There are 23 million dogs and cats living in poverty in the United States, and their families often don’t have access to basic wellness services like vaccinations and spaying and neutering. Low-cost clinics and nonprofit organizations are providing a critical public service for these pets and their families, who most likely would otherwise never get to see a veterinarian.
As Nonprofit Quarterly reports, some veterinarians and other trade groups like dentists are trying to crack down on nonprofits within their respective fields. This fight is playing out in Alabama and other state legislatures around the country, and today I’d like to turn the blog over to my colleague Dr. Michael Blackwell, whose guest column on AL.com makes the point that a rising tide lifts all boats in the veterinary profession.
He is the former dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, and chief veterinarian of the U.S. Public Health Service. Here’s Dr. Blackwell's take on the issue:
Imagine trying to shut down a homeless shelter because it gives people a free bed for the night, undercutting business at the Best Western; or claiming that a person who donates free blankets is unfairly stealing away the linen market from Dillard's. Is a soup kitchen driving down sales at Applebee's? What about a doctor who volunteers at a free clinic for the poor—how dare he deprive the HMOs and insurance companies of those customers?
As absurd as it sounds, that's the argument some veterinarians are making in their zeal to shut down nonprofit and low-cost veterinary clinics for struggling pet owners. Unhappy with economic realities, some veterinarians are casting blame on the good-hearted souls within their own profession who work with animal welfare groups to make sure poor and financially strapped families have access to care for their pets.
By blaming nonprofits, veterinarians are barking up the wrong tree. They are seeking even more government regulation of one of the most highly regulated industries. In fact, what the veterinary profession needs is not more government interference, but more tolerance for free-market principles.
Rather than competing with established veterinarians, nonprofit organizations and low-cost services are reaching a new audience of pet owners and introducing them to veterinary services for the first time, expanding the overall universe of veterinary customers and responsible pet owners.
One program providing free spay and neuter and veterinary wellness services for families in poverty-stricken communities nationwide found that 83 percent of patients had never before seen a veterinarian. When these families see a veterinarian for the first time and have a positive experience, they may become lifetime veterinary customers.
A 2011 study by Bayer found six primary reasons for the decline in visits to private veterinary practices:
1. Pet owners are still feeling the impact of the recent recession, even while most veterinarians increased their fees during that period.
2. The number of veterinarians practicing companion animal medicine increased dramatically from 1996 through 2006, far outpacing the growth in cat and dog ownership.
3. Many consumers rely on Internet advice rather than a visit to the veterinarian.
4. The majority of cat owners do not take their cats to the veterinarian because they think it's unnecessary or too difficult.
5. Many pet owners still believe that regular medical check-ups are not needed and many consumers cite "sticker shock," thinking veterinary costs too high.
What wasn't on the list? The existence of nonprofit and low-cost veterinary service providers. These entities are providing a public service, helping to reduce the surplus of unwanted and homeless animals through spay and neuter programs, reducing the number of pets surrendered to shelters and euthanized, and reducing public health threats through rabies vaccinations, parasite control, and other wellness services.
Their work is reducing the burden on municipal agencies and taxpayers. Veterinarians working in non-profit clinics are still veterinarians and are subject to the same licensing, credentialing and oversight standards as any other practicing professional in the field. It's also worth noting that doctors who work with the poor or provide vaccines in developing nations are celebrated, not scorned.
Veterinarians who use their skill, talent and expertise to perform a public service that benefits society should be valued in the same way.
Lawmakers should reject the scare tactics by veterinarians who want to over regulate their own industry and push out veterinarians that are providing good services in the public's interest. It's time to pass legislation formally recognizing that veterinarians should be able to work for nonprofit organizations that help animals, just like they can already work for laboratories, farms, and other enterprises.