Animal welfare groups tackle challenges of pet spay, neuter services


For the Gazette
Published: 12/26/2019 9:02:04 AM

BOSTON – Veterinary care professionals agree that the price of surgical sterilization for pets deters pet owners from spaying or neutering their animals. And with the price of veterinary care increasing exponentially every year, what can be done to combat this issue? Non-profit animal welfare organizations may have the answer.

Veterinary service prices increased by 10 percent between 2015 and 2018, according to the Nationwide/Purdue University Veterinary Price Index. However, non-profit organizations like the MSPCA, Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL), and the Luke and Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic are working to soften the financial blow on Massachusetts pet owners.

“Every veterinarian, no matter whether it’s for-profit or nonprofit, all care about the patients and they want to make sure that the patients get the care that they need,” Michael Keiley, director of adoption centers and programs at MSPCA-Angell, said. “So everybody’s trying to figure out how do we help our clients when they need help getting their animals treated but can’t afford it. I think everyone is grappling with that same question.”

The MSPCA has created several low-cost programs dependent on geographic location and financial status that lowers costs by hundreds of dollars, including a $75 spay and neuter service for dogs and a no-cost, door-to-door program offered to residents of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, according to Keiley

The programs are focused on helping pet owners with financial restraints and areas around Massachusetts with known pet overpopulation issues, he said.

“Dorchester and Roxbury are our primary components and we do have programs for various animals in Hyde Park and Mattapan,” explained Keiley, “as well as the farthest-reaching one in Boston (in) Chelsea.”

Areas further outside of Boston prove to be a greater challenge because pet owners must bring their pets into the city for the surgery, Keiley said.

Similarly, the ARL targets areas with limited access to veterinary resources with their mobile unit known as the Spay Waggin’ headed by medical director of community and shelter medicine, Kyle Quigley.

“The Spay Waggin’ currently operates in southeastern Massachusetts and because we are mobile we try to make sure we are a presence in the communities of greatest need and a resource to anyone that may need our services,” Quigley wrote in an email.

Prices on the mobile unit vary from $100-$125 for cats and $200-$300 for dogs, according to Quigley. The Spay Waggin’ performs around 4,500 spay/neuter surgeries a year.

The Luke and Lily Lerner Spay/Neuter Clinic at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University also has a mission of providing to the community while simultaneously allowing students to gain experience in surgery, according to Emily McCobb, clinical associate professor and director of the Lerner Clinic.

The clinic operates with four tiers of pricing depending on the program a client is eligible for, McCobb explained in an interview.

While the clinic does not offer services to the public, they accept clients after assessing an individual’s situation or if the client has undergone pre-screening through the MSPCA and qualifies for a spay/neuter voucher, according to McCobb.

Spay or neuter procedure costs at full-service hospitals can range from $600-$1,000 depending on the breed, size, health, and sex of the animal, according to MSPCA’s Keiley.

“We are fortunate in the Northeast that we have a very high level of veterinary care,” said McCobb. “So when you go to the average veterinary office they’re going to be able to provide a very high level of care, which is going to involve state-of-the-art technology; things like ventilators and laparoscopic surgery and anesthesia monitoring with machines and all of that can contribute to the cost, which can be pretty high but you’re getting a lot of value at that cost.”

Cutting costs

Despite the benefits and necessity of taking a pet to a full-service animal hospital, veterinarians are cognizant of the financial implications.

“I think that we often see pet owners not visiting the veterinarians for yearly check-ups and bloodwork or spaying/neutering because they just don’t have the finances,” Nicole Breda, medical director of Boston veterinary care at ARL, explained in an email. “So instead, we see them waiting until their pet is very sick and needs emergency care, which is then much harder to fund.”

Veterinary experts noted that a procedure being low-cost does not diminish the quality of the service.

“In general we strive to have the same practices or similar practices,” Keiley explained.

The term used for low-cost procedures is “high quality high volume spay/neuter,” according to Keiley. This refers to a large number of patients being operated on by the same skilled veterinarians using different techniques to make the surgery more efficient. For instance, the way a knot is tied may vary or at what point the patient is being stitched up.

“But those are all consistent with the general standards that are accepted throughout surgical practice,” Keiley explained, noting that a lower quality service would be counter-intuitive.

“If you are helping people who are in poverty and you did something less quality, then the chances of complications would be higher and, as a result, you would be putting a person who is trying to get their animal spayed or neutered in a position to have to deal with a costly complication post-surgery, which wouldn’t make sense,” Keiley said.

One of the main differences between a low-cost spay/neuter and having the procedure done at a full-service hospital is the client’s relationship with the veterinarian, according to Quigley.

“We recommend that our clients develop a relationship with their local veterinarian for ongoing care and medical needs,” Quigley said.

Another key difference is where funding for the programs comes from.

“I think the biggest difference that owners may not realize is that a lot of low- cost programs are grant-funded, meaning they still cost similar to full-service hospitals but the difference in cost is being covered by grants or other organizations,” explained Breda.

State initiatives like the Massachusetts Animal Fund provide financial support to low-cost spay and neuter programs.

“It’s a tax check-off, so you can check the box and a dollar goes to the fund and the revenues are split; half for animal control officer training and half for spay and neuter assistance, which is actually given out through the animal control officers,” McCobb said.

There are a number of reasons spaying or neutering pets is important, according to veterinary professionals.

There are numerous health benefits such as decreased chances of males developing testicular tumors and females being less likely to develop mammary, ovarian, and uterine cancers, according to Breda of the Animal Rescue League in Boston.

“Spaying/neutering your pet helps prevent the pet overpopulation problem,” Breda wrote.

The procedure helps behavioral issues such as decreasing the likelihood of roaming which can lead to a multitude of issues such as increased risk of pets getting hit by cars or unwanted breeding among stray animals, explained Breda.

In 2019 alone, the MSPCA’s Angell-Boston full-service hospital has spayed and neutered 956 animals, according to Keiley. The Boston shelter for public spay and neuter has performed 2,815 procedures and the shelter for animal adoptions has performed 876 this year.

In the wake of overcoming pet overpopulation in Massachusetts, veterinary professionals are striving to keep up with the progress they have made.

Exact numbers of stray animals were not recorded in the state until 2015 when a uniform system was developed by the MSPCA’s advocacy department that required Boston Animal Control to report the number of strays it encountered, according to Keiley.

“We’ve certainly already in New England, interestingly enough, already moved over that hump of a persistent overpopulation issue,” Keiley said. “And they’re now on the other side of that which is the population numbers in our adoption centers have dropped significantly.”

This has made time for the veterinary industry to reevaluate how they take care of animals by putting more focus on stray animals that need to be taken in and re-homed and allowing veterinarians the time to go into communities and help on the front lines as opposed to animals having to come to the shelter, Keiley explained.

“We’re fortunate that we have a lot of resources,” McCobb noted, “there’s a range of costs and there’s a lot of pet owners that need help and it’s sort of like while we’re making good progress, I don’t think we can take our foot off the gas pedal too far.”

Sarah Garcia writes for the Gazette from the Boston University Statehouse Program.

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