Guest Column: Let veterinarians do the job

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1993:

by Lewis R. Plumb
Excellent shelter statistics for
Harris County, Texas (Houston metropoli-
tan area) were reported in the April issue of
ANIMAL PEOPLE. But while much
detail and comment was included, further
analysis is possible.
The Harris County area, with six
animal control and/or sheltering operations
active, has an estimated pet population of
1.28 million. About 8.5% of these will
arrive at a shelter each year, with 82.4% of
arrivals being killed for population control
purposes. At an average cost of $50 per
euthanized animal (the cost to catch, keep,
kill, and dispose of the carcass), the total
population control cost is $4.5 million a
year. With an average dog or cat litter size
of six, there is a need for an additional
16,000 spays per year to eliminate surplus
births. These must be effective spays,
meaning spays that would not otherwise be
done, on animals who have a very high
probability of breeding if not done.

At a cost of $40 per spay, the
yearly cost of preventative population con-
trol would be $600,000. Clearly it would
pay to transfer population control to veteri-
narians and away from animal control and
shelter functions. The low cost neutering
program now operated by the Houston
Humane Society is accomplishing at best
only 9% of the needed spaying. Since there
is no income requirement to take advantage
of the HHS program, many of the spays
done there would have been done some-
where anyway. Thus much of the money
put into this program (and others like it)
may be wasted.
Meanwhile, in the poorer neigh-
borhoods, unaltered animals have a very
high probability of breeding. Where high
licensing fees are in effect, the risk is exac-
erbated. To avoid licensing fees, and fines
for violating them, many poor pet owners
will not admit to having pets, and do not
license them. When picked up by animal
control, such unlicensed pets are called
strays, but they are not in truth strays; they
are unlicensed pets belonging to people
who will not take advantage of low-cost
neutering and vaccination programs from
fear of being turned in for violating the
law––a fear heightened by the other prob-
lems many poor people have with the law.
For humane societies to compete
with private veterinarians is much against
the American business ethic. To take
advantage of nonprofit status to directly
compete with private business is not ethi-
cal. Some may argue that the problem is
veterinary fees being too high. Of course
many fees are too high, including those of
medical doctors, fast food chains, and
brand-name athletic shoes. The thing that
this country relies on to keep prices in line
is competition, but that competition
requires a so-called level playing field.
When applicants are screened for
need, veterinarians are the real heroes in
low-cost neutering work. Here in Butte
County, California, 70% of the veterinar-
ians perform half-price surgeries to help
control the pet population. And remem-
ber, these surgeries are not sales promo-
tions, since they are for persons with very
limited means, who can hardly be looked
upon as future profitable clients. Of
course, vets need to know what the need-
ed workload is. It turns out that if each
practicing veterinarian would do, at most,
one additional cat and one additional dog
spay each week, the surplus would be
It is time that each metropolitan
area of the country made an analysis of its
pet population control programs. They
will find great savings to be made by three
1) Charge licensing and other
fees in accord with ability to pay. Remove
obstacles to participation of the poor.
2) Transfer population control
work to veterinarians.
3) Provide positive identifica-
tion at very low cost instead of license
The Promotion of Animal Welfare
Society will be happy to provide further
details. We have done thousands of low-
cost neuter surgeries through private prac-
tice veterinarians. We do three things:
advertise the program, process the paper-
work (keeping proof of income on file for
each approved application), and subsidize
the surgery according to each applicant’s
ability to pay. (If an applicant has two-
thirds of the ceiling income for participa-
tion in our program, then the applicant has
to pay two-thirds of the cost and we pay
one third.) This program is, we believe,
half as costly as if we had our own clinic,
since we would then have to pay wages as
well as all the other expenses that are now
taken care of by the vets.
Historically, humane groups and
veterinarians have been at odds because
many humane workers consider veterinari-
ans’ fees too high, while vets resent being
criticized for charging what they believe to
be reasonable fees in relationship to their
costs. Two factors offer hope of resolving
this conflict. One is the relatively small
number of surgeries required to solve the
pet overpopulation problem. The other is
the willingness of veterinarians to assist
humane societies so that they can, togeth-
er, solve the problem. The next move is on
the part of humane societies.
P.S.–PAWS is an all-volunteer
[Lewis R. Plumb, of Paradise,
California, became a state humane officer
in 1978. His organization, PAWS, began
its neuter subsidy program in 1988, and
added an emergency health care subsidy
program in 1990.]
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