Because non-profit veterinary services are often under attack, generally from a power base of veterinarians with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about why charities have the right to practice non-profit medicine and why vets who attack us are wrong. Sometimes this defensive response leads to spending more time on what we are against than what we are for and why.
Humane Pennsylvania, and growing numbers within the animal welfare community, are for the delivery non-profit veterinary services, and for reasons that have a direct bearing on our central mission of helping animals and their people. Assuming everyone on any side of this issue will concede that veterinary care is generally a good and desirable thing for pets, exactly why should non-profits take the lead in delivering these services?
We are proximate to the need. We know that many people simply don’t have access to veterinary care, high quality or otherwise. For a variety of reasons, animal shelters are often located in areas of high need, often very population dense urban centers or population sparse rural areas. These are also areas which are least likely to offer veterinary hospitals because the traditional economics of for-profit veterinary hospitals don’t lend themselves to enticing private practices to open in these areas.
In the same way that there are food deserts in cities and the local Dollar General may be all that passes for a “grocery store” in the rural communities, there are veterinary deserts. Many people in these areas cannot afford market rate comprehensive veterinary care and benefit from free, reduced, or subsidized care. Many can afford market rates; they simply don’t have as ready access to services as those in the suburbs graced seemingly with a vet on every corner. Combining an animal shelter’s proximity to the need and the available market with an ability to provide needed care can ensure these services reach a population which is underserved (more on “Veterinary Deserts” in an upcoming blog).
Veterinary care keeps animals out of shelters. Although I am not aware of a study which has looked specifically at the correlation between quality and quantity of vet care and the likelihood of a pet being relinquished (if you know of one, please share), a couple of the better pet relinquishment studies out there do address this issue tangentially and it does appear that more animals lacking a history of comprehensive vet care enter shelters than those receiving it (authoring that study is on our 2106 “to do” list). That might seem like a no brainer. No or less vet care logically equals potentially poorer health, diminished behavioral interventions, and greater complications arising from injury and accidents.
As is the case with most health care, pre-emptive care is the easiest and cheapest, and in the case of pets, it prevents avoidable points of no return that lead to pet relinquishment. The cat which sees a vet and benefits from nutritional counseling might not eat poor quality food, which leads to urinary health issues, which leads to peeing on the owner’s couch and bed, which leads to a surrender of the cat to a shelter. The early dental assessment of a dog might prevent the tooth decay which might lead to discomfort and crankiness, which could lead to an avoidable bite, which leads to that dog being surrendered to a shelter. It may be hard to prove which of these surrenders are prevented by veterinary interventions, but seeing the steady flow of surrenders for preventable causes make it certain that regular, high quality vet care could be preventing animals from entering shelters.
Even for those which are brought to shelters, the ability to offer services to clients at the time of relinquishment makes a difference. Most people would prefer to fix the problem with their pet than give the pet up, perhaps to be killed in a shelter. Often, the mere ability to get a frustrated pet owner to pause for a minute, an hour, or a day, before handing over a pet to a shelter can allow for a rethinking of the decision and that pet staying in the home. A bad day doesn’t need to end up being the end of the relationship. Of the many types of transactional friction which can be employed to allow for that “pause to think it over”, offering a positive, beneficial option, such as a veterinary intervention when appropriate, is one of the best possible for the relationship between pet and caretaker and the public perception of our organization.
Veterinary care keeps adopted pets from being returned to shelters. A significant percentage of animals adopted from shelters are returned within one year, for a variety of reasons. In some cases, it may be as minor an issue as a feline upper respiratory infection (URI). This stress related illness can almost be counted on occurring in some percentage of adopted cats, regardless of the quality of the shelter, and treating it is relatively simple. However, as we all know, simple treatment doesn’t always equate to inexpensive treatment. It is not uncommon for a basic kitty cold to lead to a retail vet care bill of a couple hundred dollars or more, sometimes much more.
Not every adopter will be able or willing to sink hundreds of dollars into a new pet, especially when many modern for-profit practice models are based on income derived from extensive and expensive diagnostic testing and high markup treatment. Faced with a large bill, adopters may return the cat to the shelter and now the shelter, which already invested hundreds of dollars in care, vaccinations, sterilization, and the adoption process, must face spending more money to get the cat adopted again. Most shelters face the reality and cost of euthanizing and disposing of a cat which the public may view with suspicion as an “adoption return”.
Providing veterinary services allows a shelter to provide direct treatment for the illness, either free or at reduced rates, in order to cure the animal and to ensure it remains in its new household. Providing this care for free, at cost, or for a reduced fee is certainly cheaper than going through the adoption process all over again, and is certainly a better and usually cheaper alternative to killing it. In the case of more extensive conditions, veterinary care can have an even greater impact on driving successful adoptions.
Some illnesses, such as diabetes, were almost certain death sentences for shelter pets in the past, assuming the disease was even diagnosed. However, diabetic pets are routinely adopted at Humane Pennsylvania shelters now because we can offer long term, reduced or free coverage for costs associated with treatment of the disease. Many people are willing to take on the work of monitoring their pets and providing in-home treatment, but it can be very expensive. If we can provide blood sugar testing, insulin, and supplies for free or at cost for the life of the cat, we can get it adopted at little or no cost. This approach helps more and more “problem” adoptions succeed.
Veterinary service delivery fits our mission statements like a glove. All charitable animal shelters have a mission statement and they range from very sweeping, like our current one, too very specific, like the our previous one. Many vets will point to these mission statements and say they make it clear that our missions are not to provide veterinary care, because many don’t explicitly state it. But a mission statement is a declaration of what we do, not how we do it. Veterinary services are one crucial means by which everything we have ever done or ever will do, can be achieved.
Our old mission statement was very explicit and included, “education and outreach in the community, medical services for needy animals, humane investigation, safe shelter for homeless animals and strong adoption programs to ensure that every companion animal lives in a safe, loving and secure home,” and is typical of many shelter mission statements. How do public veterinary services fit into this old statement? Let’s review.
- Among the most effective education and outreach to the community we have ever provided is done by our veterinary staff. It is the highest level of Humane Education. Check.
- Medical services for needy animals? Well, our sheltered animals certainly need it, and since we have established the myriad of ways vets keep animals out of shelters, whether you are rich or poor, we view every animal as needing access to high quality vet care. Check.
- Safe shelter for homeless pets? That definitely involves access to medical security in our shelters and that is best and most efficiently delivered by our dedicated veterinary hospitals. Check.
- Strong adoption programs? Once again, I have covered how pre-adoption vet care gets animals adopted and post adoption vet care keeps them from returning. Check.
- Ensure every companion animal lives in a safe, loving and secure home? Everyone would- or should- agree that being healthy and having access to treatment when a pet is not is a foundation of a safe and secure home. We can’t make someone love a pet, but we can make it a lot easier by keeping that pet happy, well behaved, and healthy. Check.
Veterinary services, both within our shelters, to at risk populations, and to the general public at large, even those who can afford market rates, is central and integral to the work we do on behalf of animals. They save lives and relationships, they enhance the standard of living in our communities, and they improve public safety. Delivery of veterinary care is not the singular domain of private practice, for profit, or corporate veterinarians.
We’ve established our economic right to deliver these services. We’ve established how our model mirrors the human health care market, which is dominated by non-profit services. We’ve established that it makes financial sense for our organizations, our animals and our supporters. We’ve established that we can do it as well or better than any competition by offering great service from great vets in accredited hospitals. But these are all the numbers and rules of what we do.
More importantly, we believe we have an obligation under our mission statements to provide veterinary care to the community. This care is a right of all pets, access to this care is right of all pet owners, and the our delivery of this care by non-profits is a right- at least in Pennsylvania and most states- provided we comply with State and Federal law and the standards of our profession, just like any other vet practice. Unlike other vet practices, however, for animal welfare organizations these services are also explicitly and implicitly our mission. We should and will embrace that mission because lives depend on it.