Private Practices and Shelters: Two Sides of the Same Coin

American Veterinarian®June 2017
Volume 2
Issue 3

If healthy pets are the mutual goal, why all the controversy?

Being on the front lines of care for pets in your community, you are no doubt aware of the many issues that affect animal welfare. In response, you may have wondered how you could help more animals. Perhaps you’ve even thought about the work your local shelter or rescue groups are doing.

The majority of animals that leave shelters for adoptive homes are healthy, but they often do not arrive that way. Of the 6.5 million companion animals that enter shelters each year, almost 650,000 are picked up as strays.1 These animals may be sick or injured, and around 90% are intact.1 Some shelters have veterinarians on staff to treat these animals, but many partner with 1 or more veterinarians in the community who work for the shelter on a part-time or voluntary basis.

In addition to providing standard medical services, shelters often also rely on community veterinarians to help establish their intake protocols, including clinical assessment practices, vaccinations, and isolation procedures, and to assess their ongoing management routines, such as prophylactic parasite control, zoonotic and infectious disease testing, and euthanasia. Unfortunately, shelter budgets are typically less than adequate, and veterinarians who work in or with shelters do not do it to get rich.

The veterinarian—shelter relationship is essential when it comes to addressing the care of shelter animals. Where there is controversy, it is in the services that some shelters provide post adoption and to the community at large. Many shelters provide low-cost spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations, and some also offer wellness and emergency services. Independent nonprofit groups that do not take in animals but provide low-cost assistance can also be found across the country. No one debates the value of these services, as it has been shown that the most effective way to reduce the number of animals entering shelters is through the voluntary sterilization of owned pets.2,3

However, private practice veterinarians argue that offering these services takes business away from them, and results of the 2011 Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study—which found that profits at veterinary practices are decreasing4—seem to confirm these fears. Although the Bayer report showed that people were not taking their pets to the veterinarian as often, however, it was not because they were using subsidized services but for a number of other reasons:

  • Poor economy
  • Increased competition from new practices
  • The substitution of Internet research for office visits
  • Difficulty in getting cats to the practice
  • The perception that wellness visits are unnecessary
  • The high cost of care

The growing tension between private practice veterinarians and shelters has resulted in the filing of several legislative bills across the country. In South Carolina, for example, a bill introduced in 2013 by the South Carolina Association of Veterinarians aims to limit the kinds of services shelters can provide to animals not living in their facility; the bill was revised and reintroduced a number of times but has not yet been adopted as law. Shelters argue that they provide valuable services to people who otherwise would not seek veterinary care for their pets due to financial constraints.

Most private practice veterinary groups, including those behind restrictive legislature, support the use of low- or no-cost services for the estimated 23 million pets that live in poverty,5 but they feel that because many shelters do not ask for proof of income, pet owners who otherwise can afford these services are taking advantage of the subsidized programs. Shelters feel that the income levels are too limiting. The South Carolina bill would restrict the assistance shelters can provide to only those who met the federal poverty level, which is currently less than $24,600 per year for a family of 4.

Numerous communities are making it work, and these adversarial examples seem to be the exception rather than the norm. A survey of 455 private practitioners and 772 shelter representatives conducted by the CATalyst Council found that only 5% of veterinarians and 1% of shelter respondents felt that their own shelter—veterinarian relationship was antagonistic, and 53% of veterinarians and 71% of shelter representatives perceived their relationship to be one of mutual support and respect.6

Regardless of how you feel about shelters and rescue groups, they are a source of many of your clients. About 30% of pets come from shelters.1 Because most shelters and rescue groups have veterinarians to whom they refer adoptees, it is advantageous to the bottom line of practice owners to get on those lists. This does not mean that practices need to offer low-cost services; rather, they need to be available as a friendly voice. Research and visit your local shelters and rescue groups so you can support them when clients, legislatures, or the media ask. This can mean serving as a resource for health questions the shelter may have, proactively supplying information about disease outbreaks in your patients, or volunteering at an adoption Ask-the-Vet event. A more involved option is to become a member of your local shelter’s board of directors, where you will not only help direct the operations of the shelter or rescue but will be integral to fundraising and serving as a link to the community.

At the end of the day, everyone wants the same thing: healthy pets in loving homes.

Meredith Rogers has a bachelor of science degree in animal health from the University of Connecticut and a master of science degree in microbiology and molecular genetics from Rutgers University. She has more than 19 years of experience creating content for a variety of health care audiences. She lives in Kingston, New Jersey, and shares her life with a horse, a dog, and a cat.


  • ASPCA. Shelter intake and surrender: Pet statistics. ASPCA website. Accessed May 2, 2017.
  • Clancy EA, Rowan AN. Companion animal demographics in the United States: A historical perspective. In Salem DJ, Rowan AN (Eds): State of the Animals II: 2003. Washington, DC: Humane Society Press; 2003;9-26.
  • The Foundation for Interdisciplinary Research and Education Promoting Animal Welfare (FIREPAW). Cross-Program Statistical Analysis of Maddie's Fund Programs. Williamstown, MA: FIREPAW, Inc; 2004.
  • Spinks I. Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study III: Feline Findings. Whippany, NJ: Bayer HealthCare; 2012. Accessed May 2, 2016.
  • Humane Society of the United States. Reach underserved communities. HSUS website. Accessed May 2, 2017.
  • Brunt J. Relationship between private practice and animal welfare. JAVMA. 2012;241(8):1022.
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