By 8am every weekday, the lobby of the Willamette Animal Guild (WAG) Spay and Neuter Clinic starts to fill with people and their pets. “We get a range of people, old and young,” says Kathy Ford, WAG’s treasurer and one of many hands-on people keeping WAG going. People look to WAG for a low-cost fix to the problem of the thousands of unwanted cats and dogs in Lane County. “Cats can have three to four litters a year,” says Ford, “if they’re hell-bent on doing that. Two is minimal.”
Thanks to WAG, sometimes as many as 500 cats and dogs are spayed in a month. The clinic performs about 20 to 25 surgeries in a day and has spayed about seven thousand animals in its one and half years of existence, preventing tens of thousands of unwanted cats and dogs.
The clinic targets low-income pet owners, providing surgeries under $50 for cats and $75- $90 for dogs. If owners can’t afford this, WAG points them to groups who might subsidize the surgery, like Stray Cat Alliance, or Lane County Animal Services, which has a program for Pits and Bullie breeds. Surprisingly, most dogs in for surgery aren’t Pits, despite the fact that the breed dominates at local animal shelters. Ford says most dogs in for spay/neuter surgery are actually Chihuahuas.
WAG also offers a feral cat special: $40 gets the kitty fixed, vaccinated, treated for fleas its ears tipped — marking the cat as altered. Ford says the clinic hopes add tattoos in the future to mark non-feral cats and dogs to prevent unneeded surgeries on spayed animals.
After they’re checked in, dogs are examined immediately, while cats wait in crates and boxes in gender-separate cat rooms. Feral cats’ crates are draped with sheets to keep them dark, quiet and cozy. The clinic, Ford says, can always use donated sheets.
Because the clinic is low cost, Ford says the animals don’t get a pre-anesthesia blood test, but they are checked for fitness for surgery. Older animals and those with heart murmurs receive an alternate anesthetic. “We’re very proud of our record,” Ford says. “We’ve lost fewer than seven lives, and most of those were ferals.” It’s difficult to get near most feral cats, many of which were captured in humane traps provided by WAG. “We can’t do much of an exam on them,” says Ford.
The surgical suite is designed to move animals through quickly and carefully, because as Ford says, “It’s not speed, it’s efficiency we’re aiming for.”
Animals first go to the prep table in the surgical area where they are shaved, scrubbed and set up before being put under. Then the animal moves to one of two surgical tables. “Optimal working procedure,” says Ford, “is one animal on each table.” Ford says WAG’s equipment is state of the art, pointing to pulse and oxygen monitors.
After surgery, animals are moved to a comfy bed on heated rice pads on the floor, coming to under the watchful eye of volunteers and veterinarian Bernie Robe, who can see the entire suite, from prep to recovery, from his place at the operating table.
Robe is the second vet to take the job at WAG. The clinic runs with just one vet and one certified veterinary technician. If one is missing, surgeries can’t be done that day. Ford says vet tech Jenn Brown is indispensable, likening her to a surgical nurse. “The doctor is obviously the surgeon, but the surgical nurse is the heart and soul,” she says.
It’s extremely difficult to find a replacement, even temporarily, for either the tech or the surgeon. “Most vets are not used to standing on their feet doing 20 to 25 surgeries a day,” says Ford. She says to work at a spay/neuter clinic like WAG, “You have to have some kind of mission-consciousness.”
The small staff, consisting of Robe, Brown, an office manager and two vet assistants —Barb Gunther and Vanessa Horner — is bolstered by a group of dedicated volunteers and board members like Ford. Tasks like assembling surgical instruments, laundry and housekeeping can be performed by anyone. Like surgery, WAG has designed the process up to be efficient and cost-effective, with everything labeled and organized.
Ford says people might think they’d get bored, but that “surgery is life or death every time. You never know what is going to happen.”
Vet assistant Gunther says, “It feels like you are saving lives every day,” and points out that spaying or neutering a pet prevents not only unwanted animals that could be euthanized later, but also diseases like testicular and mammary cancer.
By about 2:30 all the surgeries are finished and the animals have been moved from recovery bed to kennels to complete their recovery. Owners start arriving at the end of the day to pick up their pets, taking home aftercare instructions to keep animals quiet and wounds dry.
Ford says WAG office manager Kim Roblyer has one of the most difficult jobs, because she has to deal with all the calls, some funny, some sad. “You have to decipher between what people say and what they want,” says Ford, and sometimes you just have to let them talk for awhile. Many people, she says, call for low-cost veterinary services, not just spay and neuter. “And we’re not set up for that. It’s heartbreaking.”
Still, at the end of a long workday, the small staff takes satisfaction in knowing that WAG is sending home two dozen more animals who’ll be happier, healthier, and who won’t contribute to Oregon’s already overcrowded animal shelters.