The city department tasked with overseeing stray animals plans to expand free veterinary services for residents who can’t afford them in an effort to curb the number abandoned pets arriving in shelters.

The move comes as a national shortage of veterinarians has made animal services harder to come by and more expensive. At the same time, the department said, inflation has caused a decrease in pet adoptions and affected residents’ ability to continue caring for the animals they already have.

“Going through a private clinic right now, it costs $600 to have a single animal spayed or neutered,” Animal Care Services Director Shannon Sims told City Council members at a budget work session Tuesday. “This just isn’t a feasible solution for a lot of San Antonio.”

In addition to spay and neuter services, which Animal Care Services will fund more of through its shelters and partners organizations, Sims said his department plans to bring free services such as vaccination and microchipping for dogs and cats directly into neighborhoods where residents might not be able to afford the procedures.

“We heard many people in [our] survey and community meetings say transportation to vet services were one of the biggest challenges that they faced,” said Sims.

The department plans to expand mobile veterinary services the city has been experimenting with, offering as many as 18 mobile clinics in the coming fiscal year.

The next mobile clinic will be held at the Frank Garrett Multi-Service Center on Sept. 24. Spokeswoman Lisa Norwood stressed that the services are intended for residents in the surrounding neighborhoods; people who bring in pets from other parts of the city may be turned away.

“We’re bringing those clinics to the residents and neighborhoods that need them the most,” Sims said.

The city is in the process of putting together a new strategic plan for Animal Care Services, aimed at addressing a sharp increase in stray pets.

“People are concerned about the stray, roaming animals in their neighborhoods,” Sims said.

After the pandemic all but emptied some animal shelters, the number of people adopting animals has fallen, he added, and even pets that are microchipped aren’t being reclaimed by their owners at the normal rate. Pets also are arriving at the shelters in worse health, he said, making them more difficult to adopt.

Animal Care Services has raised the salary of its veterinarians to attract enough help, according to Sims. Salaries now start at $106,000, while the highest-paid position pays roughly $160,000. The department has one full-time veterinarian on staff and hopes to hire two. It contracts with others for help with surgeries and medical care.

State law prevents shelters from offering traditional veterinary care, such as treatment for illness or injuries, for owned pets.

But Sims asked City Council on Tuesday to fund five additional staff members so that his agency can create a customer service team to take calls from residents who have questions about how to care for their pets or need help finding veterinary services.

He also requested funding for nine additional veterinary technicians to help injured animals coming into the shelters.

Even with additional funding for animal services, San Antonio is behind on the number of spay and neuter procedures it needs to provide to make a meaningful impact on pet overpopulation. It currently performs around 28,000 per year, with a goal of getting up to 46,000 in the coming years.

“We’re not going to adopt our way out of overpopulation, or transport [enough pets to other cities], it has to be spay and neuter,” he said.

“We’ve got some cities where I see vendors doing 60,000 to 65,000 surgeries a year,” said Sims. “That’s the type of capacity we’ve got to pull here.”

Andrea Drusch writes about local government for the San Antonio Report. She's covered politics in Washington, D.C., and Texas for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, National Journal and Politico.