HERMITAGE — For the past few years, pet rescue agencies and pet owners in the Shenango Valley could rely on Tails of Hope to provide spay and neuter services at reduced prices.

But the center is now without a veterinarian and, until it finds a replacement, the loss could quickly create a large backlog of potential pets in need of the procedure.

The clinic’s most recent veterinarian left unexpectedly last week, which leaves the spay-and-neuter clinic without anyone to perform spaying and neutering procedures. The clinic generally performs up to 80 procedures a week and was booked until August, said Diane O’Brien, Tails of Hope board president.

The clinic’s procedures will have to be rescheduled, starting with those scheduled last week and continuing until a replacement starts work.

And Tails of Hope had already fallen behind due to the coronavirus pandemic, which forced Tails of Hope to close from mid-March until about four weeks ago. During the closure, O’Brien said the clinic missed kitten season, the period in March and April when the largest number of kittens are born.

“People were anticipating us opening, and when we opened the phone never quit ringing,” O’Brien said. “For the first couple weeks we only did shelter animals, because there were so many animals we had to take care of from shelters in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.”

The Tails of Hope spay and neuter clinic, located in the Thomas M. O’Brien Animal Care Center, opened in 2017 and was co-founded by Diane and her brother-in-law Paul O’Brien, in memory of Diane’s late husband, Thomas O’Brien, who was an animal lover.

To benefit the community, Tails of Hope provides spaying and neutering procedures at reduced prices, as well as other services such as rabies vaccinations and deworming.

Prices for dogs 8 weeks or older, start out with $96 to spay 3-pound dogs and $78 for neutering. The cost incrementally increases with the dog’s weight. A 160-pound dog would cost about $192 for spaying and $174 neutering.

For kittens weighing 2 pounds or more, spaying is $84 and neutering is $72. Tails of Hope also offers testing for feline leukemia and feline AIDS. The mandatory rabies vaccine is offered at $12 for dogs and cats.

O’Brien said the same procedures could cost two to three times as much from a private veterinarian, although being able to offer the spay and neuter services at Tails of Hope helps to lessen the workload for other vets, and vice-versa.

“We are low cost but we do not feel that we are in competition with regular veterinarians and we don’t believe they feel as such either, because the veterinarians are all very busy and they understand the problem with overpopulation, especially with cats,” she said.

Tails of Hope employs an office manager and a part-time veterinary technician, although the clinic is also hoping to hire another veterinary technician as well, O’Brien said.

Normally a veterinarian has a four-year college degree in zoology or biology, followed by another three or four years at a veterinary school, where they receive a degree in veterinary medicine.

A veterinary technician completes an 18-to-24-month course at a school such as the Vet Tech Institute in Pittsburgh, followed by an internship, which culminates in a written test, O’Brien said.

However, finding someone to fill either position can be very difficult, O’Brien said.

“Something we’ve read about and we’re experiencing right now is that there’s not a lot of people going into the veterinary field,” she said. “It can be long hours but it’s a good-paying job and there’s so much love for animals out there, but it’s something that none of the vets or institutes we’ve talked to seem to have an answer for.”

Without a veterinarian to perform spay and neuter procedures, Tails of Hope’s operations are already delayed, which can have a ripple effect with pet rescue agencies, such as the Shenango Valley Animal Shelter, that work with the clinic.

Pennsylvania law requires animals be spayed or neutered before they can be adopted out, which could limit the number of adoptable animals.

And the delays could affect pet owners without the means to have a private veterinarian perform spay and neutering services. Lower-income pet owners could forego spaying and neutering, which could result in unwanted neglected animals. 

In turn, that would put a strain on agencies like the Humane Society of Mercer County and the Shenango Valley Animal Shelter.

Duane Piccirilli, president of the animal shelter board of directors, said losing Tails of Hope would be a tragedy, not just for the animal shelter but the entire community. He said the animal shelter has had an outstanding relationship with the clinic.

“Tails of Hope is a wonderful gift to the community from the O’Brien family, and they are very important to all of the animal rescues in our area,” Piccirilli said.

In the case of the Shenango Valley Animal Shelter, and likely for other rescue agencies, Piccirilli said they would have to start taking the animals to private veterinarians, which would increase the financial burden and force the shelter to increase adoption fees.

The location of Tails of Hope is also beneficial, as the current animal shelter is only about a block away from Tails of Hope’s building at 2450 Hoezle Road, Hermitage. In the future, the animal shelter hopes to construct a new building off Lynnwood Drive, even closer to the clinic, Piccirilli said.

“If they go away, there will be a chain reaction,” Piccirilli  said. “It truly is a treasure to have a nonprofit spay-and-neuter clinic right here for the community.”

THOSE INTERESTED can contact Tails of Hope at 724-346-4673, or send an application with a cover letter to Tails of Hope Executive Director Soraya Hejazi at soraya.h@tailsofhopewpa.com.

Like David L. Dye on Facebook or email him at ddye@sharonherald.com.