The golden retriever swallowed a sock. Its owners couldn’t afford the lifesaving surgery he needed, so heartbroken, they surrendered the dog to the Animal Humane Society for treatment.

It happens more than people realize.

“The cost of veterinary care is one of the most consistent reasons given for surrender,” said Animal Humane Society veterinarian Graham Brayshaw, who operated on the surrendered retriever and then saw it adopted by a new family.

Now, thanks to a reinterpretation of the state’s veterinary practice laws that allows nonprofits to run clinics, the Humane Society will open its first full-service stand-alone veterinary clinic, in St. Paul’s Midway area. It will help financially strapped pet owners get low-cost treatments for their pets instead of surrendering them.

Humane Society leaders say adding vet care is a logical extension of their mission to help place animals in loving homes and keep them there.

“We want to be there for the whole life cycle of the pet,” said Astrid Kammueller, director of Animal Humane Society Veterinary Centers.

The society already employs nearly 20 veterinarians who care for shelter animals. It opened its first vet clinic in 2013 in the basement of its Golden Valley headquarters, which provides wellness visits and limited surgeries. It also hosts tent clinics in parks, where staff members give vaccines and conduct wellness checks, and operates a spay and neuter clinic in a mobile vet center.

“We are trying to be proactive to help people keep pets in their homes and out of the shelters,” said Paul Sorenson, Humane Society director of brand and communications.

The society provided veterinary care to more than 15,000 animals last year, not counting shelter animals who receive care. That number could double when the St. Paul clinic opens in 2020. The new veterinary service could eventually add about $5 million to the nonprofit’s $20 million annual budget.

“We will have the ability to handle more conditions than we could previously. It will help us expand what we can do,” said Brayshaw, Humane Society director of animal services.

The society has already purchased the building at the corner of Lexington and University avenues and renovations are underway. Pet owners meeting income requirements or who are in the military will be able to received reduced-cost vet care. A family of four would need to make less than $62,750 to qualify. The income requirement is to help those most in need and to avoid competing with other veterinary clinics.

Brayshaw said he has not heard complaints from fellow vets. In fact, he said, many refer patients to them.

Veterinarian David Fell, president of the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association, said they have a good working relationship with the Humane Society and are united in a shared value to help animals.

“All pets deserve veterinary care when they are in need of it,” Fell said. “If they have income restrictions on their clients, more power to them. Hopefully they can abide by and enforce those income restrictions.”

Help for pet owners

The Humane Society, best known for its surrender and adoption services, adopted out 20,000 animals last year. It also provides pet boarding services, offers more than 100 pet training classes each week, houses lost pets picked up by local authorities and investigates animal cruelty or neglect upon law enforcement’s request.

The society’s free Pet Helpline (952-HELP-PET) handled more than 100,000 calls helping owners with everything from solving behavior problems to finding pet services.

The low-cost veterinary service saved Carol Hultgren the agonizing decision about what to do with her cat Smokey.

Hultgren, of northeast Minneapolis, took in the cat when Smokey’s owner died. Then Smokey developed a fast-growing tumor on his lip that made it difficult to eat. Hultgren, who is on social security and doesn’t drive, called a nearby vet clinic but couldn’t afford the estimated $1,100 the surgery would cost.

She eventually connected with Humane Society veterinarians who removed the tumor at the Golden Valley clinic in May for less than $300.

“He is doing excellent,” Hultgren said. “He is even playing now.”