Best Friends Blog

The cost accounting of shelter killing in Texas

A recent opinion by the Texas Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (TBVME) threatens to derail the no-kill achievements of Austin and the rapid progress toward no-kill being made in San Antonio and other Texas cities. The TBVME ruling is the subject of a lawsuit brought by no-kill leader Ellen Jefferson, DVM of Austin and executive director of Austin Pets Alive.

At issue is the matter of shelter veterinary medicine vs. private practice veterinary medicine and the low cost of shelter killing in Texas.

All pet owners are familiar with private veterinary practice. You make an appointment for either a routine check-up or for a specific health concern you may have about your animal friend. The veterinary office looks increasingly like that of your own primary care physician – clean, well-lit and reassuringly disinfected. You meet the vet privately, discuss your pet’s health and come to some agreement about the recommended vaccines, treatments or advanced diagnostics, etc., and the cost of services to be rendered. The veterinary office keeps a detailed record of your pet’s health and over time will develop a healthcare profile for the animal. Such care is increasingly specialized, high-tech, time-consuming and expensive. It is estimated that pet owners will spend $15 billion on veterinary care in 2014.

By contrast, shelter veterinary medicine is an entirely different animal and can be characterized in layman’s terms as follows:

  • First of all, rather than operating in a for-profit environment, shelter vets operate under the nonprofit umbrella of the sheltering agency, be that a municipal shelter or a local humane society or society for the prevention of cruelty to animals that manages an animal control contract. For the purposes of veterinary care, shelter animals are not owned by private individuals but are the property of the shelter. When a shelter vet is presented with a dog or cat with no owner ID, they have no idea of the pet’s medical records or prevailing health issues, including vaccination history, any medication that the animal might be on, including pain meds, or any other ongoing treatment for an existing condition, such as diabetes or thyroid problems.


  • Cost of care is also an issue, if not the issue, in delivering individualized care to shelter animals. Rather than a caring and informed pet owner covering the cost of care, shelter vets operate under an imposed budget intended to cover the cost of care of every animal entering the shelter system for the budgetary year. A shelter vet can’t just order up a blood panel, ultrasound or an MRI for any animal whose condition they believe might warrant a deeper dive. The only animals that most shelters can afford to provide specialized care for are those who arrive at the shelter with an obvious injury or treatable medical condition, and sadly, in many shelters, even those animals arriving with injuries, such as broken bones, are often given little if any care.


  • Most rural and small town shelters do not have funding to hire a veterinarian to be on duty seven days per week. Rather, they employ a part-time veterinarian who establishes basic medical protocols for shelter staff to implement, elevating only the most critical and dangerous medical issues to the attention and limited availability of the shelter vet. This allows the shelter staff to address everyday medical issues to prevent contagion and save lives between veterinary visits.


  • Animals in a shelter setting are not seen by appointments that conform to a vet’s preferred allotment of time for care and attention to individual animals, but rather they arrive at the shelter in an uncontrolled stream determined by the number of field calls, owner surrenders and stray turn-ins on any given day, further mitigating against protocols that favor individualized care.


  • Finally, animals in the care of private practitioners live in private homes and are not subject to the stress of a shelter or exposure to random infectious diseases that float around an animal control facility.

As a result of the glaring differences between private and shelter veterinary medicine, shelter vets are obliged to focus on disease prevention and the collective health of all animals in the shelter, along with only the most immediate and glaring needs of any one individual. Consequently, shelter medicine is often likened to “herd health management” as practiced by farm vets who must be concerned about large numbers of animals that share pasturage, water, food troughs and bedding. The term of art for this approach to shelter medicine is “population level” medicine to distinguish dogs and cats from herd animals.

So, getting back to the trouble in Texas, the TVBME recently ruled that the same standards of care apply to shelter vets as those applied to private practice, pay-for-services vets despite the world of difference between the two environments and discrepancy of available resources. If upheld in court, this ruling would drive up the cost of shelter medicine and potentially force cash-strapped shelters to cap that type of mandated expense.

The most likely cost-cutting measure that shelters will default to is killing more shelter pets because lurking in the background is a decades-old Texas law that allows shelter staff (with only 12 hours of education) to legally purchase and administer the barbiturate used to euthanize animals. Further, it is not necessary for a veterinarian to be present to oversee the process, making the killing of animals in Texas shelters cheap and easy. If Texas pulls the plug on low-cost shelter medicine protocols and imposes the standards of care applied to private practice, the cost accounting of killing shelter pets versus implementing lifesaving programs will be a calculation that many Texas shelters will be forced to make.

Since the consequence of the TVBME ruling will be an increase in shelter deaths, their motivation is clearly not in the interest of animal health and welfare or consumer protection because the consumer in this instance is the shelter. Their actual motivation is unclear, but I suspect that it has more to do with veterinary income than it does with veterinary ethics.

Dr. Jefferson is a champion of low-cost and effective shelter medicine, which she candidly describes as occasionally resembling working in a war zone MASH unit, and is suing the TVBME to reverse this dangerous finding and to formally define the long-standing protection that has enabled shelter veterinary medicine to save lives.

Francis Battista
Best Friends Animal Society

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  • johnbachman

    Court hearing yeaterday. Does anyone know the outcome?

    • MelissaLMiller

      Hi John,

      On Monday, a court session was held in Austin district court but it did not conclude – instead, the two parties entered into discussions with the hope of resolving the issue outside of litigation. Discussions are expected to continue for the foreseeable future.

      Thanks for all you do for homeless pets.

      Melissa Miller
      New Media Coordinator

      • johnbachman

        Thank you very much. I really appreciate it. I wonder if that means that the matter will not even be brought up at the June TSVBME meeting?
        Anyway Thanks again,


    Anyone who has lived near or around San Antonio knows how severe and heartbreaking the stray and unwanted dog population is. A couple years ago some organizations got together and started doing something REAL and substantial about the problem. Partnerships are dang hard, and seeing people put their personal sense of what is right aside to do the hard work of saving has not only been gratifying to watch but incredibly successful! We are dealing with a FLOOD of animals, people, thousands and thousands every year! What makes total sense for shelter medicine is a balanced approach – let’s not reduce this to No Care or Perfect Care. This is about providing life saving care, vaccinations, treatment in a desperate difficul tenviornment. No one is proposing we stop vaccinating – but why does a vet have to see a dog before its vaccinated by Texas law?? To give a simple injection is not dificult and people can be trained, we can save money and lives. Now if a city doesnt have money for a vet – those dogs dont get vaccinated. OR Worse, are killed straight out.
    In Texas now under the Texas Veterinary Board of Medical Examiners, a vet has to see a dog for simple vaccinations or to begin some basic mange treatment – but a vet doesnt have to see a dog to euthanize it.
    Let’s get beyond the fear and turf crud and be reasonable, please. Thousands of lives depend upon it.

  • Guest

    Letting animals suffer for lack of veterinary care, as Dr. Jefferson did, is not acceptable. Her response that the animals would have died by euthanasia at the shelter, and dying in foster care is better, is ridiculous. Shelter medicine is working hard to establish standards for herd health and APA’s protocols fall way below.

  • Wendy Blount, DVM

    <> I only wish. Most rural and small town shelters do not have a vet at all — they can not afford it. TSBVME has also prohibited vaccination and removal of parasites by lay staff on intake, on the premise that strays are not yet owned by the shelter during the stray hold period, so the animals can not be processed until after a vet exam. Shelters complying with the law have become cauldrons of contagion. Thirdly, TSBVME has proclaimed that by law, dogs and cats can not live in herds, so shelter vets can not be treated as decently as feed lot animals are, without a vet examining each and every one. They clearly are not acting in the best interest of the animals. They were informed and warned by the experts in the field and by the TVMA of the likely negative consequences of their recent actions, and they durned a deaf ear and continued. The hearing is Monday. Let’s hope that the court considers fairly the interests of the animals in shelters all around Texas.

  • gryffynzoi

    When the level of care is utilized to steal animals from breeders to sell through the shelter, should they not uphold the same standards as they used as an excuse to snatch those animals? How can they justify that? What’s good for the goose…

    To see litters of newborn puppies or those under vaccination age stolen under color of law based on the opinion of some animal rights do-gooder and then transported to a likely disease-ridden shelter is sickening (pun intended). How can it be justified to take them somewhere where the standards are so much less than where they were before? Ridiculous!

    • terryward

      animal-rights do-gooder.
      It that the opposite of puppy-miller?

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      You obviously have no idea what is going on at Texas Shelters. All we want to do is provide vaccinations and removal of parasites on intake and basic medical care to our animals. At present, it is not lawful to give pets vaccines and dewormers they need on entry to the shelter, nor to set up treatment protocols for a veterinarian to instruct techs on how to provide basic medical care in their absence. This is allowed for food producing animals at feedlots. Why not pets at shelters? This is all about protecting the economic interests of veterinarians in private practice, and it’s wrong.

    • Jupiter2

      Yeah buddy- the rescues need your special puppies, because there just aren’t enough in Texas lol. Take care of your dogs! And stop breeding- we have more than enough, and you’ve obviously somehow managed to do an even worse job than the thousands of other back yard breeders/millers.

  • Jan Elliott-Goin

    WHY should shelters and shelter vets have their own set of standards that isn’t as thorough as the private sector? After all, they’re telling people their pets are as good as, or better than, those from breeders.
    You can’t have it both ways.
    It’s time the big money generating mega-organizations step up and start helping to fund shelters so they can afford to bring their vet care up to standard, instead of investing it in off-shore accounts.

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      <> That would be very nice. But I doubt it will happen anytime soon. In the mean time, shelter vets have to do the best they can with the resources they have. I wish our Board would allow us to do that without persecution.

      • Jupiter2

        Best Friends is a money generating mega-organization. I can’t help but wonder why the complaints lodged against Dr. Jefferson are not mentioned here? (not really, but does that not make any of you that have not personally fostered for SAPA or APA wonder?)

  • Jan Dykema

    are shelter vets asking to be held to a lower standard? are they saying their patients do not deserve the very best care ? I do not understand why they wold NOT want this

    • J. S.

      Did you not read the article? Shelter veterinary medicine is population level treatment, meaning they have to consider all of the animals in their care at a given time, not just one. They don’t want to provide substandard care, but the true result of this legislation is increasing cost to provide ANY care, and the result will be increased euthanasia because it’s cheap.

      • Wendy Blount, DVM

        Exactly. Shelter Vets just want to be legally able to comply with standards of care in shelter medicine, by providing vaccinations and parasite removal on intake, and basic medical care to shelter animals. TSBVME is making shelter staff choose between caring for their animals according to standards of care, and breaking the law. Many are continuing to break the law and do the right thing by their animals. I would support this kind of civil disobedience, and hope that the authorities eventually recognize the need for basic medical care in shelters in Texas, as it is recognized in many other states, and begin to allow it again as they did for many decades..

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      Oh, we want an increase in standard of care. But who will pay for it? There are no funds. So now we can’t care for them at all, for fear of board action against us. Is that better? We have to be able to make intelligent choices based on funds available, not be forced to elect euthanasia because we can’t afford hundreds to thousands per animal. There is much that can be done with dollars per animal. We want to have permission to do it, and help as many as possible. Right now, we are not allowed.

  • Jan Dykema

    infectious diseases at “shelters; could be easily reduced if every animal were vaccinated upon intake b ut many places say they canno afford to do that even though vacccines are cheap.. swhere are the big factory fundraisers? why aren;lt they donated $$$ to provide these much needed ( and easily administered) vaccines

    • Jupiter2

      best Friends gave SAPA half a million, why can’t THEY use that to vaccinate on intake?

      • johnbachman

        I previously posted a long response concerning the complaints against Dr. Jefferson and the funding of SAPA which was deleted. I will briefly try again. SAPA got $450,000 from best Friends, $200,000 from City of San Antonio. In all had income of over $900,000 and ended the year with over $200,000. The law suit is about getting a restraining order to protect Dr. Jefferson from the Board ruling on the complaints against her not some appeal to help shelters and shelter vets.

        • Sick of Bachman and Walls

          Why oh why don’t you focus on the thousands of dogs and cats that would die without organizations like SAPA , John, instead of targeting individuals? When was the last time you cleaned crap out of a rescue shelter kennel? Nursed a distemper dog to health? What about the dogs and cats still dying? Your standard approach (the two or three San Antonians who try to do so much damage to the rescue community through their slash and burn approach to attack peopleing) target individuals in witch hunt format is barbaric, ineffective, and transparent. No one says anything negative about you out loud b/c of your hyper mean, maybe even evil, approach to attacking people, but most of us think you are misguided, cruel, wrong John Bachman and Walls. Your perpetuating a death-loving, hostile environment and we are over it.

          • johnbachman

            To whomever you are (hiding behind the fake name) I am greatful for all the animals saved by any and all groups and individuals and applaud all those who work for or volunteer for them including SAPA but I also am upset by those animals who have been killed by them or alllowed to die due to lack of adequate care. That is inexcusable. The excuse that, They would have died anyway” does not cut it. I know of small rescue groups and individuals with limited funds and personnel who brake their backs to save every animal they can no matter what it takes. For an organization with hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank to fail to provide animals and their caregivers necessary support is unacceptable and a slap in the face of all the dedicated saviors of animals in this community.

    • Guest 2

      Thats part of the point Jan, TExas Vet Board is saying a dog has to be seen by a vet prior to vaccination or any treatment, so a city that doesnt want to/cant afford a vet simply wont vaccinate!

  • Jan Dykema

    yes let’s file another expensive law suit.. that’s the way to help.. NOT

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      We have taken every other course, to no avail. I agree lawsuits squander resources, but it is the only remaining mechanism at this time. Communication directly with the Board and with our state legislature for several years has this far produced no positive changes for shelter animals. Those of us who have been involved in this process know this. Thousands of hours have been invested.

  • Jan Dykema

    maybe large groups who spend most of their donor dollars of lobbying could finally step up to the plate and give shelters some of the money they take in while scamming the public.. That 25 million HSUS put in the Caymans comes to mind

  • Rebecca Poling

    “The most likely cost-cutting measure that shelters will default to is killing more shelter pets” – that’s a huge leap. No shelter director in Texas that I know is taking that route. TBVME is offering recommended changes to local ordinances so vet techs can continue to provide services in shelters, thereby providing affordable services in large scale facilities. It’s a simple ordinance change that will actually save most municipalities money over the cost of adding the necessary veterinarians or vet techs to comply with the new law. Texas has worked long and hard to improve our reputation in the animal welfare community and save more lives. That won’t change.

    • MelissaLMiller

      Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your note. The issue you are talking about is the recent ruling to exclude dogs/cats from any herd health groupings in medical care, which is different than what we are discussing in this blog post. The ruling the shelters made to begin with there was not good for shelter animals. Very few cities actually have changed their ordinances, to circumvent the ruling by the TBVME, and we know they didn’t go out and hire new vets either. So now even more shelters are likely not vaccinating on intake and in Texas, that can only mean more distemper. The issue we are talking about here is the move to mandate that shelters comply with all private practice rules which simply are not applicable but will be very expensive for taxpayers and donors.

      I hope this helps to clarify. Thanks for all that you do to help homeless pets.

      Melissa Miller
      New Media Coordinator

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      Wrong. TSBVME actions are prohibiting vet techs from legally providing care that they have always provided. They are forcing shelters to resort to passing local ordinances to allow them to supersede Board Rules. If shelters do not have the support of local government, shelter animals in the area are out of luck.

  • What did they base their decision on? If they did not think of consequences, it’s one thing. I just hope it’s not another money-making thing

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      They were made aware of the consequences by many — Texas Vets, Texas Shelter Vets, and experts in shelter medicine around the country. They ignored all public comment and continued on their path. I was involved in that feedback process, and did not receive a single response from the Board on the issue. We wrote letters and attended hearings. No dice. This lawsuit is the only way to get the issue out of the hands of 9 people who as a whole take an unsympathetic position and into the hands of others who might be more sympathetic to the needs of shelter pets.

  • Lori S.

    What can we (as non-vets) do to help?

    • MelissaLMiller

      Hi Lori,

      Thanks for asking. At this time, we just wanted to help spread the word about this case, but there aren’t any actionable steps to be taken. We’ll definitely keep everyone posted.

      Thanks for all that you do to help homeless pets!

      Melissa Miller
      New Media Coordinator

  • Guest

    What you need to do is see if they’ll provide the raw data that backs the study. That would allow you to add the data they left out which would back your side of the argument. The same data that back TNR could be used to show how it would be more economical and in the long-term a more effective use of government resources than the short-term killing their study is looking at.

    • Wendy Blount, DVM

      They did not and will not use data to pack up their position. They will use the law. Data can be used to change laws through the legislative process, but not to trump laws in the real world. The reality of it is that a Board of 9 people can pass state law at their pleasure, and it is not always good law. To my knowledge, there are not anyone educated in shelter medicine sitting on the Vet Board in Texas. They know not what they do, and do not choose to listen to those who do know.