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Peaceful coexistence

Tips for quelling the controversy over nonprofit veterinary care programs

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2015

Dr. Laura Hatch performs a spay surgery at the Southern Pines Spay & Neuter Clinic in Mississippi. Mortality rates at high-volume clinics are typically as good or better than most private practices, says Georgia veterinarian Will Mangham. “The quality of the surgeon is very high, because that’s what that surgeon is doing all day, every day. With practice, you get better.” Clients line up at an HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) vaccination clinic and community outreach event in Los Angeles. Around the country, PFL and similar programs are bringing spay/neuter and other veterinary care services to communities that most need them.Since it opened in 2009, the Southern Pines Spay & Neuter Clinic has sterilized more than 35,000 animals, including this dog. The animal shelter’s live release rate has jumped from 26 percent in 2008 to 94 percent today.

Read the precursor of this Extra, Caught in the Middle 

Veterinary care assistance programs help address the root causes of animal suffering, overpopulation, and economic-driven euthanasias and surrenders. But if local private practitioners don’t understand your goals, they may view your programs as a threat to their businesses. By being respectful of their concerns and dispelling the myths surrounding nonprofit veterinary care, you can help keep the peace and create allies in your veterinary community.

Establish the Need

Many veterinarians aren’t aware of the scope of animal suffering in their communities. Be ready to provide data on shelter intake and euthanasia, unaltered-animal rates in underserved communities and community-specific poverty levels. Let veterinarians know how you’re focusing resources on underserved neighborhoods, and invite them to visit those areas with you. “Some vets will do that, and that makes a difference,” says Amanda Arrington, HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) director. “There are a lot of vets in the middle area who aren’t sure which way to go or what to believe. Once we’re patient and expose them to reality, they’re no longer part of the vocal minority who oppose our programs.”

A large percentage of animals sterilized at many nonprofit clinics are homeless pets in the custody of shelters and rescue groups, and it can be helpful to share those numbers. For owned animals, consider adding a simple question to your intake form that will enable you to track how many clients have visited a private practice (many nonprofit clinics throughout the country report that more than 80 percent of their clients have never been to a veterinarian). This can help alleviate concerns that your program is siphoning off clients from local private practices.

Define the Playing Field

A common argument against nonprofit veterinary care providers is that they have unfair tax advantages over for-profit practices. But nonprofits are subject to other rules and regulations. “They may not pay taxes on those dollars that come in,” says Inga Fricke, HSUS director of shelter and rescue group services, “but they certainly do have other fiscal responsibilities, including stewardship of donated funds, that for-profits are not subject to. They have their IRS nonprofit status to maintain. They have the charitable laws in their states that they have to adhere to.” So even though the playing field is slightly different, she adds, “it’s not a completely unequal playing field the way that it’s being portrayed by some in the veterinary community.”

Some veterinarians don’t realize that while nonprofits are exempt from income tax on what the IRS calls “related business income,” they do pay other taxes. When Joe Elmore with the Charleston Animal Society (CAS) in South Carolina encounters the tax-advantage argument, he’s quick to point out that his organization paid over $300,000 in taxes in 2014, including payroll and sales taxes.

Public Service or Public Mooch?

Many local governments contract with humane organizations to operate a community shelter and, in some cases, animal control services. This can lead to misconceptions that nonprofits are riding a government gravy train. Let veterinarians know how much of your organization’s budget, if any, comes from government sources. In most cases, the government is paying only a fraction of the actual expenses for this public service. In Charleston, where the CAS runs the shelter under a government contract, “our donor base is subsidizing the government to the tune of 75 percent,” says Elmore.

It’s also helpful to document how saving lives translates into taxpayer savings. Since it launched a subsidized spay/neuter program in 2008, shelter intakes at the Shelby Humane Society in Alabama have decreased by nearly 60 percent. This has resulted in a 51-percent decrease in the amount the county pays in gas for cremating euthanized animals, an annual savings of $12,500. After executive director Sara Shirley presented these numbers to local officials, the Shelby County Commission issued a resolution in support of nonprofit, low-cost spay/neuter programs.

Ways and Means

In some states, veterinary associations have successfully lobbied for laws that limit nonprofit services to pets of people who make less than a certain income. Mandatory means-testing sounds reasonable in theory but falls short in practice, says Cory Smith, director of pet protection and policy issues for The HSUS. Income alone doesn’t capture a person’s ability to pay, and such laws create barriers for loving pet owners whose pets truly need help. They can also force nonprofits to hire staff simply to deal with the tremendous amount of paperwork generated. Nonprofits should be able to set their own criteria based on their resources, local needs and individual circumstances of people who seek their help, Smith says.

When it comes to spay/neuter, nonprofits have a vested interest in preventing unwanted litters, no matter the economic circumstances of the owners, says Georgia veterinarian Will Mangham, a Pets for Life consultant. “There are an awful lot of people who have adequate income who end up running ads in the paper to give away puppies and kittens.” While most clients of spay/neuter clinics can’t afford the prices at for-profit practices, he adds, “a significant number … are those people who just don’t feel the need to spay or neuter their pet. If they’re faced with full price, even if they can afford it, they’re not going to do it, because it’s not a priority for them.”

Set the Standards Straight

Nonprofit veterinarians and clinics are subject to the same licensing and inspection standards as for-profit practices, but allegations that nonprofits provide substandard care are common among those who oppose them. This is especially true for high-volume spay/neuter clinics, which use surgical techniques and protocols pioneered by veterinarians with the Humane Alliance in North Carolina and other organizations. These techniques are now being taught in some veterinary schools, but they may be new (and suspect) to some of your local veterinarians.

Encourage local veterinarians to observe your clinic in operation. Be prepared to explain clinic protocols that ensure high standards, and document morbidity (incidence of disease) and mortality statistics for the animals who come through your doors.

Mission Creep?

Some veterinarians believe that medical care for publicly owned animals is outside the scope of nonprofits’ missions. But the courts and the IRS have for the most part agreed that preventing animal overpopulation and suffering through subsidized veterinary care programs is a legitimate charitable activity for humane organizations. You should be able to articulate how your programs support your organization’s mission. Animal organizations have varied missions based on their resources and community needs. “The mission of the organization shouldn’t be redefined because of the conflict” over subsidized care programs, Fricke says.

Create a Rising Tide

If you’re looking to expand your spay/neuter capacity, consider enlisting local practices in a subsidized spay/neuter program. The Friends of Cats and Dogs Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., issues low-cost spay/neuter certificates that are redeemable at participating veterinary clinics. Three for-profit practices that joined the program have seen their businesses grow significantly, says Peggy Cropp, who serves on the foundation’s board. “They are grateful, and so are we, in that it is a win-win for everyone and every pet involved.”

Several years ago, the Coastal Humane Society (CHS) in Brunswick, Maine, created a fund to help sick or injured pets whose owners can’t afford market rates. CHS often performs the blood work and provide medications for the animal, while a local private practitioner provides whatever other care is needed. “The veterinarians have been very receptive,” says veterinarian and director of shelter operations Mandie Wehr. “They don’t hesitate to refer people to us when they see a case where an animal needs care and the people don’t have the money.”

Service Limits

Some veterinary associations argue that nonprofit clinics should be limited to certain services, such as spay/neuter and vaccinations at the time of surgery. While many nonprofits focus on these core services, “vets should have the discretion to provide the most appropriate care for the client,” says Fricke. That includes addressing medical issues the veterinarian may discover while the animal is undergoing surgery, or providing emergency care for an injured animal brought to the clinic.

Arbitrary restrictions on what veterinarians can do when they see a client go against the profession’s code of ethics, Mangham says, and for-profit veterinarians should understand this. Also, he points out, “If we limit the nonprofits, we limit what the public will be able to do for their pet.” If clients “weren’t able to afford a spay/neuter, they’re certainly not going to be able to afford care after their pet has been hit by a car or has a serious illness.”

Full-Serve

Full-service nonprofit veterinary clinics are relatively rare, so most nonprofits will rely on for-profit practices for a certain percentage of animals they see.

If you have a full-service clinic, Sherry Silk, executive director of the Humane Society of Tampa Bay in Florida, recommends getting accreditation from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). “You have to jump through a lot of hoops,” she says, but AAHA accreditation makes it’s hard for anyone to claim your clinic offers substandard care.

About the Author

As senior editor of the award-winning Animal Sheltering magazine, Julie Falconer writes and edits articles for the sheltering, rescue and animal control fields. Before joining the staff of The Humane Society of the United States, Julie was a longtime volunteer with rescue and animal advocacy organizations in Central Virginia. She spends much of her free time assisting with trap-neuter-return programs for community cats.