'Light at End of Tunnel' On Pet Overpopulation
Soulful eyes and anxious yips tell one side of the story in this recovery room.
The other side comes in the form of cost-saving and prevention of cruelty and neglect to thousands of dogs and cats.
The Spay/Neuter Veterinary Clinic of the Sandhills is doing more than helping the overall community with its pet overpopulation problem, says Dr. Cynthia Eaton, one of two full-time veterinarians working at the clinic. She says it shows that a pet owner really loves the pet.
"Yes, it relieves the whole community of the burden of pet overpopulation, but it helps in so many other ways that we try to encourage it," she says. "It shows love and concern, but it helps in a lot of other positive ways."
Eaton says that spaying or neutering reduces the risk of cancer in domestic animals, reduces the urge to roam, thus cutting the pet's chances of death or serious injury in an auto accident, and, in some breeds, reduces the tendency toward aggressiveness.
Since the clinic opened in late December 2007, more than 3,000 dogs and cats have undergone sterilization procedures at the clinic based on U.S. 1 near Vass, which serves a nine-county area. Of that number, 63 percent were dogs.
The clinic started off with a boom. When it officially opened Jan. 1, the clinic staff faced a waiting list of more than 500 animals, including pets signed up from several sources.
For starters, the Moore County Citizens' Pet Responsibility Committee turned its waiting list over to the clinic, as did a number of humane societies, and animal welfare and rescue groups. The clinic also handles spay/neuter services for county-operated animal shelters.
In the first months of clinic operation, the waiting list remained at more than 500 animals.
"Then, bang -- all of a sudden in June, we had made our way through the list," says Dr. Joe Currie, a retired veterinarian and a board member of the Companion Animal Clinic of the Sandhills Foundation. He supervises the clinic's volunteer program.
Since then, the clinic has struggled to maintain "the right mix" of dogs and cats. Currie says the clinic needs to operate on 40 to 45 animals a day to be self sufficient. In addition, it really needs to serve a more equal number of cats and dogs. Neutering cats takes less time than does the procedure for dogs.
The clinic business plan calls for the clinic to have two full-time veterinarians on the staff within its first four years. But until the program is stabilized, this goal may be difficult to achieve. The clinic leadership wants to operate full time but also needs to keep the personnel busy during office hours.
Through August, more than half of the patients came from Moore County. Two-thirds of the pets are privately owned animals, while the remainder come from animal control shelters. Richmond County supplies the next largest number of patients.
"Our primary focus was to serve animal control centers," Currie says. "So many animals are dumped there."
The clinic was expecting the next largest number to come from nonprofits, such as rescue groups, Humane Societies, Animal Advocates and similar groups.
Currie says the clinic is in the process of drawing up an agreement with Cumberland County. Participation has been hit-or-miss from the other member counties -- Chatham, Harnett, Hoke, Lee, Montgomery and Randolph.
Word of the clinic's availability is spreading, and a woman in Wake County has brought a number of animals to the clinic.
'Light at End of Tunnel'
Al Carter, Moore County Animal Control director, says the county is saving money by using the clinic. The spay/neuter fee is lower, and money is saved through reduction in euthanizations.
"From the standpoint of our staff, the clinic is the light at the end of the tunnel," Carter says. "We're pinning our hopes on a drastic reduction in the number of animals euthanized."
For the first time, the Moore County Animal Shelter is running below the number of euthanizations performed the previous year.
It also costs less to have animals spayed and neutered. The county pays the same fee charged to private pet owners, but it is lower than the fee the county had been paying the mobile service that previously visited the county to provide service. And the fee charged by the mobile service was less than the going rate at a private veterinary practice.
"This is less than we've ever paid anybody," says Carter of the clinic service.
Carter says no animal can be adopted from the center unless it has been spayed or neutered. Those sent to the clinic are either already adopted or soon to be adopted.
Animal Control officials are required by law to hold animals a specific number of days to give owners an opportunity to claim them. After that time has passed, they are available for adoption if they are suitable. And just about all are adoptable.
The exceptions are the vicious, those suffering from contagious disease or illness so serious they are not expected to live. These animals are usually euthanized Sometimes it is also necessary to euthanize animals that are adoptable but have not been claimed and the shelter needs space to care for newcomers.
Pets must be four months old before they can be spayed or neutered.
"Generally speaking, I think the veterinary community welcomes this practice," says Currie.
Keep Costs Down
A retired veterinarian, Currie says spaying and neutering represent a money-losing proposition for most veterinary practices. The veterinary community was involved in planning for the clinic from the beginning.
Losing money is not the only problem faced by private veterinarians when it comes to providing this service to stray and abandoned animals and pets of low-income residents. Currie says these animals are often at higher risk of sickness or of carrying a contagious disease, which means that veterinarians must take additional precautions when treating these animals.
The idea behind the clinic is to provide a cost-effective source of spay/neuter services to shelters and pet owners who cannot afford to pay for these procedures. For the most part, the cost of the procedure remains the same. The nonprofit Companion Animal Clinic of the Sandhills Foundation subsidizes the cost, enabling the clinic to charge a lower fee.
Since its opening, the clinic has been charging $35 to neuter a cat and $45 for all other procedures -- neutering dogs, spaying both dogs and cats. Operational costs are rising, and eventually it may be necessary to raise these fees.
Fees vary in private practice, but in general it costs about three times more to have these procedures done by a private veterinarian. For a large dog the fee can be $200 or higher.
Currie says the clinic operates on a system of trust. Residents who bring their pets for service are not asked to document their economic status.
If the owner does not have proof of rabies vaccination, the clinic provides a rabies shot. State law requires vaccination against rabies for all dogs and cats.
The clinic also offers microchipping as an optional service. For $20, the clinic will insert the microchip in the pet's neck and will place the pet owner's identification and number into the national registry. This means that if the animal ever gets lost, ownership can be determined with use of a scanner when the pet is picked up by animal control or nonprofits.
About 60 percent of the animals served at the clinic receive rabies vaccinations.
Spaying and neutering is just one aspect of pet health, and Currie says that the private pet owners are encouraged to select a veterinarian in their own communities for follow-up attention.
Rabies vaccinations must be given on a regular basis, and other vaccinations are also recommended. In addition, it's always a good idea to have a doctor to visit when the pet is injured or becomes ill.
The clinic has two full-time veterinarians on staff. Dr. Colleen Dutson, chief surgeon, has been on the staff since its beginning. Eaton joined the staff Sept. 1. Dr. James Mackie, of Raleigh, helps on a part-time basis.
"Bunny" (yes, that's her name) Rabbitt is the chief veterinary technician, and Nicole Sazama is assistant technician with Jenna Webb, technician assistant, and Amanda Parker, part-time technician. Sue Baldwin is office manager, and Kelly Beatty, assistant office manager.
EK (which stands for Evil Kitty), the clinic mascot, is a mischievous cat who prowls the reception area and the offices but is not allowed in the clinical areas. EK on occasion is a nuisance, hence the initials for Evil Kitty.
Currie and the staff say the clinic could not operate without a host of volunteers who help with everything from scheduling appointments to keeping watch in the recovery room. They also help with the laundry and sterilization of surgical instruments.
It was the Humane Alliance of Asheville that initially came up with the concept of the nonprofit spay/neuter clinic, and the Sandhills clinic has adopted many of the practices of that nonprofit.
Currie says there is documentation that such clinics reduce the number of euthanizations.
"That's our goal -- to make a significant impact on euthanasia," Currie says. "It gives animals an opportunity to live a long life. And second, it saves the county money."
Currie says the public has little idea just how expensive it is to operate a shelter. The cost includes picking up animals, housing them, providing veterinary care, including spay and neuter, and euthanasia.
The clinic also spays and neuters feral cats brought in by groups that work with feral cats and by individuals who care for them at their homes or businesses.
Asked why she pursues a career in this field, Rabbitt says she has done rescue work in the past and has seen the number of puppies in need of help.
"I do it because I believe in it," she says while rubbing a pup as it comes out from under anesthesia. "These animals need to be loved and they need to be spayed and neutered."
The clinic may be smaller than a hospital but it is just as sterile. The glassed-in operating room has space for two tables. Outside is the larger recovery room, where pets are caged before and after surgery.
Separate areas are set aside for dogs and cats, and there is a separate room for feral cats. A large storage room contains a large washer and dryer plus storage space.
The cat room was outfitted by a $50,000 gift from Animal Advocates of Moore County, which donated a gift received through the estate of Frances K. Trees.
Currie says the clinic and the foundation are working to make the clinic self-supporting.
"We want to stand on our own feet," he says.
But that won't happen until the community understands the program and gets behind it. In the meantime the leaders are working on agreements with the other member counties, because the clinic was designed to serve all nine counties, not just the animal control programs in Moore and Richmond counties and private pet owners.
The clinic is the brainchild of the Companion Animal Clinic of the Sandhills, a nonprofit organization involved in animal welfare initiatives for a number of years. In 2003 and 2004, foundation board members met with local veterinarians and with the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University to assess the need for a low-cost spay/neuter program.
To everyone involved, the high number of animals being euthanized because of pet overpopulation was unacceptable.
Once the organization achieved nonprofit status as a tax-deductible charity, a major fundraising campaign was launched in 2005 and continued into 2007 with the foundation raising almost a half million dollars to provide capital for a building, equipment and start-up supplies. This effort ran the gamut from major contributions from individuals and groups to fundraisers with such humorous names as De-Sex in the City and De-Sex Under the Stars.
Funds raised through these efforts were also sufficient to pay operational costs for the first year.
However, the intent is to rely less and less on donations and to become self-reliant through fees paid by client groups, principally animal control programs and animal welfare organizations, as well as private pet owners.
Now that the building is available and equipped, the clinic needs to earn enough money to cover operational expenses. It can be done, Currie says, if enough animal control programs, animal welfare groups and individuals will use the program and use it wisely.
The focus at present is on a voucher program, in which individuals donate vouchers to underwrite the difference between the full cost of spay/neuter procedures and the reduced fees charged for service.
Vouchers can be specified for large dogs, feral cats, or specific shelters.
Information about the voucher program is available at www. companionanimalclinic.org, the Web site for the Companion Animal Clinic of the Sandhills Foundation Inc., along with a voucher Donor Form.
The mailing address is P.O. Box 148, Southern Pines 28388. Additional information is available by calling 246-2000.
The clinic is at 5071 U.S. 1, south of Vass not far from Dunrovin. The appointment number is 692-3499 (FIXX).
Deborah Wilson is president of the CAC Foundation Board of Directors. Other directors are Dr. Tom Daniel, Neal Jarest, Bobbie Mudge, Joel Shriberg, Pat Smith, Rocco Tuzio, Cynthia Williams and Currie.
The foundation says that animal overpopulation is a long-term problem and cites the need for a reverse in the 13 to 15 percent increases in numbers of animals turned in at animal control shelters, resulting in a higher and higher rate of euthanasia.
Animal shelter operations are expensive to taxpayers and reflect badly on human beings' treatment of their four-footed friends.
"This is needed because it's the only solution to pet overpopulation," Currie says of the spay/neuter clinic. "When we spay or neuter an animal, that animal is not producing any more animals. It stops the cycle."
Contact Florence Gilkeson at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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