Divided we fall: Nonprofit facilities and for-profit veterinary clinics seem constantly at odds

Divided we fall: Nonprofit facilities and for-profit veterinary clinics seem constantly at odds

If we can't get shelter-run medical facilities and for-profit practices to coexist, veterinarians will look bad and shelters will face mounting community pressures—but the biggest losers will be pets.
Dec 01, 2013

There is an ongoing issue that plagues not-for-profit animal health groups, community-funded animal care facilities and privately owned for-profit practices alike. The concern, perceived or real, is unfair competition for income with private veterinary practices. Undoubtedly there are areas where the two do compete for clients, patients and funds, but in the end we are fighting a common enemy: Ongoing suffering among unwanted, feral and indigent pets.

An inhumane history

When I graduated from veterinary school in the early '70s, many animal shelters were little more than short stay prison camps where surrendered or seized dogs were held for finite periods, typically five to seven days, for one final chance at a home. If they were really lucky, they were adopted, but many more contracted an infectious disease and died. Others were euthanized because their time was up or they were deemed "unadoptable." Commonly referred to as dog pounds, these facilities fell short in providing a true shelter environment, and though frequently associated with well-intentioned local groups, they were often anything but humane.

Back in the day, canine distemper and feline panleukopenia were rampant in spite of everyone's best efforts. Animals were generally not vaccinated until they were adopted, so many were infected before adoption. Years later, canine parvovirus emerged and wreaked havoc through communities at large but especially inside shelters. There were relatively few effective vaccines, and using them in pounds wasn't cost effective. Puppies and kittens that were adopted one day frequently returned to the facility sick or dead by the end of the week. Parasites were common in part because effective control and prevention products were not available. Entire litters of puppies and kittens often died or were euthanized.

Pounds were generally operated and funded by municipal and county agencies using adoption and pet licensing fees as a resource in addition to some private donations. Euthanasia was often inhumanely conducted using improperly operated decompression chambers, carbon monoxide poisoning, electrocution, intracardiac injections or guns. Some of these methods were unapproved, few were properly supervised, but all were widely practiced.

Millions of animals spent their final days under the worst of conditions and were euthanized using less-than-humane methods. Thankfully, things have changed.

Later, animal welfare groups like the ASPCA, The Humane Society of the United States and others shifted the emphasis from simple population control to adoption. So while charitable or not-for-profit veterinary facilities are nothing new, they have evolved from yesterday's pounds to true, modern shelters that focus on placement rather than elimination. In fact, some dedicated advocates are so successful at encouraging adoption that there are not enough puppies and kittens to fill demand. Shelters and adoption facilities sometimes resort to importing animals from other communities or from overseas, bringing them from smaller communities to metropolitan facilities where adoptable pets are in short supply. Increasingly, facilities operate as no-kill shelters where animals are not euthanized after some arbitrary holding period—or not at all. Shelters have truly changed in the past 50 years, not just philosophically but also in terms of their functional scope.