False Promises: Spay-Neuter is Not Magic

Stray neutered cat, recently taken in by a Good Sam who prevented him from ever going to a shelter.  (Photo by Casey Post)

Stray neutered cat with few teeth, recently taken in by a Good Sam who prevented him from ever going to a shelter. (Photo by Casey Post)

In general, the voluntary spaying and neutering of pets is a positive.  It reduces/eliminates the behaviors associated with reproduction, which most owners find undesirable qualities in a pet. This makes pet ownership easier to manage for many people.  It eliminates the birth of unintended puppies and kittens which again, is a plus for most owners.  These benefits show up in the community in the form of more owners being able to keep their pets and fewer homeless pets being in need of a shelter.

But spay-neuter falls short in two major ways:

  1. It does nothing to save the dogs and cats in shelters today.
  2. It’s of no use to pet owners who can not afford to pay for the services and/or get their pets to the clinic, or those who don’t know low cost services are available.

Contrary to what far too many shelter directors and killing apologists say publicly, spaying and neutering is not THE answer.  That is, voluntary spay-neuter is an important part of the solution but there are many other significant pieces to the puzzle.  Spay-neuter doesn’t stop shelter directors from killing any and all animals of their choosing.  Legislation is required to end that barbaric practice.  And voluntary spay-neuter is just one component of the No Kill Equation – the only set of programs proven to end the killing of healthy/treatable animals in shelters.  Spay-neuter alone has never ended the killing of healthy/treatable shelter pets anywhere.

In addition, those who blame the public for the killing and point to spay-neuter as the one and only solution often combine the blame with a threat:  Until everyone spays and neuters, we’ll keep killing animals.  The truth is that the day “everyone spays and neuters” is not going to be today, tomorrow, or next month.  That means that the pets in shelters today, tomorrow and next month are at risk of being needlessly killed which is unacceptable no matter how you frame it.

In fact, the day “everyone spays and neuters” will be never.  Some people choose not to spay and neuter for various reasons with which animal advocates may or may not agree.  But that is irrelevant since pet overpopulation is a myth and there are more than enough homes for every shelter pet in the U.S.  There are hundreds of communities all over the country that have ended the killing of healthy/treatable shelter pets and not one of them waited until everyone spayed and neutered their pets.  Puppies and kittens are still being born in those no kill communities, shelter directors are still doing their jobs, and the world is still turning.

In addition to failing to help the animals in shelters today, spay-neuter has serious accessibility issues.  Too many low cost spay-neuter clinics are mired in difficulties – both from within and without.  In Alabama for example, private vets are working to drive the few low cost spay-neuter clinics out of business – and they’re succeeding.  Other clinics in the U.S. have lengthy waiting lists  or don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you lists that discourage people from applying.  If more low cost clinics would start subsidizing fees (up to 100% if necessary) for low income owners who need assistance, offering transport for pets who would otherwise be unable to get to the clinic, and working with caretakers of community cats, their reach could be expanded.  And perhaps the most obvious and overlooked challenge:  making people aware that the clinics exist.

Nathan Winograd explains why spay-neuter is an important part of, but not the entire solution to, shelter pet killing since it helps reduce intake numbers:

[W]e want intakes low enough that even a lazy, bureaucratic, uncaring, inept director (in short, your average kill shelter director) can run a No Kill shelter with ease. In other words, we want to eliminate those communities with high intake rates (like Washoe County) needing thoroughly committed and hardworking leadership to succeed.

In other words, shelter pets can’t wait for all the Meisterburgers to die out and get replaced by heroic figures willing to commit themselves, body and soul, to stopping the killing of shelter pets. We have a proven road map and we need to force, through legislation if necessary, the existing shelter leadership to follow it. Reducing intake through low/no cost voluntary spay-neuter is one way to help make that happen.

Spay-neuter has not ever and will not ever eliminate shelter pet killing but even in the worst case scenario with a shelter director committed to killing, it can help deliver fewer victims to the facility’s front door.  The benefits of spay-neuter should not be underestimated nor should they be overestimated as a panacea for the myriad problems in our broken shelter system.  No kill starts with a commitment to protecting the lives of shelter animals and a willingness to do the hard work required to save them all.  Everything else is a tool in the toolbox.

Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners and Dead Shelter Pet Profiteering

Access to no and low cost spay-neuter services for pet owners who need them is a key component of the No Kill Equation.  The No Kill Equation is the only set of programs proven to eliminate the needless killing of shelter pets.  Alabama, a state where roughly 1 out of 5 people live below poverty level, had four non-profit clinics which offered low cost spay-neuter services.  That is, until recently.

For the past few years, the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners (ASBVME) has been trying to get the low cost spay-neuter clinics shut down.  The board has claimed that sub-standard care is being provided and that the clinics are trying to expand into full service vet hospitals.  The care is “sub-standard” because the primary function of the clinics is to perform low cost, high volume spays and neuters.  So yeah, this isn’t the place to get a complete diagnostic work up on your geriatric pet who doesn’t seem to be exhibiting her usual pep lately.  If it was, then the clinic would be guilty of attempting to expand its services.  But it’s not, so no.

The bottom line:  the ASBVME members want ALL THE MONEY that anyone in the state of AL is willing to spend on vet care.  As if one client at a spay-neuter clinic equates with one client who would utilize a full service practice if the low cost clinic wasn’t available.  Because hey, if all the WalMarts closed tomorrow, everyone would totally head on over to Saks Fifth Avenue to get their shopping done.

The ASBVME is currently targeting veterinarian William Weber, owner of the low cost spay-neuter clinic in Irondale. In hearings held by the ASBVME, Dr. Weber spoke for himself:

“You’re not gonna shut me up so you may as well not try. You can object until Kingdom Come. You can object ‘til your glasses fall off. You will not shut me up… The great majority of these people are people that would never, ever go into a veterinary clinic and pay $500 or similar to spay a cat that they’re lucky they can feed and catch in a trap and take it somewhere. They’re not gonna do that. Veterinarians are not losing money from spay and neuter clinics!  And if veterinarians would cooperate, they would make money from ‘em. You be nice to some of these people, and they’ll come back to you. And why people cannot see that is beyond me. How can a veterinarian go to school and learn surgery and come out of it with no compassion?! There are veterinarians in this state that have a hole in their brain where compassion ought to be and they’re trying to fill it up with money.“

And astonishingly, ASBVME vice president Sam Eidt offered that low cost spay-neuter clinics aren’t needed because pet overpopulation is a myth and the book Redemption says so.  Nathan Winograd, the author of Redemption, wrote to the ASBVME in response.  His letter, which can be read in full here, sets the record straight:

Any claim that [low cost spay-neuter] clinics are either unnecessary or should be restricted based on my work is categorically false. In fact, not only am I and my organization committed to the promotion of such services, when I ran shelters, we performed many such surgeries, as they were key to our lifesaving success. In one of those shelters, we did roughly 10,000 low-cost surgeries a year, 84% of which were free. None of the community’s veterinarians objected to this service. Indeed, as animal lovers who understood that we were serving people who could not afford their services, they welcomed it.

[...]

While it is true that nationwide statistics show that there are enough potential homes for the animals in shelters, this does not undermine the cost, public health, and lifesaving impact of such services. Indeed, regardless of the number of potential homes, the fact remains that the animals are not getting into those homes. Shelter killing currently claims the lives of three million healthy and treatable animals every year and shelter killing remains the leading cause of death for healthy dogs and cats in the U.S. Low-cost, high-volume spaying and neutering helps to decrease the number of animals entering shelters who would face an unnecessary and untimely death. Such programs are therefore essential to saving lives and should be encouraged and supported.

The low cost spay-neuter clinic in Huntsville abruptly closed its doors a couple weeks ago, due to fear of being next on the ASBVME’s hit list. Although I haven’t seen any support for AL’s low cost spay-neuter clinics from HSUS or ASPCA during this legal battle, Francis Battista of Best Friends recently blogged about the issue:

The ASBVMA, under the leadership of Robert E. Pittman, DVM, is charging Weber with fraud and lack of supervision, and it maintains that the clinic, which performs low-cost, high-volume spays and neuters, provides substandard care. It should be noted that Dr. Pittman owns and operates his hometown kill shelter on a contract with the city. The shelter is attached to his Athens, Alabama, veterinary clinic. It might be an oversimplification to frame it this way, but this looks for all the world like a case where a vet who has a vested interest in not reducing the number of homeless pets using his institutional authority is going after a vet who is working to reduce the number of homeless pets. Hmm.

Put me down for a hmm too.

For those who scrolled to the end of this post because words, here are your takeaways:

  • Access to no and low cost spay-neuters is a key program utilized by hundreds of communities which have ended the killing of healthy/treatable shelter pets.
  • Closing the low cost spay-neuter clinics in AL will result in an increase in the number of unintended litters of puppies and kittens, not an increase in gold bullion for private practice vets.
  • There are enough homes for every shelter pet in the United States.  That does not mean we should work to create more pets likely to end up in shelters.  In fact, that’s the wrong direction entirely.  Especially given the fact that most shelter directors are failing to get their pets into homes and are killing them instead.  So providing these directors with more is a terrible idea.  They’re failing the ones they already have.
  • Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham has been trying to get a bill passed to protect the state’s spay-neuter clinics but hasn’t been successful to date.  Seems like a missed opportunity for HSUS and their legislative inclinations.  Their support, were they to offer it, might tip the balance in favor of the bill.

(Thanks to readers Tip and Aubrie for the links and transcript of Dr. Weber’s remarks.)

Discussion: Tubal Ligations and Vasectomies on Puppies

If you are unfamiliar with tubal ligations and vasectomies for pets, here is an excellent primer.  Basically they are surgical procedures to render pets incapable of reproduction and are far less invasive than traditional spay-neuter.  The procedures allow pets to keep their gonads, and their hormones, and therefore do not affect breeding behavior.  As such, Dr. Khuly notes that tubal ligations and vasectomies for cats are not likely to offer much benefit for owners:

They’re just not behaviorally amenable to in-home living when their ovaries and testicles hold such aggressive sway over their behavior.

But for dogs, the scenario is different.

From a public policy standpoint, vasectomization and tubal ligation offer the advantage of a less invasive, more rapid brand of sterilization.

In addition, the procedures can reportedly be safely performed in very young puppies.  This offers the option to shelters and rescues to send home all puppies already rendered incapable of reproduction.  There would be no need to follow up with the adopter at a later date in order to encourage him to follow through with the neuter surgery.  And none would slip through the cracks.

There is also a significant health benefit for the dog.  A recent study has added to the body of evidence supporting that neutering dogs before one year of age puts them at significantly higher risk for health problems including joint disorders and cancer:

Specifically, early neutering was associated with an increase in the occurrence of hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear and lymphosarcoma in males and of cranial cruciate ligament tear in females.

With tubal ligation and vasectomies, the owner can always opt to have spay or neuter surgery performed after the puppy is grown, if desired.

In her post, Dr. Khuly points out that vets are not taught tubal ligations and vasectomies in school.  This would seem to be a glaring omission from the curriculum since the need for the procedures, especially at shelters and low cost spay-neuter clinics which many animal rescue groups utilize, is obvious.  I can imagine many breeders making use of the service as well, were it available at the private vet clinic they already use.

It seems to me that tubal ligations and vasectomies in dogs could have a meaningful impact on both intake and outflow at shelters and rescues.  Puppies could be sent home at 8 weeks of age, instead of holding them as some groups do until they are considered old enough for neuter surgery or sending them home intact, with a promise to neuter later.  And they could be sent home already rendered incapable of reproduction, thus reducing future unintended litters.  With the very real potential to reduce serious health problems, there seems to be no downside to this elective procedure.

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Do you see any potential drawbacks?  Why aren’t more vets and particularly shelter vets performing tubal ligations and vasectomies on puppies?  Should no kill advocates be encouraging shelter vets and those at low cost neuter clinics to learn and offer the procedures?

Petsmart Charities/Ipsos Study: The Where and Why of Spay-Neuter

Ipsos Marketing conducted studies for Petsmart Charities on a variety of issues related to pet adoption in 2009 and 2011. In this post, I am going to pull out a few of the findings related to spay-neuter.

Close to 1/3 of the respondents who had acquired a pet within the past year indicated the reason they had not neutered the pet was cost. (page 25) Of those, roughly 80% were not aware of any low cost spay-neuter services in their area.

The study also found that more people are using the internet to research spay-neuter prior to having the surgery done. (page 28) It seems to me that those providing low and no cost neuter services should take advantage of this trend in order to increase awareness within the community. A user friendly website with clear contact information is a must. And to state the obvious, any website containing text such as: “There is currently a 9 month waiting list”, “DO NOT CALL US to see where you are on the list”, and similar negative comments are a major turn off for owners.

Pet owners trust veterinary practices to neuter their pets much more than they do low cost spay-neuter clinics or “humane societies”. (page 29) Respondents overwhelmingly believed the private vet office would be clean, safe and take good care of their pets. To my mind, this is a direct reflection of the customer service and marketing put forth by many low cost spay-neuter clinics and “humane societies”. A fixable problem, if anyone involved cares to address the issue.

As far as what motivates pet owners to get their pets neutered, perhaps unsurprisingly, the primary reason is to avoid having litters. (page 31) Only a very small percentage of respondents indicated they were motivated to have the surgery done due to a local MSN ordinance.

Although many shelter directors and animal welfare advocates blame the public for a failure to neuter their pets, there is clearly a need for more low cost services, a need to make the community aware of the services that exist and to instill trust in pet owners via good customer service, marketing and quality pet care. Word of mouth is some of the best advertising money can’t buy. Right now, it’s working against many of the places that provide much needed low cost neuter services. That can be changed.

Related reading:

Why People Aren’t Adopting

The Where and Why of Adoption

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