Heaven And Hell In The Shelter World

Clients, patients benefit when clinics and rescues partner.


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Elliot’s owner thought she was wise by having her 1-year-old male pit bull neutered at a local low-cost spay and neuter clinic. A neuter for $25—what a bargain!

Something went wrong with the surgery. Five days later, Elliot presented at the local emergency clinic for a grossly swollen prepuce and scrotum, along with ventral abdominal edema. Severe bruising covered most of the scrotum, and some of the skin was necrotic.

He was lethargic, anorexic and extremely uncomfortable. The $25 castration included nothing more than the procedure itself. No medications, not even pain medications, were dispensed, and no written discharge instructions were provided.

A scrotal ablation was discussed with the owner but she elected conservative treatment—hydrotherapy, cephalexin, tramadol and carprofen.

Two days later, Elliot was back in the ER.

This time, necrosis and infection were even more obvious. A scrotal ablation was the right thing to do.

The perioperative protocol included antibiotics, pain medications and IV fluids, including a constant rate infusion. He was hospitalized overnight and recovered very well. The day after surgery, he was a different dog—immensely more comfortable.

Big Money

With the various emergency visits, the $25 had become a $2,500 ordeal.

The sad part of the story is not only the final bill, but also the fact that Elliot became proof that in the veterinary world, you sometimes get what you pay for. The owner learned a costly lesson, but ultimately Elliot paid the price.

Dr. Paul, whose clinic charges $166 for a state-of-the-art cat neuter,  shares the sad story of Blackie, a 6-month-old kitten.

His owner thought it would be a good idea to have the local shelter neuter him. The sign-in form offered two options: $25 for an outdoor cat, or $50 for an indoor cat.

Being the wise consumer that she is, the owner kinda sorta bent the truth and claimed that Blackie was an outdoor cat. When she picked up her cat, she was horrified to discover that his left ear was "tipped.”

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Not just the tip as it typically is, but almost half of the ear.

This will be a painful daily reminder to Blackie’s owner that sometimes, you get what you pay for.

Now contrast these horror stories with the heavenly situation at the Hill County Animal League in Boerne, Texas.

In 2005, the rescue organization bought a building to host a shelter and a veterinary clinic. By coincidence, the building was across the street from one of the local veterinary hospitals, the Boerne Veterinary Clinic. Not a few feet off to the right or to the left, not a block farther. Exactly across the street.

The shelter had already developed a great working relationship with Dr. Steve Rapp, owner of the hospital. The arrangement enabled him to perform very few neuters, which he didn’t enjoy too much anymore, and to focus on fancier procedures. So now he refers most clients across the street for neuters. 

In Need

Depending on the situation, clients either pay full price if they can, or benefit from discounted fees when needed.

And when the need arises, the shelter refers patients to the hospital for blood work, radiographs and other tests the League can’t provide.

Clearly, this is a win-win-win-win relationship—for the shelter, the veterinarian, the clients and the patients. And if clients can’t afford the tab, the shelter’s humane fund provides financial assistance.

How is such a wonderful working relationship possible?

Jackie, executive director of the Hill County Animal League, explains that building the relationship started with communication years before the group ever moved into its own building. They met Dr. Rapp and thought about how they could work together.

Jennifer Blackson, director of animal services at the League, believes that overpopulation is a challenge of epic proportions. Different avenues exist to attack the problem, but clearly more can be accomplished by working together than by fighting.

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"It takes a village,” Jennifer concludes.

A Village

Dr. Rapp embraces this philosophy.

Despite what we might initially think, some problems and struggles depend only on how we react to them.

Poop happens. Competition increases. New grads hang their shingles. Mobile vets show up. Pet shops open.
Tractor stores appear. Pharmacies sell loss leaders. Unethical people divert drugs. The list is endless.
Some capitulate. Some have a conniption. Some wonder how they will pay their bills.

Yet others analyze the situation, take a step back and find a way to create a win-win situation. Dr. Rapp now enjoys doing "what (he) was trained to do: work up cases, perform surgery and nurture client relationships.”

A few years back, when Dr. Rapp had to go on medical leave, his local "competitors” jumped in to help out. Colleagues filled in to see clients on their days off, and the hospital administrator played receptionist on her day off. 

Past chair of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators and current CATalyst Council President Jan McHugh-Smith agrees that "it takes a village.”

"When collaboration is the top priority, everyone in the community benefits and at the top of the list are all the pets that now have a loving home where they can receive a lifetime of care.”

A December  survey conducted by CATalyst Council, Advanstar Veterinary Group and Petfinder.com. indicated that:

• 17 percent of veterinarians and 2 percent of shelter respondents believe that, in general, shelter-veterinary relationships are adversarial.
• 5 percent of veterinarians and 1 percent of shelters categorized their particular relationship as adversarial.
• Many respondents would like to further strengthen their relationships.
• Most participants said they would like to receive tips on how to enhance their relationship.

Although the perception might be that there is more animosity than symbiosis between veterinary clinics and shelters, the real story seems to have changed dramatically in recent years.

Ultimately, pets are the clear winners of this evolving situation. 

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman, Dipl. ACVS, is a board-certified mobile surgeon in Allentown, Pa. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com.

Katie Kegerise, a certified veterinary technician  in Reading, Pa., contributed to this article.


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