Charleston Animal Society, said often people bring in middle-aged animals to be spayed or neutered that have never before been to a veterinarian. The shelter offers free and low-cost spay and neuter services to non-shelter animals, and will vaccinate and microchip animals during their surgical visit, she said. But it doesn’t have a full- service clinic for the public.

Joe Elmore, the society’s chief executive officer, said the bill could impact the spay and neuter clinic by requiring the shelter to verify that people who use it are low-income and limiting service to them. He doesn’t want to do that, he said, because some people who might not meet low-income guidelines, such as middle-class parents paying college tuition, can’t afford the surgery.

Elmore said the bill, versions of which have been filed in the House and the Senate, likely will be modified in the coming weeks as shelter and veterinarian groups meet and make compromises. It’s a complicated piece of legislation, he said, and “it’s kind of a living document.”

George Andersen brought Azi the cat to the Animal Society last week to be neutered. “It’s a lot cheaper than the other options, and I trust them,” he said of the shelter.

Cost estimates varied widely for the surgery, he said. A private Mount Pleasant clinic told him it would cost $200, he said. Another clinic in West Ashley would have charged $100. The Animal Society did it for $50. “Going to a Mount Pleasant doctor and paying $200 seems ridiculous,” she said.

Carole Linville, founder of the nonprofit Pet Helpers, said she’s not sure how the bill would affect her shelter, which runs mostly on private donations.

But, she said, it’s essential to reduce pet overpopulation, “and the only way to do that is affordable spay-and-neuter programs.” Private practice prices now are so high for such services that “you should have some smelling salts with you because you’re going to faint,” she said.

Donnie Gamble, a veterinarian at the Oakbrook Veterinary Clinic in Summerville and a member of the board of the S.C. Association of Veterinarians, said he was bothered when, not long ago, a shelter group from outside of the area held a low-cost vaccine clinic not far from his practice.

He has to run a business, he said, which includes paying staff, taxes and full price for many medicines shelters can purchase at discounted rates. The vaccine clinic was competing with his business and those of other Summerville veterinarians, he said.

He would like to see limits to the kinds of services shelters offer. The problem in the Charleston area isn’t that bad right now, he said. But he would like to see shelters reined in on the kinds of services they provide before things get worse.

He also said he thinks that spay and neuter clinics run by shelters probably should be limited to people who truly are low-income. People adopting pets need to be able to afford to take care of them, he said. And that includes food and medical care. “Is everybody entitled to have a pet if you can afford it or not?” he said.

Private practice veterinarians get to know their clients and their pets, he said. They develop an ongoing relationship that is beneficial to the pets’ lifelong health, he said. And that costs more.

Shelters provide valuable services to the community, he said, but some of them have crossed the line and are now receiving public money to compete with private businesses. “We’re not trying to shut them down,” he said. “We’re trying to work with them.”

Brenda Rindge contributed to this story. Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.