Champion animal welfare in your community


On a hot Sunday morning in July, J.C. Burcham, DVM, and a colleague neuter 79 cats at a local animal welfare organization. Dr. Burcham, who practices in a large veterinary hospital in Olathe, Kan., knows firsthand about relinquishment and euthanasia.

On a hot Sunday morning in July, J.C. Burcham, DVM, and a colleague neuter 79 cats at a local animal welfare organization. Dr. Burcham, who practices in a large veterinary hospital in Olathe, Kan., knows firsthand about relinquishment and euthanasia. Her class in shelter medicine at Iowa State University and the time she spent in two preceptorships at animal shelters opened her eyes, she says, so she graduated in 2004 with a desire to be a community activist. Besides providing neutering services through the No More Homeless Pets Kansas City organization one day a month, she visits elementary schools with her dog Scamper to teach children how to handle pets and what to do if challenged by an angry dog.

Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board

"Society places a lot of trust in veterinarians," says Kate Hurley, DVM, MPVM, director of the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis. "They are highly trained, and the public regards them as animal professionals. When we join with shelters, it elevates the status of both the problem and the profession in the public eye."

Richard Avanzino, president of Maddie's Fund, a charity founded in 1999 to help save homeless pets in shelters, sees a strong relationship between veterinary medicine and saving the three million or so healthy animals put to death in shelters. Successful programs bankrolled by Maddie's Fund use the local veterinary community in concert with shelter and community groups. One project in Lodi, Calif., brought together 10 of the area's 12 veterinary hospitals to stanch an explosion in the animal population there. Some of those veterinarians, he says, had never met before. "Over five years they reached an adoption guarantee for all healthy pets," he says.

Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board


Peter Marsh, a New Hampshire attorney, has helped bring shelter euthanasia numbers down in his state—from 11,494 in 1993 to 3,441 in 1999.1 From 1994 to 2002, shelter euthanasia in New Hampshire declined 77% to the lowest euthanasia rate in America.2 Marsh doesn't think veterinarians should shoulder complete responsibility for ending healthy animal euthanasia, but he has seen how instrumental they can be as key members of a community effort. "We could not have gotten public financing for our efforts without the veterinarians' support," Marsh says. "They paved the way for us."

Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board

Veterinarians do shoulder the burden for much of a New Hampshire spay and neuter program targeted at low-income pet owners. More than 70% of veterinary practices in New Hampshire participate by providing low-cost surgeries for pets whose owners qualify for the program, which began in 1994. To qualify, pet owners must be eligible for Medicaid or food stamps or one of five public-assistance programs. The veterinarians agree to lower their customary fees for neutering by 20%; the cost of the surgeries is subsidized through proceeds from a $2 surcharge on dog licenses and a $25 owner co-payment. More than 34,000 surgeries were performed in the first eight years of the program.2 Marsh reports that 80% of the decline in shelter euthanasia in New Hampshire is attributable to decreased shelter admissions subsequent to this program.

"There is some wonderful research that shows that every effective spay/neuter that would not have happened otherwise leads to between a half and three-fourths fewer animals in intake," Marsh says.3 "So, to bring the shelter euthanasia rate down to the level that will make it unnecessary to put down adoptable animals, we just have to do five million more surgeries nationwide each year than we're doing now."

Raising funds to offset philanthropic losses

Marsh advocates placing "shelter euthanasia in the same context as any epidemic threat." That means, he says, approaching the problem scientifically, with adequate data and planned strategies. "The scientific approach allows you to put together a realistic plan," he says. "Then it's not about hope. It's about meeting your goals.

"Just as you heard the axiom, 'the poor will always be with us,' people thought, 'shelters will always have to put down healthy cats and dogs to control their populations.' The idea is you can't do much about it. But the reality is that if you come up with a strategy and you look at the data, you can do something."

Advice from the Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board

An important reason the New Hampshire program worked, Marsh says, is the recognition that low-income communities contribute more animals to shelters because a larger proportion of household pets remain intact. Once poor pet owners—about 15% of the population—had an affordable program, a dramatic drop in shelter numbers occurred. Marsh says veterinarians were willing to come onboard for the spay and neuter program when it was aimed at people who really needed help paying for the surgeries.


It is clear where Brian Forsgren, DVM, a private practitioner in Cleveland and a past president of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics, stands on the question of whether or not euthanasia of several million healthy animals a year is a practitioner's problem. He'd like to move more of his colleagues to become, in his words, "the epicenter of animal welfare in their communities." He offers the following four first steps he thinks practitioners should take to become more involved:

1. Communicate with local animal-control officers and police departments. Let them know you will provide immediate care for strays and for dogs and cats hit by cars.

2. Form alliances with local shelters, humane societies, and rescue groups. Provide discounted services and be responsive to their need for timely help.

3. Provide an open door for low-income and indigent pet owners, including immediate triage and care plans, preventive medical intervention in zoonotic diseases, and a walk-in clinic six days a week.

4. Create your own in-house rehabilitation and adoption program. Rescue groups can assist you with such a program.

Dr. Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, suggests making yourself aware of the various re-homing groups in your community, though he cautions against referring to groups before screening their work. In his area, a veterinarian could use the services of 40 to 50 regional breed groups. "There are networks of foster homes," he explains. "It's like a loose sponge, an unorganized network of grass roots organizations and individuals. It calls for more effort on the part of veterinarians."

What Works for Dr. Brian Forsgren

As Dr. Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, director of the Maddie's Shelter Medicine program at Cornell University, puts it, "We live in communities, and veterinarians have an obligation to the larger community."

Dr. Forsgren agrees: "We're not here just to make money or to have our egos fed," he says. "We're here for a reason. All that self-worth stuff that our generation believed in—well, some of us still think about that."


1. Secovich SJ. Case study: companion animal over-population programs in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Maine. Available at

2. Imagine Humane. Solutions to the overpopulation of pets: state funded spay/neuter in New Hampshire. Available at

3. FIREPAW. Cross-program statistical analysis of Maddie's Fund programs. August 2004;9. Available at

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