“No other disease or condition of companion animals takes as many lives as euthanasia. In fact, no other disease comes close.” ~Janet M. Scarlett, DVM, Ph.D, Cornell University.
February is Spay/Neuter Month
We’ve all heard public service announcements, read articles and saw social media blurbs about the need to spay or neuter your pets. Most pet owners take this responsibility seriously. Of the 62% of American households that own at least one dog or cat, 80% of owners spay or neuter their animal. Why then are an estimated 5 million dogs and cats euthanized in shelters every year? What makes a spay/neuter program successful?
I hate to bore you with statistics, but the numbers don’t lie. According to the Humane Society of the United States, two unaltered cats and all their descendents can theoretically number 420,000 in just seven years, while two unaltered dogs and all their descendents can theoretically number 67,000 in six years! No wonder our shelters and rescue organizations are overburdened.
Cause and Effect
In most U.S. cities the majority of animal shelter intakes occur from a small percentage of pet owners. It’s the 80/20 rule: 80% of the problem comes from 20% of the population. Typically most of the unwanted dogs or cats come from three segments of the community:
- Low-income Areas – Research shows that poorer neighborhoods have several times the number of unaltered dogs and cats than affluent areas. Those pets reproduce and are surrendered to shelters at a much higher rate.
- Backyard Breeders – Studies show backyard breeders turn over the kittens and puppies they are unable to sell to animal shelters. (Note: there are many responsible breeders; I am only singling out the negligent ones.)
- Homeless Dogs and Feral Cat Colonies – Many dogs and cats are turned out or dumped by their owner, left to fend for themselves. In many communities feral cats make up a large majority of the felines euthanized in shelters.
How does a Spay/Neuter Program Succeed?
Successful spay/neuter programs must be comprehensive. In addition to targeting the above three segments, communities must focus on the needs of every type of pet owner. If programs are punitive, people tend to do everything they can to avoid the law. Some owners will not take their dog or cat to a veterinarian because they worry they will be turned into the authorities.
According to the ASPCA, some of the necessary components for a successful mandatory spay and neuter program are:
- The community should have an “adequately funded, readily accessible, safe, efficient, affordable spay/neuter program.” Low cost or free spay and neuter clinics are essential.
- The community should “produce programs that are targeted to those populations” that contribute the most to pet overpopulation.
- The community should “provide compelling incentives to have the surgery performed.” This can be accomplished by free vouchers or public education materials.
- Spay and neuter programs should be written with high quality veterinary guidelines so that every surgery is safe.
- There must be a component that addresses feral cats, such as a Trap-Neuter-Release program.
- There must be a plan to financially keep the program ongoing through grants, taxes, business or individual donations, etc.
The good news is the number of cats and dogs entering animal shelters in the U.S. has been on a steady decline. In the 1970’s the euthanasia rate was 12-20 million pets per year compared to 5 million last year. While even one dog or cat euthanized is one too many, the progress of spay/neuter programs are positive. Spay and neuter problems address a preventable problem with a rational solution.
Do Mandatory S/N Laws Work?
Mandatory spay and neuter laws have been compared to seat belt safety laws. While most people would buckle up without an edict, there are a minority that chooses to ignore the facts. Still, the laws were passed to regulate the minority of offenders.
The same is true with spay and neuter issues. Studies consistently show that sterilization is sound and most people elect to have their pets fixed. However, 20% still continue to add to the burden. More communities are taking it upon themselves to act on behalf of animals.
However, most laws seem to be most successful when they are wide-ranging rather than a “one-size fits all” solution. Still, in addition to saving lives, spay/neuter programs can substantially decrease the number of animals euthanized and the costs to shelters, municipalities, and the public at large of handling stray or unwanted animals.
Successful State-Sponsored Spay/Neuter Programs
There are many ways for a state to fund a program; some have been successful, others not so much. It may take a combination of these options to make a spay/neuter outreach successful. Increasing dog license fees, implementing a pet food tax, and surcharges on rabies vaccinations are just a few avenues to fund a state-run S/N program. Here are some “lessons learned” from New Hampshire’s spay/neuter assistance program:
- Increase dog license fees – New Hampshire’s program is fully funded by a $2.00 increase in dog license fees.
- Work with legislators to help them understand the impact of pet overpopulation on their communities.
- Enlist veterinarians to show them how the program benefits them, shelter adopters and people in general.
- Streamline the program – Keep it simple to benefit vets and pet owners while keeping a low administrative fee ($10/surgery).
- Help make the program affordable for lower income people by charging them only $10 and providing up to $15 worth of free pre-surgical shots to keep it affordable.
- Subsidize the costs – New Hampshire vets have donated a 20% fee reduction; low-income pet owners have a copayment of $10 and shelter adopters a copay of $25.
- Work together to foster growth – Humane groups working with breeders, legislators and municipal officials make up a panel created by the state legislature to benefit the neutering assistance program and other animal welfare initiatives.
- Neutering programs save money – Neutering programs are affordable for the poorest pet owners, but the investment is high impact. Animals are neutered that never would be otherwise. The high initial cost is offset by the savings from the dramatic drop in the number of animals entering shelters.
- Neutering programs save lives – The year before the program started, 30 cats and dogs were put down every day in New Hampshire shelters. This number had been the same for more than ten years. By the end of the second year that number had dropped 38% in only two years.
Successful Shelter Spay/Neuter Programs
Many states do not sponsor a neutering program. However, most animal shelters offer low cost spay/neuter services for pet owners and partner with rescues by reducing their surgery fee. How do various shelters cope with the issue of overpopulation, underfunding and spay/neutering issues?
- Grant Applications – Many grants are available through public and private funds. The Morgan County (Indiana) Humane Society received a $67,500 grant from Petsmart Charities. This allowed the shelter to spay and neuter 1400 animals in a seven-month period. As a result of their efforts, the number of dogs entering the group’s shelter declined by 41%. Even better, the number getting adopted rose to 93%.
- Transfer Pets from public shelters to private – There are many canine and feline transportation programs like the Humane Society for Southwest Washington, a public facility and a source of pets for the Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland. They adopt out 60% of their pets and transfer many of the remaining pets to ASAP partners. Those partner groups also help them with supplemental spay/neuter and medical care for their pets.
- Animal Welfare Organization Partnerships – The Sonoma County Love Me, Fix Me mobile spay/neuter program provides high-quality dog and cat spay and neuter surgery for $30. It is a joint effort between founding agency Sonoma County Animal Care and Control and partner Sonoma Humane Society. The goal is to provide twice as many low-cost surgeries. Love Me, Fix Me is made possible by a grant from Community Foundation Sonoma County, support from VIP Petcare Services, and donations from individuals in the community.
- State Agency Partnership – Spay Neuter Services of Indiana receives $25 for each ‘Pet Friendly’ specialty license plate purchased by Indiana drivers. This funding allows SNSI to facilitate thousands of spay/neuter surgeries each year through three programs:
- The Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides $20 surgeries for limited-income Indiana residents.
- The Pet Friendly Group Grant program provides free spay/neuter surgeries for 501(c)(3) non-profit animal welfare organizations and municipal shelters.
- Special programs targeted to spay/neuter surgeries for community cats and pit bull terriers, animals that are all too common in shelters and harder to adopt.
- Solicit Donations – Private shelters often must turn to individuals or corporations to donate and support their spay/neuter programs and public outreach. Many shelters do not receive any public funds and operate with private funding. Most spay or neuter an animal before adoption to prevent future litters. The adoption fee barely covers medical costs. Whether donations are solicited by mail, social media, group presentations or fundraisers, promoting neutering programs to the community-at-large takes committed staff working with volunteers, local businesses and adopters.
- Education – Many shelters provide educational programs for children. The Washington DC Humane Society offers an education program free-of-charge to local schools, service organizations, church groups, summer programs, and youth organizations. Students participating in the program become aware of the numerous responsibilities, including cost and time commitments, associated with caring for a companion animal.
Spay/neuter is the only proven way to ensure that our pets, community cats and street animals will not add to the millions of homeless animals. Thanks to the efforts of many special people and successful spay/neuter programs, the euthanasia of healthy dogs and cats continues to decline. It truly is a preventable tragedy. But thanks to the international attention of this problem we can get closer to the goal of ending needless loss of life and collaborate on the best spay/neuter practices.
Humane Society of the United States: http://www.hsus.org
American Humane Association: http://www.americanhumane.org/animals/adoption-pet-care/issues-information/pet-overpopulation.html
Sharon J. Secovich; Case Study: Companion Animal Over-Population Programs in New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Maine and A New Program for Maine
Spay-Neuter Services of Indiana: http://www.spayneuterservices.org
Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland: http://asapmetro.org/
Washington DC Humane Society: http://support.washhumane.org/site/PageServer?pagename=programs_humaneed