The war between shelters, veterinarians needs to end


Despite practitioners legitimate gripes, theyre hurting themselves.

It's been described as “the poison pill.” A group of veterinarians bands together, deciding they're tired of competing for the patronage of pet owners with shelter clinics and low-cost spay-neuter operations in their community when those other groups don't pay taxes and their costs are subsidized by wealthy donors. It's not fair, and they're not going to take it anymore. So they organize a protest (Mississippi, 2008). Or they introduce legislation to limit the practice of medicine in shelters (Alabama, 2013). They write letters to the editor, show up at city council meetings, and talk to anyone who will listen. And they wait for the reasonable, rational public to see their side of things.

Only it doesn't happen. Turns out the pet-owning public is anything but reasonable and rational when it comes to issues surrounding animal welfare and homeless pets. Their answering cry is that those fat-cat money-grubbing veterinarians simply want to line their own already-bulging pockets at the expense of controlling pet overpopulation and providing services to those who can't afford a regular veterinarian's fees. In fact, the shelters and other nonprofit clinics hardly have to do a thing to defend themselves-they just sit back and wait for the public to do it for them.

And the venerable, respected, trustworthy population of local veterians takes on the cast of pariahdom. The poison pill has done its work.

Spit it out

It's time for the veterinary profession to do some serious soul-searching and see if it can find the strength within to heal this rift-despite some very real, very legitimate frustrations. It's time to stop competing and start collaborating-even though it's true that the playing field is far from level.

Yes, it's true that many large shelters are offering more veterinary services to the pet-owning public as a way to bring in more money and offset their fundraising needs. Yes, it's true that many nonprofit organizations treat the teacup-breed dog that rode in on the front seat of a Mercedes without asking for a shred of proof of income-based need. Yes, veterinarians' complaints are largely legitimate.

The problem? It's simply a battle veterinarians can't win. Public opinion is too enamored (and ever-increasingly so) with the idea of these organizations' work on behalf of homeless pets and the surrounding communities.

Christie Keith is an animal welfare advocate and shelter communications expert who recently conducted a webinar for veterinarians and shelter personnel on behalf of Maddie's Institute, a homeless animal advocacy group. In the webinar, “Everybody Wins: Learn How to Change the Way Animal Groups and Veterinarians Work Together,” she lists several reasons why veterinarians who complain about shelters hurt their colleagues:

> Public support of animal shelters is overwhelming.

> It reinforces a false perception that veterinarians are greedy.

> Pet adoption has social cachet, and adopters are a passionate group who don't shy away from using social media to share their opinions.

“Veterinarians, you have to stop railing against the low-cost spay-neuter clinics,” Keith says emphatically during the webinar. “The public doesn't want to hear it. They don't like you for it.”

It's a bitter pill to swallow, but one that will do more good than the poison pill.

(To be fair, Keith also spends a good chunk of time educating shelter people that veterinarians are not greedy, that they care about animals deeply and want to help as many as possible, that their financial challenges are significant and often overwhelming, and that they do quite a bit of veterinary work for less money than they would normally charge-they just don't advertise it much. Click here to hear Keith's ideas for how shelters and veteriarians can work together.)

The millennial consumer

Here's something else to think about. According to Cam Marsden of Generational Insights, who's extensively researched various generations' behavior in the marketplace and their consumption patterns and purchasing choices, millennials (those currently between 18 and 34 years old) are the largest generation alive today and rapidly becoming the most dominant consumer force. And one of the most important factors they use in deciding how to spend their money is social conscience-they will patronize the large company or small business that has one, especially if that business's social values align with their own.

So what does this mean for you? Basically, if you are known as a veterinarian who works in cooperation and partnership with shelters, rescue groups and other animal welfare organizations, you have a much better chance of attracting a millennial pet owner as a client than if you aren't. And if you are known as someone who is actively working against the low-cost service providers in your community, then lord help you: That 28-year-old mother of 1.5 is going to get on her social media megaphone and broadcast your infamy to her entire world.

We see you over there

OK, OK, before you fall off your exam room stool trying to get our attention, let me acknowledge what you want to say: There are a ton of you out there who are already successfully working with the shelters, rescue organizations and low-cost spay-neuter clinics in your communities. In fact, those who are worked up and upset about shelters are a small-though intensely loud-minority. Those of you in the large cooperative middle are the ones we used as inspiration for our coverage of the “solutions” side of this issue, both in dvm360 and its sister publications: Veterinary Economics, Veterinary Medicine and Firstline. You are lighting the way down a better path.

After all, adoption from shelters and rescue groups is the way people acquire pets these days-many pet stores have completely replaced their retail pet sales with adoption partnerships, and breeding is increasingly looked askance on in light of puppy mill atrocities. If the path to pet ownership starts in a shelter or foster home, there are lots of ways to make sure it ends in a veterinary practice. That's the goal of this dvm360 Leadership Challenge.

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