At the outset let me just say that our hospital performs low cost feline spays and neuters ($30 for neuters and $50 for spays) almost every day of the week. We do so as a special service to our clients—people we know well and whose work in the community trapping cats is something we choose to support. What I’m about to say about pet overpopulation may sound callous but it’s an accurate description of one of my pet peeves: the frequent expectation that I perform services at reduced or no cost.

My place of work gets phone calls every week from prospective clients asking how much we charge for spaying and neutering stray pets. When we tell them our fees (average by national standards) many take an indignant tone. "But the animal shelter down the street does it for $30." My receptionist’s answer: "We'd love to be able to do it at that price but we like to provide a higher level of safety and comfort for our patients and that’s more expensive. If you want a basic castration the shelter does a good job."

In other words: "Get real, lady, if you want something for [almost] nothing go there and stop calling every other vet hospital in town to see if you can do better than thirty bucks." After all, it costs a private veterinary hospital thirty bucks just to anesthetize a patient. That doesn’t even begin to cover the vet’s time, the staff’s time, the suture material, the sterile instruments or the roof over our heads (with all its expenses).

Shelters are subsidized by your tax dollars. If you have an overpopulation problem in your neighborhood or if you have very limited funds, this is an excellent option.

However, if you’ve been feeding a sweet cat that found its way to your house, and you plan to keep feeding it, then he’s your cat now (technically, no longer a stray). And, if you have the funds, you should shoulder the cost of the castration—not the taxpayers and certainly not your vet. Think about it this way: the more we ask shelters and vets to provide services [for those of us who can afford to pay our way] the fewer abandoned animals the shelter has the power to provide care for and the fewer real needy pets and strays a vet can help.

Yet far too many in our communities expect veterinarians to shoulder a disproportionate burden of the cost for stray animals. The reasoning is obvious: Vets love animals, right? Then how can they refuse to perform services for the most needy (strays) at an affordable price?

1. "Affordable" is relative. When we make something affordable for you, it means it’s less affordable for us. We pay that difference. So ultimately, our other clients will, too.

2. We’ve all been duped into performing services at a reduced price for what turned out to be someone’s beloved house pet. With a new client, it’s hard to know whether we’re doing the community a favor or getting taken advantage of by someone who’d prefer your speedy service and high level of care.

3. There’s a better option at the shelter so why must we offer the convenience (expense) of our retail location and the more expensive procedure (better anesthetics, pain control, individual attention, high-tech anesthetic monitoring, etc.) for one person’s unwillingness to shoulder their fair share of the burden?

4. The neediest of strays are also the sickest, so each time we take these animals in for routine procedures, we potentially subject all our hospitalized patients to their illnesses. If our practices are small, this is even more risky. So we (and all our other patients) shoulder this burden as well.

I hope none of this sounds cold or crass. Yes, we do love animals—all animals—not just the cash-paying variety. However, like any member of any other profession, we must be allowed to pick and choose our method of community service. You wouldn’t expect a lawyer to take a pro bono case just because he’s capable of it. And I’ll bet you wouldn’t expect your dentist to work on your destitute neighbor’s teeth for free. He might. But you wouldn’t expect it. And if she did, you’d be very thankful.

As vets, we have ample opportunity to donate our services—in our offices and beyond its confines. Because of this, most of us perform far more community work than the average professional. If we choose to do so in structured ways to increase our efficiency, provide a special service to our existing clients and decrease the stress (and disease transmission) in our workplace, this should be respected.

Yes, indeed, pet overpopulation is a huge problem, but to expect veterinarians to shoulder more of the burden than anyone else is stressful for us. We want to do what’s right but to demand that our education and training implies a moral imperative to help any animal in need under any circumstance is not fair to us as equal members of the communities we live in. After all, pet overpopulation is not just the vet’s problem—it belongs to all of us.