A call to protest

A call to protest

Veterinarians converge on Mississippi shelter to address competitive pressures
Feb 01, 2012

Hattiesburg, Miss. — At least 35 veterinarians and 30 more family members recently converged on an area shelter to protest the loss of 40 percent of their spay-and-neuter business to a low-cost sterilization program.

The veterinarians sought to introduce a motion for the shelter to require proof of low income, says former shelter board member and organizer Dr. Kirk Frazier (third from left), a partner at All Animal Clinic in Hattiesburg.

The motion at the Southern Pines Animal Shelter Board of Directors membership meeting was not heard, but the veterinarians believe the move communicated a message.

"I can see where they were blindsided or surprised, but we kind of felt that was the only effective way to get the point across and be heard," says Frazier. "I understand they're not real interested in being fair. They're only interested in lowering the pet overpopulation problem. We are too; we want to look out for the pet's total health picture and make a living at it at the same time."

John Volk, a senior consultant with Brakke Consulting, says a recent study by his firm indicates that veterinarians across the nation are concerned about the effect that shelters and low-cost programs are having on their practices.

In a survey of veterinarians nationwide, the Bayer/Brakke Veterinary Care Usage Study found that practitioners cited an average of 15 competitors in their trade area. The majority of those (9.6) were traditional, independent veterinary clinics. Corporate practices (1.1), mobile vaccination clinics (1.0), pet store clinics (1.0), specialty referral clinics (1.4) and shelter veterinarians/low-cost services (1.2) made up the remainder.

While shelter programs and low-cost clinics do not represent the greatest competitive threat to most traditional veterinary practices, they represent the competition DVMs are most concerned about—moreso even than other independent veterinary practices, according to the study.

Low-cost, limited-service veterinary clinics ranked at the top of the list when it came to which competitors concerned veterinarians most at 20 percent, followed by 13 percent who say they are "very concerned" about competition from shelter veterinarians. Another 10 percent say they are most concerned about competition from other independent veterinary practices.

Broken promises?

Southern Pines Animal Shelter Spay and Neuter Clinic has been operating in Hattiesburg since the 1950s, says James Moore, vice president of the Southern Pines Animal Shelter Board of Directors, and opened its low-cost spay and neuter clinic in 2009.

The shelter clinic performed roughly 12,000 sterilizations for the community over the last two years, Moore says. The target is the underserved population of pet owners and pets, but its services are not limited to low-income individuals, he says.

"I would imagine that every vet has those clients in their customer base who can afford spay or neuter but don't spend their money on that," Moore says. Just because someone can afford sterilization, doesn't mean they want to spend their money on it, he adds. The shelter also targets "unmotivated" individuals by trying to entice them to sterilize their pets with the low-cost program.

"The problem, I think, that has really caused some friction is that (the shelter) does not restrict on income. We've had some of the vets' clients take advantage of our services," he says.

Moore explains that in addition to the low sterilization fees, the shelter clinic does not charge office visit fees or offer comprehensive diagnostics that are available through many traditional veterinary hospitals.

"We just provide efficient, assembly-line service," he says.

The shelter clinic offers sterilization from $35 for male cats to $70 for female dogs, but the price range drops to $17.50 to $37.50 with additional grant eligibility, according to the shelter's website.

In comparison, sterilization prices at veterinary practices around Hattiesburg range from $45 for male cats to $150 for large female dogs. Additional services such as intravenous fluids during surgery and additional blood work can increase these costs, Frazier says.

When the shelter first announced plans for its spay-and-neuter clinic, it promised that the service would be marketed to low-income residents and that veterinarians should expect only about 4 percent of their clients would use the service.

"Everyone was okay with that—a 4 percent loss of clients for the greater good of the community," Frazier says. "When the clinic opened, the message was different. It was 'come one; come all.'"

It's impossible for a private veterinarian to offer services competitively when a nonprofit shelter—that has the help of city and county subsidies, charitable grants and donations—can offer services for a fraction of the cost of most veterinary practices, he says.

"If you're competing for clients and you've got resources that aren't available to your competition, it's not fair," Frazier says.

The loss of business became evident in the second year of the shelter clinic's operations, he says. Veterinarians around Hattiesburg started seeing a much more significant percentage of their clients using the shelter's discounted services for spay-and-neuter procedures, he says.

"We see that it's roughly about 40 percent," Frazier says. That figure was reported by 35 veterinarians at 12 practices surrounding the shelter clinic, he adds.