Skip to content Skip to navigation

Taking the show on the road

Weighing the burdens and benefits of running a mobile spay/neuter clinic

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

A dog looks on as a crowd awaits services at a Spay-Neuter Assistance Program mobile unit.Veterinary technicians Chris Allen (left) and Coree Haynes prepare a kitten for surgery on SNAP’s Houston mobile clinic.Veterinarian Robin Weeks (right) examines Patch, a 3-month-old Chihuahua mix, and discusses heartworm and flea prevention with owner Jimmy Williamson at Emancipet’s mobile clinic.Mobile clinics like SNAP’s Houston unit combat pet overpopulation by bringing spay/neuter services to owners who can’t travel to a stationary facility or afford full-price surgeries.As clients bundle up on a chilly morning, a dog waits his turn at SNAP’s Houston mobile clinic.

The 19-year-old womansaid her grandfather in San Antonio had started out innocently enough, with two cats and two Chihuahuas. But the pets were intact, and the laws of nature and mathematics soon took over, leaving the grandfather’s property overrun by some 40 animals, with many cats roaming outside and many dogs indoors.

Seeking help, the granddaughter approached veterinarian Mary Kate Lawler, executive director of the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), a nonprofit that operates mobile clinics in Houston and San Antonio, bringing free services to low-income areas, setting up in central locations so that people in surrounding communities can bring in their pets. The grandfather was on government assistance and qualified for SNAP’s programs, but the prospect of transporting all of his animals for surgery was daunting. “It was overwhelming,” Lawler recalls, and the granddaughter didn’t think the regular mobile program was the answer.

So SNAP devised an alternative: a one-day pilot program where a mobile unit went directly to the grandfather’s home. (Luckily, he lived in an area where SNAP could park its “enormous” truck, Lawler says.) The staff worked a longer-than-normal day because they had to assess how many animals were on site, then catch and process them, but Lawler considers the project a success: 37 animals (29 cats and eight dogs) spayed or neutered. “There’s a problem under control now,” she says.

SNAP is now investigating taking its units to individual sites such as mobile home parks more often. SNAP staff haven’t traditionally walked neighborhood blocks to find trouble spots that are producing lots of animals picked up by municipal shelters, for example, but Lawler believes a more focused effort like that would be beneficial.

Many shelters operate stationary spay/neuter clinics, but there are communities and populations that are less easy to reach: rural areas that don’t have enough people to support animal services, or less-affluent urban neighborhoods where few residents have a way to transport their pets.

That’s where mobile spay/neuter clinics can enter the picture: Some organizations have found them to be an effective way to reach underserved communities and make a dent in pet overpopulation and shelter intake. As Aimee Christian, vice president of spay/neuter operations for the ASPCA, notes, “You don’t have to worry about … Muhammad coming to the mountain. The mountain can go to Muhammad.”

But moving mountains isn’t cheap. The units themselves can run from $100,000 to $500,000, operating costs are heavy, repair expenses can be unpredictable and mobile spay/neuter work is time-consuming and staff-intensive. All mobile clinic programs operate a little differently—some head to an isolated rural community for a few days, while others move around a large city—and the units vary widely in size and capacity.

While the appeal of mobile units is undeniable—who wouldn’t want to reach the neediest people and pets, and help decrease shelter intake?—experts say organizations should take a good look at themselves and the communities they serve, considering what’s involved and the possible alternatives before starting a mobile program.

Rules for the Road

Recognize the costs involved. Christian recalls once giving a presentation on spay/neuter and mentioning how expensive mobile units can be, with potential costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Someone in the crowd stood up and claimed he could retrofit an RV for $65,000, she says, “and suddenly I had no audience anymore.”

An inexpensive retrofitted RV could be fine for a group going out three or four days a month, says Jocelyn Kessler, director of spay/neuter operations for the ASPCA. How much vehicle you need depends on the usage and conditions in the area you’re working: You’ll need something sturdy if you’re racking up the miles navigating densely populated cities or traveling great distances in rural areas.

The ASPCA has six mobile units operating five-plus days a week on New York City roads, oftentimes in extreme weather, and plans to use them for 10-plus years, so the group needs something built to last, Kessler explains. Christian adds that the ASPCA’s mobile clinics are built by a firm that also manufactures military vehicles. “They are indestructible, and they need to be when they’re on the streets of the city every day doing tons of miles.”

Naturally, not every organization has the ASPCA’s resources; groups have different needs and objectives and can choose the equipment they want, which explains the wide range in costs. (See our online extra at animalsheltering.org/mobile-spay-neuter-options for a list of some available features.)

One way to make mobile units less financially painful is to engineer them to include as many cages as possible, says Amy Mills, CEO of Emancipet, which has operated a mobile clinic in the Austin, Texas, area for 15 years. If your clinic has only 20 cages, she explains, it won’t be financially viable. Mobile clinics are inherently more expensive to operate than stationary clinics, so the cost per surgery is higher for the organization, she explains. When a mobile clinic has a low cage capacity, it’s difficult or impossible (depending on pricing) to recover the cost through fees for service—but a little easier when there are more cages.

Emancipet builds its clinics to house 36 cages but doesn’t try to recover its costs through fees alone (it combines fundraising and earned revenue). Having more cages increases the potential number of animals served, Mills says, but also requires certain sacrifices, like rearranging the equipment and not having a restroom on board.

Emancipet’s mobile unit sits idle only one day a week, which adds to the overall expenses, Mills says. “When you run like that, six days a week, your generator lasts one year. Your two air-conditioning units last one year. So you’re constantly replacing things like that, so that just drives your operating cost up, plus there’s the gas and maintenance. … The cost of operation is really high, but you kind of have to know that going in, and not be surprised by it, and then be willing to do it based on the outcomes that you’re getting.”

Be aware of the staff’s workload and working conditions. Mobile clinic staffers generally work long days in cramped quarters. At SNAP in San Antonio, the staff typically meets at the organization’s stationary clinic at 6 a.m., then loads the mobile unit to arrive at the work site by 7 or 7:30. They set up, work with clients, perform surgeries, then clean and secure the unit before driving back. “A lot of times it ends up being the staff working 10, 12 or 14 hours just for one mobile day,” Lawler says, “which can work against the morale of your staff over time if there’s not good support there.”

In New York, the ASPCA mobile clinic staff could face a three-hour commute to the work site, Christian says. They work four 10-hour days a week, don’t get to sit down, don’t have a bathroom or lunchroom on board and don’t have the benefit of a rotating staff to cover for them. They’re working in a unit that’s only 6 feet wide, so beyond their surgical skills, their interpersonal skills have to be top-notch, she says. They’re called on to serve as customer service representatives, security officers, community advocates, cleaning staff and troubleshooters in emergencies.

And they need to roll with the inevitable surprises. A resident once told an ASPCA team working in the Bronx about a duck trapped in an alley, recalls operations medical staff manager Amie Saladis. Armed with a towel, a leash and a carrier, two staffers investigated and returned shortly afterward with the duck—who had escaped from a restaurant and went on to enjoy a new life at a rescue center.

Considering all these circumstances, Christian adds, you want to make sure your mobile clinic staffers are well paid.

Know your business. Providing free or low-cost spay/neuter surgeries is at best a break-even proposition, so organizations need to devise a way to cover their expenses.

SNAP, which also has stationary facilities that offer low-cost spay/neuter to the general public, raises funds to pay for its mobile units. The number of days the mobile clinics can run is based on how much money the organization raises, mostly in grants from foundations.

Emancipet started in 1999 as a strictly mobile program offering low-cost services in low-income Austin neighborhoods, but Mills says by 2001 it became clear that many people couldn’t afford even the reduced price. The city government stepped in with a pilot program subsidizing free spays and neuters one day a week during the summer in areas that contribute the most to shelter intake. (The city tracks shelter intake by location, and Emancipet parks its mobile clinic on city property in the identified locations.) That “free day” program proved so successful that Austin has expanded it to four days a week, year round.

Most groups can’t provide all spay/neuter surgeries for free, so they need to find a reasonable, low-cost, break-even price, which varies by community, Kessler says. Many groups can break even by charging $40 to $60 per surgery, with cats costing less than dogs.

Mills says Emancipet decided years ago to never charge more than $65 per surgery, after examining post-Hurricane Katrina HSUS data showing that clients in Gulf Coast states would pay that much. “But the real answer to how much we exactly charge is trial and error,” she says, explaining that Emancipet, which operates three stationary clinics in addition to its mobile unit, would lower its price if it was failing to attract clients.

Prices range from $29 to $65 per surgery, but no one is turned away because they can’t afford to pay. The program is not designed to earn enough revenue to be self-sufficient; the goal is to cover about 70 percent of the cost through earned revenue, and the other 30 percent from contributions and fundraising, Mills explains. “We know we lose money on spay and neuter, and on a mobile clinic you lose even more, but that’s why we have such a robust fundraising department in our organization.”

“Be prepared to be a grant writer, because that’s gonna be as important as anything else,” adds Jonathan Chavez, spay/neuter program manager for the Found Animals Foundation in Los Angeles, which works with the mobile clinic Spay-4-LA. “There’s just a lot of hats you have to wear.”

Define your goals. It’s helpful for organizations to have a mission and well-defined goals, then measure their success in reaching them, Christian says.

The animal welfare field is moving toward targeted rather than general spay/neuter, Kessler adds. “So you’re not trying to do a little bit of spay/neuter all over the place; you’re trying to do a lot of spay/neuter in one spot. And once you get to a certain level of saturation, that’s when you’ve really made a lasting impact in an area.” The key, she says, is to figure out how many intact animals are in a specific area and set your sights on them. (See “Taking a Closer Look at Your Community” at animalsheltering.org/closer-look for more on assessing neighborhood needs.)

Insist on quality. The standard operating procedures at a mobile clinic should be as high-quality as clients would find at top veterinary hospitals. Christian notes that the HSUS post-Katrina study in the Gulf Coast found that, given a number of choices, people listed mobile clinics as the last place they would tend to take their pets. As a result, she’s made it a priority for the ASPCA to “really button up our protocols,” making them consistent across clinics and in line with the latest developments in medicine, “to make sure we are providing the highest quality of care that we can.”

Weigh the alternatives. “A lot of people say it’s very sexy to have a mobile truck … because you can go to a funder and say, ‘We are taking our truck right into this community where it’s needed,’” Lawler notes.

But what if there’s a simpler, less expensive way to achieve the same result?

Christian urges groups to consider all the options, including stationary clinics, mobile units, MASH-style programs set up in existing spaces such as storefronts or offices, or a hybrid model.

Before starting a new clinic of any type, you should make sure it’s needed. If existing spay/neuter clinics in your community frequently run under capacity or could be easily expanded, perhaps you could instead have staff or volunteers run a shuttle service. Such an arrangement, Lawler says, could enable you to do higher numbers in less time with fewer staff and a lower overhead.

To tackle target areas, consider investing your resources in a community outreach model like The HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program. PFL delivers spay/neuter messages to pet owners in underserved regions through door-to-door outreach and community events. The program subsidizes the cost of sterilization surgeries at local clinics and often helps with transport.

Risks and Rewards

So should you take the plunge and invest in a mobile clinic?

If money is no object, go for it, says Mills with a laugh. And if you’ve assessed your community and your goals, it might be a powerful tool to add to your programs.

The mobile model has worked for Emancipet, she says, pointing to a University of Texas study that showed the “free day” program decreased dog intakes and slowed the rate of increase for cat intakes at shelters. Mills calls the mobile clinic “the most expensive and operationally difficult program that we have,” but also one that Emancipet would never choose to stop.

“I always want to be careful when people get excited about a mobile clinic, because you do want to consider everything and make sure it’s really right for you,” she says. “But man, I would not change it for the world, especially knowing the impact that we’ve had in Austin over these years.”

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.