Rise of the full-service shelter
Early on, shelter facilities enlisted the support of sympathetic, local veterinary practices that provided sterilization and
care for adopted pets at reduced fees. As communities, small community groups and even celebrities championed support for
humane shelters, many organizations developed their own medical facilities for performing surgical sterilization and immunization,
primarily on resident animals that were placed for adoption. But these facilities eventually began to treat pets from the
community at large, rather than referring those procedures to private veterinary clinics that had worked with the shelters
in the past.
In the beginning, low-cost or no-cost care was provided primarily to families that might otherwise not be able to afford it.
Today, many animal shelter facilities have further expanded their operations to become full-service hospitals, providing advanced
levels of medical care, products and other services not only to pet owners with financial limitations but also to the general
public in direct competition with veterinarians in private practice. How did that happen? How did the tension that has existed
between veterinary practices and not-for-profit facilities reach a level of animosity? The truth is, there is plenty of blame
to go around.
While the primary driver for both shelters and private veterinary practices has always been preventing and alleviating animal
suffering, there used to be a clear division of efforts and resources in that pursuit. Not-for-profits focused on providing
shelter and an opportunity for unwanted pets to find homes, while private practices took care of the pets' medical needs.
Now shelters have expanded into the arena of providing cradle-to-grave medical care to all pets, frequently providing the
same services as veterinary practices in a competitively unequal environment. Both organizations ascribe to the same commitments,
but the primary difference is that private practices invest millions of dollars of their own resources with no tax-free status
and no donations from charitable efforts, while shelters receive tax-free charitable donations and do not have to pay taxes
on their own profits. It is no wonder that veterinarians may resent not-for-profit efforts.
On the other hand, veterinarians were often unable or unwilling to provide care for illness and trauma at reduced fees. They
often receive little payment and no tax advantages by doing so. Leaders in the shelter environment felt they had no option
but to offer medical care to low-income pet owners with little to no fee. Unfortunately, economic realities led shelters to
provide care to all pets at a reduced fee, even if the owners were capable of paying for care. So what began as a spay and
neuter facility eventually evolved into a full-service hospital. This compounded the brewing resentment and the competition
for clients who could pay for services. In some communities and states, relationships between private practitioners and not-for-profits
have deteriorated to the point that legal action is imminent. Veterinarians will certainly look bad, shelters will be forced
to defend legal and community pressures, and ultimately the losers will be the pets that need care.
Yet some communities have managed to walk the line between shelter-provided care and for-profit practices. How can these two
groups come together to serve everyone's needs and interests so that low-income families and unwanted pets in need of service
receive good care without directly competing with individual, privately operated clinics?
First, not-for-profits must do some level of needs assessment. This proof of eligibility need not be an overwhelming or embarrassing
task. Proof of unemployment, residence in low-income housing or qualification for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance
Program may be all that's required. Those who do not qualify would receive no more than urgent care and be referred to a local
veterinary practice. On the flip side, in an effort to keep not-for-profits from building flourishing medical facilities,
veterinarians might consider providing care on a sliding scale to these same owners who were screened by the shelter.
Every community is different. There is no one solution for all situations, but communication and collaboration have, in many
communities, resulted in successful cooperative efforts to meet everyone's needs. It requires a simple commitment: Start where
you are and do what you can. Let a spirit of shared vision develop, work with mutual respect and focus less on the process
and more on the goal: to provide appropriate care for as many animals as possible.
Dr. Michael Paul, @mikepauldvm on Twitter, is a nationally known speaker and columnist and the principal of Magpie Veterinary
Consulting. He lives in Anguilla in the British West Indies.