Animal welfare must guide rules for shelters

When lawmakers take up a bill that calls for new rules for animal shelters, they should not lose sight of these shelters' critical mission: To find homes for abandoned or lost animals and help prevent more animals from sharing their uncertain and unhealthy fate. In many cases, that means death.

The bill, drafted at the request of veterinarians, would:

  • Require animal shelters receiving public money to use that money only for sterilization procedures for animals in the shelter, not for spay/neuter clinics for non-shelter animals.
  • Put shelters under the regulation of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. The bill's supporters say some shelter employees without veterinary credentials provide veterinary care and say some shelters don't keep patient records or don't share them with other veterinarians.
  • Require some veterinary services at shelters to be available only to prospective pet owners considered low-income.
  • Require any mobile veterinary practice to be affiliated with a local veterinarian within 20 miles of where the mobile operation sets up.
  • Using public money to operate clinics offering sterilization services at low or no cost to non-shelter animals is just as much a public service as sterilizing shelter animals. Dealing with stray and abandoned animals is expensive for local governments. It's important to reduce the number of animals without homes, and reducing the number of animals born is one way to do this.

    Shelters, particularly those that receive public money, should keep good records, and shelter workers without appropriate training should not provide veterinary services. Are the licensing and oversight requirements in the bill the best way to accomplish this?

    Offering veterinary services only to low-income prospective pet owners puts a burden on shelters when it comes to determining who qualifies. And not making the services available to all prospective owners could dissuade some people from adopting an animal. The goal should be to get the animals adopted into good homes. Most of these new owners will take their pets to veterinarians down the road.

    "You have to make it a value, or people can very easily choose to not live with pets," said Amy Campanini, executive director of the Palmetto Animal League.

    It's not clear why -- except for competitive reasons -- a mobile clinic must be associated with a veterinarian within 20 miles of where a mobile operation sets up.

    Bluffton veterinarian Ben Parker of Coastal Veterinary Clinic hit the right note when he said he supports local shelters providing such services as sterilization, vaccinations or microchipping, but there should be limits. They shouldn't be doing major surgeries or diagnosing medical problems unless they are regulated in the same way veterinarians are.

    Parker noted that he and other local veterinarians volunteer to help the shelters provide services at a low cost.

    Lawmakers should recognize the valuable work these shelters do, and keep animal welfare front and center.