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Every animal deserves access to veterinary care

Hear from Inga Fricke on the attack on nonprofit veterinary service providers

Ms. Smith’s beloved pet Rich, just 10 months after treatment for mange.Ms. Smith’s beloved dog Rich, prior to treatment for mange.

Meet Rich: he’s a playful, loving boy who has been Ms. Smith’s beloved pet for more than 10 years. Rich contracted mange and Ms. Smith didn’t know how to help him. She called around to many private veterinarians, but with a limited income she couldn’t afford even the office visits.  After none of the home remedies she knew were working and his condition was worsening, she finally made the heartbreaking decision to surrender Rich to Charleston Animal Society (CAS) in the hopes that someone with greater financial means could help him.

Luckily, CAS did not take Rich in—instead, they sent him home with Ms. Smith along with medications and a treatment plan, and just look at him now! He’s happy, healthy and safe in the arms of the family who has loved and cared for him his entire life.

Rich got his new lease on life because a nonprofit organization in his home state of South Carolina was able to provide him the care he desperately needed. But if a bill currently being considered in the South Carolina legislature passes, pets like Rich may no longer have access to lifesaving care. Why? Solely to protect private practice veterinarians who feel the very existence of nonprofits like the one that saved Rich and kept him in the loving home he already had pose a threat to their economic bottom line. This faction of veterinarians is out of touch with the realities faced by millions of pet owners.

Please don’t misunderstand. Veterinarians as a whole are tireless and devoted servants to animals. None of our sanctuaries, shelters, rescues or other animal welfare efforts could function without them. The veterinary profession deserves our respect and gratitude, and the majority of veterinarians are allies of nonprofit animal care programs. And there’s no question that the cost of obtaining the credentials and expertise veterinarians need to help animals is astronomically high—the average vet student leaves school with over $150,000 worth of debt, debt that must be repaid by clients utilizing their services. But attacking non-profits isn’t the way to ensure that veterinarians’ livelihoods are protected.

A 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study commissioned by Bayer HealthCare LLC, Animal Health Division and conducted by Brakke Consulting in collaboration with the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues found five primary reasons for the decline in visits to private veterinary practices:

  1. Pet owners still feeling the impact of the recession, even while most veterinarians increased their fees during that period in a mistaken belief that demand for their services was inelastic.
  2. The number of veterinarians practicing companion animal medicine increased dramatically from 1996 through 2006, far outpacing the growth in cat and dog ownership.
  3. Many pet owners rely on Internet advice to guide basic care for their animals, rather than needing a visit to their veterinarian to have their questions answered.
  4. The majority of cat owners do not take their cats to the veterinarian because they think it's unnecessary or too difficult.
  5. And many pet owners still believe that regular medical check-ups are not needed, often citing "sticker shock" because the costs of routine veterinary visits are so high.

What wasn't on the list? The existence of nonprofit and low-cost veterinary service providers. These entities are providing a public service, helping to reduce the surplus of unwanted and homeless animals through spay and neuter programs, lower the number of pets surrendered to shelters and euthanized and eliminate public health threats through rabies vaccinations, parasite control and other wellness services. Their work is reducing the burden on municipal agencies and taxpayers. And as proven by the veterinary profession’s own commissioned study, they are doing this lifesaving work without significantly impacting the financial bottom line of private practice veterinarians.

Nonprofits are critical to pets like Rich, to the estimated 23 million pets who live in poverty in America and to the millions more pets in homes that struggle daily to make ends meet. These pets are much beloved and their owners, who, just like each and every one of us, want nothing but the best care possible for them. For those for whom even basic veterinary services are out of reach, taking their pets to a full service veterinary office is simply not an option. Data collected by The HSUS’s Pets for Life (PFL) team proves it—87% of the more than 100,000 pets served by the program are unaltered when first reached by PFL, and 77% had never even been to see a veterinarian. These are not clients that have been “stolen” from full service practices.  These are pet owners for whom veterinary services are not a social or economic norm.

Now, some of you may be thinking, “Well, if people can’t afford their pets, maybe they shouldn’t have them in the first place.”  In addition to being unrealistic, that’s an elitist and classist argument. Do we really want a society where pets are a luxury available only to a privileged few? We know how much we value our relationships with our pets, how much joy and love they provide. If you lost your job tomorrow, would you want a stranger telling you that you no longer deserved to have your pet?  Nearly two thirds of Americans already have pets, and their numbers continue to grow. Debating whether or not they should be there avoids the real issue: How can we best help them? And consider this: the pet owner who can’t afford vaccinations for their dog today could be your neighbor who was just laid off from his job, or whose husband was just diagnosed with cancer, or who is struggling to pay his son’s college tuition. It could be you.

That’s why we believe the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians’ attempt to limit where nonprofit veterinary practices can operate, restrict the types of services they can provide to pets and prescribe who is and who is not eligible to receive their services, is so dangerous. It is a huge step backwards from what is desperately needed by tens of thousands of pet owners--MORE access to veterinary services, not fewer. We need to reach out to people who lack that access. We need to hold out a welcome sign and bring them into our circles of service. This bill will have the opposite effect.

Unfortunately, South Carolina is not the only state poised to deny services to tens of thousands of pets in need. Similar legislative efforts have been undertaken in Alabama; Idaho narrowly avoided a legislative battle because the only nonprofit veterinary service provider in the state agreed to concessions rather than wage war; and several states like Wisconsin and Washington have limitations on nonprofit practices already in place. But there is good news—a New Jersey bill aimed at restricting veterinary services was introduced just last week, but was withdrawn a mere 48 hours later once the bill sponsors heard the animal welfare community’s concerns and understood the devastating consequences the measure would have.

We need everyone in the animal welfare community to raise their voices and say to South Carolina and to any other entity attacking the lifesaving work of nonprofit veterinary service providers, “We won’t allow you to harm animals just to protect your pocketbooks!”  Because every pet owner wants the best for their four-legged family members and every animal deserves access to veterinary care, and we stand united in our commitment to protect them.

About the Author

Inga Fricke is the former Director of Sheltering Initiatives and Outreach at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).  She has served on the Board of Shelter Animals Count, a non-profit organization formed to create and share a national database of sheltered animal statistics, and as Chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ CAWA Exam Preparatory Resources Committee. Prior to joining The HSUS, Inga served as Administrator of the Wyandot County Humane Society/H.O.P.E. Clinic, helping to found the Wyandot County Equine Rescue, and as Shelter Manager for Loudoun County Animal Care and Control.