AUSTIN (KXAN) — Two Texas lawmakers have filed bills in hopes to expand access to life-saving veterinarian services to pet owners who can’t afford them. 

Texas is currently the only state in the U.S. that does not allow animal shelters to provide voluntary services to low-income pet owners during health emergencies. Because of current laws, many Texans are forced to surrender their animals when some veterinarians may otherwise choose to help out. 

“It’s illegal for animal shelters to provide care after they have left the shelter or have been spayed or neutered. And we know about 40% of the people releasing and surrendering their animals are doing so because they can’t afford veterinarian care,” House Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston), who filed HB 3439, told KXAN. 

“If the shelter wants to participate in keeping that family with that pet, rather than surrendering the pet, trying to find a new home or euthanizing the animal, then that this is the right thing to do,” Johnson said. “We’re long overdue in Texas to give this option to vet shelters.”

Dr. Nipuni Ratnayaka, a veterinarian with Austin Pets Alive!, said that, under current laws, she can’t operate on a pet with an owner — only on pets that have been surrendered to the shelter. 

“Owners who are in a position who can’t afford medical care at private practices sometimes have to give up ownership — surrender their pet to the shelter — just for them to get necessary medical care,” Ratnayaka said. “ Legally,  we can’t help them when they are owned. And technically, we’re not supposed to even adopt them back out to those previous families.”

 “It’s a really unfortunate and sad situation for all parties involved,” she continued. 

Ratnayaka has seen this play out several times with cats with urinary blockages. This is a life-threatening condition that has to be addressed within 24 to 48 hours of symptom onset. Because it is so serious, the procedure can cost thousands of dollars, Ratnayaka said. 

“People can’t afford it,” she said. “They will reach out to us, and they’ll have to surrender their pets. They may have been completely healthy cats two days prior and, all of a sudden, the cat is blocked.”

Ratnayaka said if Johnson’s bill passes, she would choose to operate on animals to keep them with their owners and reduce the burden on the shelter system. 

“It would be huge. It means that my license isn’t on the line if I’m just trying to help out a family to prevent them from having to surrender their animal because they need really expensive medical care,” she said. 

“It would be huge to the shelters and, obviously, it would be huge to the families that get to keep their family member with them.”