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Could a Law Meant to Keep Animals Safe Actually Let More of Them Die?

KUT News
A visitor to the Austin Animal Center in 2011. Animal advocates worry a law requiring a "veterinarian-client patient relationship" could slow rescue efforts, leading to more animal deaths.

It's another busy day at the City of Austin's Animal Center.

This Monday there were 1,149 animals in inventory. About 600 were on site, the rest are in foster homes.

On her desk, Chief Animal Services Officer Abigail Smith has what looks like a police badge. It's there because she's a chief. But beyond that, Smith says it gets her access she couldn't get otherwise. "For example," Smith says, "it came in handy when we were responding to the Bastrop fires … Those were federally protected lines and you needed credentials to get through."

Smith takes her job very seriously. Every day she looks for creative ways to tend to more and more animals that arrive at the shelter.

Animals in city shelters must be cared for by a veterinarian. That's the law: Vets must develop a relationship with each animal.

But no-kill shelters like the Austin Animal Center have more animals than they can medically develop a "relationship" with. And a recent clarification of that rule has some animal welfare advocates worried it will reverse no-kill efforts like those in Austin.

"It's actually in the very beginning part of our statute [that animals need to be seen by a vet], when it talks about how you can practice veterinary medicine," says Nicole Oria, executive director of the Texas State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners. "In order for a licensee to practice veterinary medicine, they have to have …  a VCPR, a veterinary-client patient relationship."

Just like with physicians, veterinarians need to meet their patients before they administer vaccinations. But Smith says she finds it harder and harder to have her four vets see every cat or dog that comes in; for the shelter, vaccinating animals at intake is more important.

"For example, at four o'clock we have a shift change for field services," Smith says. "So our animal protection officers are coming in, and I [will] have three or four trucks coming in with six or seven animals on a truck. It would take hours and hours to process them all with a complete examination."

Some advocates have argued that this policy is going to push euthanasia rates up, since there won't be enough vets to develop relationships with the animals prior to treating them.

There are some lawsuits swirling around the ruling. But the state board says it doesn't make the rules about patient relationships – it just enforces them. Any changes would have to be up to the state legislature.

It's hard to predict what the legislature will take up when it meets again next year. But the veterinary board's Oria says the lege has been responsive to animal matters in the past.

"When we had an equine dental issue a couple of sessions ago," Oria says, "they worked out a solution and we now license equine dental providers. I think when they see a problem, they address it."

In the meantime, the Austin City Council passed an ordinancegiving shelters, both public and private, ownership of animals in their care. The change allows shelters to administer over-the-counter vaccinations ­– just like an individual pet owner can. 

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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