Ask to meet a veterinarian on an individual basis. A great place to begin is your own personal veterinarian because you already have an established relationship! If you don't have a personal veterinarian, ask your friends if they have one they really like, or see if there is a veterinarian in town who is known for participating with animals groups, writing a pet column in a local paper, or holding adoption events at his or her clinic. Once you find supportive veterinarians, they can help reach build relationships with veterinarians colleague to colleague, which can add credibility to your program.
Offer to take the individual veterinarians to breakfast or lunch. It is often difficult for them to meet at their clinics because of all the bustle so taking them out for a meal can help in getting to know each other better. Some veterinarians may be a single practitioner or too busy to get away. In this case, offer to bring breakfast or lunch to them at the clinic.
Because their time is very precious, keep the meeting short, to the point, and show you respect their time by doing your homework in advance. It helps if you can leave something in writing for them to look at and get back with you.
2. Consider setting up a "liaison committee."
You may want to set up a committee or advisory role with veterinarians to discuss issues on a regular basis. If you work with somebody on a project you will feel more comfortable picking up the phone later. Ask for veterinary advice on pet related issues. This doesn't have to be just spay/neuter. Involve them in the beginning planning stages of your program to show you care about their thoughts and ideas, and not after the fact when you already did it.
3. Try to work on spay/neuter programs that veterinarians can find palatable.
Focusing on low-income families or feral cats or work on a general spay/neuter awareness campaign are possibilities.
Aimee St.Arnaud, Executive Director of Humane Ohio, started their Operation Felix program with veterinarians from the community volunteering once a month for three hours at a set location. Aimee started by approaching two veterinarians she knew were supportive of her efforts and asked them to take it to the local Veterinary Medical Association (VMA) for their support. The veterinarians presented materials and the VMA voted to endorse Aimee's efforts.
She has had 34 different vets representing 20 different clinics donate their time. She provides all necessary supplies and prep work so the veterinarians only perform the actual surgery. (She also provided free pizza and drinks, which were a big hit.)
What did the veterinarians like?
They liked coming to one location to do the surgeries rather than having a bunch of animals with no known medical history coming to their clinics, or low income clients coming in the front door paying reduced rates where their regular clients could potentially overhear about discounts.
It was a small commitment-3 hours once a month but that it made a big impact.
It was a nice social gathering with other colleagues they didn't get to normally see. One veterinarian even got a new job. She met her new boss through the clinic.
The program was ONLY focused on feral/stray cats, and pets from low income households. Aimee's program did not provide any shots (other than rabies) or other veterinary services.
This could be new clients, referrals, or PR. Each veterinarian may have something different that appeals to them:
Some like to give out a free first exam to anyone using a non profit spay/neuter clinic to bring in a new client and establish an ongoing relationship.
Others may like to volunteer their time as part of a tax write off.
Some may be interested in getting their name out into the community so having your program promote their efforts in your newsletter or website may be worthwhile.
Others may not want any public mention but may just do it because they like to volunteer. However, don't expect the veterinarians to offer free services.
Ask for their input and see what they can offer. You may find they are able to donate time, but if not, work with them to look at the possibilities. One program in upstate NY offers to pay veterinarians $300 a day for their services to spay/neuter but also gives them the option of donating that money back to the group, and many choose to do so. There are many ways to establish a mutually beneficial relationship!
5. Stay in touch with the local veterinary association.
You may want to periodically attend meetings to update on your program or write updates for their newsletter. If your veterinary association doesn't want to work with you, find one individual that will do the work for you and go from there.
6. Thank your veterinarians!
There are many creative ways—consider getting framed certificates for their work, or throw a wine and cheese party, or get them gift certificates to local restaurants. While most won't expect anything, they will appreciate it.
Things to Keep in Mind When Approaching Veterinarians
Be aware that veterinarians went to school for a very long time and make less money than human doctors. Most start out in debt so can't always do things for free. Anything that they perceive as competition to their bottom line (a competing spay/neuter clinic) may be considered a threat.
Show them that you are not a threat by focusing on low income, shelter animals, and feral cats. You can use statistics from Humane Alliance, a high volume clinic in North Carolina. When they surveyed their clients, Humane Alliance found that 87% of their clients have never been to a veterinarian.
Developing a relationship helps cut down on misconceptions. Veterinarians may think shelters breed sickness and disease, and shelters may think veterinarians are money hungry. If you have a relationship, when your shelter has an outbreak of disease, you can contact a veterinarian for suggestions and have open, honest communication and trust that the veterinarian will be more willing to help.
Recognize the role a veterinarian plays. More people look to veterinarians on animal related advice than shelter workers, so it is a benefit to work with veterinarians.
Be aware of the words you use! Some veterinarians don't like the term "low cost" because it implies that they are overcharging. Consider using "subsidized" instead to acknowledge that you are helping to cover the cost of the surgery.
Don't tell veterinarians that they "should" donate services because animals are dying and they "should" care if they are in this field. Remember that you may not be the only group asking veterinarians for donated services, and that they need to balance donating to non-profits with running their business.
Just remember that it only takes finding one veterinarian! Once you have that, you can get started and grow from there. Oftentimes veterinarians in the community have to see that your program will not cause them any harm before actively supporting you. Getting started is the key.
Learn More from Three Veterinarians
Dr. Leslie Appel, founder and Executive Director of Shelter Outreach Services of Ithaca, NY, answers questions on communicating with veterinarians on No More Homeless Pets online forum.