For as far back as Dr. Becky Morrow can recall, people concerned about the welfare of cats have been on the losing side of a battle to find enough homes for the animals available for adoption.
“For too many years we’ve been trying to bail out the bathtub by adopting out all the cats that come into shelters,” said Morrow, 50, the founder of the nonprofit Frankie’s Friends Cat Rescue and Clinic in New Kensington. “But that really hasn’t worked so well. We need to be thinking about turning off the faucet instead.”
For Morrow, turning off the faucet means increasing the number of cats that get spayed and neutered. She knows how to achieve that goal: a modern surgical technique that cuts the procedure time from about 20 minutes to 3.
In the veterinary profession, it’s known as HQHVSN, standing for “high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter.” That technique has allowed Morrow’s tiny Fifth Avenue clinic to do around 8,000 surgeries a year. That’s as many, or more than, significantly larger clinics in the Pittsburgh area — and at a lower cost because of the shorter time it takes, she said.
“I’m constantly getting inquires to do more procedures,” she said. “Our goal is to increase what we can do by expanding into a second building, which will also give us a chance to renovate and expand the building we’re currently in.”
But that second building — just a couple hundred feet from the current location at 730 Fifth Ave. — will be more than just a bigger, better space.
Morrow, who also teaches at Duquesne University, is using a $40,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation to turn the expanded clinic into a training center to teach the “quick fix” spay and neuter technique to other veterinarians and students training in the field.
The building that will house the new spay and neuter training center is being renovated by the owner, Michael Maleanas of Old Towne Overhaul, and will be ready for occupation in the next several weeks.
“They’ve been working on the building for a while so it’s very exciting to see it come together to the point where a crew is painting and getting ready to put the floor down,” Morrow said. “It’s a long dream that is finally becoming a reality.”
Part of Morrow’s mission is to spread knowledge of the spay and neuter technique to help reduce the estimated 1 million cats that are euthanized each year nationwide because there is not enough room in shelters or homes available to adopt them.
Morrow’s target population for the streamlined spay and neutering technique is the estimated 40 million so-called “community” cats in the United States — animals who are generally thriving but living outdoors and not attached to an owner.
“The community cats produce about 80% of the kittens that come into shelters,” she said. “So the shelters still have more animals than homes who can take them in.”
In addition to teaching the streamlined spray and neuter techniques to other veterinarians and students training in the field, Morrow said the new facility will provide instruction on the proper ways to trap cats so the procedure can be administered.
Unlike stray dogs who can form into packs that pose a danger to humans, community cats generally are of no threat and can be a benefit by keeping the rodent population in check, Morrow said.
“These cats are not a problem if we can keep the population under control by spaying and neutering,” she said.
State Humane Officer Chris Jirak O’Donnell, who handles Armstrong County with another officer, said the lack of low-cost, quick spay and neuter services is one of the biggest problems in rural areas.
She was elated to learn about Morrow’s project.
“When it comes to dealing with the number cats coming into shelters — or being turned away because there’s no space — I can think of nothing more useful than a way to reduce the population by spaying and neutering,” she said.
Morrow started Frankie’s Friends following the 2008 raid of the Tiger Ranch cat sanctuary in Frazer. She said the high volume spay and vaccine technique she will teach at her new facility is not part of the curriculum at most universities where vets are trained.
She first witnessed the high-volume spay and neuter technique being used while conducting service learning projects in 2007 and was fascinated by the speed and accuracy at which a cat could be fixed. So she learned how to do it.
Morrow said the streamlined surgical technique is especially useful when delivered through a mobile clinic.
“We brought a mobile clinic up in Clarion and I was able to do 75 procedures,” she said. “This type of service is especially useful in rural areas where people often don’t have access to clinics.”
The streamlined surgical technique Morrow uses requires a much smaller incision and shorter recovery time.
“My goal is to help veterinarians understand that the science is there to support the use of this spay and neuter technique,” she said. “It’s not only safe and effective, it’s actually better for the animal because of the shorter time they are in surgery and the quicker recovery time.”
Cody Hoellerman, a spokesman for the Animal Friends shelter in Ohio Township, said Morrow’s idea could have a “huge impact” on the cat population.
“Over the years, we’ve come to realize that euthanizing feral cats is not only inhumane, it’s ineffective at keeping the population at a manageable level,” he said.
Animal Friends has a program to trap, inoculate, fix and release animals.
“The best way is to get at the core of the problem, which is through an aggressive spay and neuter program,” he said. “Otherwise these cats living on the streets or in the woods are simply going to continue to reproduce.”
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter