Faced with more stray animals and surrendered pets ending up in shelters, the City of San Antonio and the advocacy group Texas Pets Alive! are asking the state for permission to provide medical care for low-income residents’ pets.

Texas law currently prohibits shelters from providing nonemergency care to animals they know or should know have an owner. It allows exceptions in the case of pets whose owners are considered indigent.

“What we frequently see is somebody brings an animal in, it has a very treatable condition, but they’re like, ‘I can’t afford to treat it,'” said Shannon Sims, director of the city’s Animal Care Services (ACS) department.

“Essentially, that animal is now going to become our problem. We have to find [it] a new home,” Sims said. “It does us much better to be able to provide [pets] basic treatment at no cost … and maintain that animal in the home.”

Pushing the legislative change in Austin is one of a number of solutions San Antonio is pursuing to expand affordable veterinary services and reduce the number of animals ending up in its care.

While high adoption rates nearly emptied out shelters during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sims said the expiration of the national eviction moratorium and recent inflation have caused an increase in the number of animals in shelters, as well as a decrease in pet adoptions.

To help decrease pet surrenders, San Antonio is getting creative to provide veterinary services for pet owners who are elderly, have a low income or don’t have access to a car.

Companion animals are considered personal property in Texas, making the laws around them particularly tricky to navigate.

Seeking permission to treat owned animals is part of the city’s lobbying agenda for the 2023 state legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.

“Texas is actually the only state in the entire country that has something written into state statute stating that shelters and releasing agencies may not treat or provide medical treatment to an animal that they reasonably believed to have an owner,” said Katie Jarl, director of government affairs and policy for Texas Pets Alive!.

Jarl said the state’s exceptions for pet owners who are indigent only covers people who are essentially homeless. Her organization would like to make vet care available to anyone who signs a personal attestation saying they can’t afford to pay for the treatment on their own.

For example, she said, a college student with a 13-year-old cat might surrender the cat in order for it to receive medical care. If the law were changed, Animal Care Services vets could treat the cat and give it back, rather than having to find the cat a new home.

“We know that shelters are really strapped for space right now, and if this can provide any relief to the number of owner surrenders … then we think it’s time to strike that old law,” said Jarl, who also serves on the advisory board for San Antonio’s Animal Care Services department.

ACS plans to expand a program that partners with a mobile veterinary clinic to offer free microchipping and vaccination services in low-income neighborhoods.

The department also received money in the city budget, which was approved in September, to create a customer service team that will take calls from residents who have questions about how to care for their pets or need help finding veterinary services.

“When you look at [City Council] districts [2, 3, 4 and 6], there’s a tremendous desert of veterinary care,” said Sims, whose department mapped the city’s veterinary clinics.

To bring in more veterinarians, Sims said ACS is offering private companies free use of city-owned clinics, where they would provide some free and low-cost services to residents. ACS plans to rotate national veterinary companies through the clinics in hopes they’ll continue operating their own clinics in San Antonio after the free lease is over.

“This allows me to attract [companies] from out of state,” said Sims. “[I can] say, ‘I’ve got the facility, I’ve got the equipment, all you need to do is staff it, and it gets their foot in the door to be able to break into a new market.”

ACS spokeswoman Lisa Norwood said the city spends roughly $500,000 per year partnering with organizations to offer free or low-cost spay and neuter programs for pet owners.

The city recently contracted with the Spay Neuter Network out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area to utilize the city-owned clinic at the Paul Jolly Center for Pet Adoptions in Brackenridge Park on a three-year lease.

Sims said he’s still looking for a new partner for another clinic near Brooks on the South Side.

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Andrea Drusch

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.