This Huffington Post blog by Ruth Steinberger on Feline Fix by Five Months notes the importance of spaying cats at five months, not the traditional six. This plan, backed by veterinary organizations, animal welfare advocates and cat fanciers alike, can prevent the births of millions of unwanted kittens each year.
Check out our latest Huffington Post article on combining compassion and science to halt animal suffering: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ruth-steinberger/science-and-compassion-are-needed_b_6859812.html
The problem of homelessness in America is cause for alarm — and for action. Most of us are aware of the distressing reality of homelessness faced every day by millions of our fellow citizens — war veterans, the mentally ill, children, families, the working poor. Far fewer are aware of another homeless population among us. Even the size of this neglected population is difficult to determine and it is entirely unable to advocate for itself.
The number of homeless dogs and cats in the U.S. cannot be established by merely tallying up the numbers at all the animal shelters. The fact is, many, perhaps most, surplus pets never enter the shelter system. Yet their lives may be at greater risk than those that do enter shelters. If we are to address the problem of homelessness among our country’s dog and cat population, and reduce the horrors that face this population (neglect, roadside abandonment, intentional cruelty, euthanasia), we must include the uncounted, the “invisible,” among them in the discussion.
In considering the issue of homeless pets, some may argue that if all pets were simply obtained from animal shelters, the number of homeless companion animals would gradually be reduced to the point that the euthanasia of healthy, loving dogs and cats would largely cease. However, that would not work because the math just doesn’t add up.
According to the Spay USA website, 70,000 pets are born in the U.S. each day, while according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10,957.2 people are born each day (or 3,999,386 annually). So unless families pick up their seven dogs or cats each time there is an addition to the family, the number of surplus pets will continue to exceed the number of homes available to them.
By focusing our efforts on adoption instead of reducing births we may cycle different, but not fewer, pets through the shelter system. Only by reducing the number of unintended births among our dog and cat population can we hope to reduce euthanasia, neglect and cruelty.
According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) the world’s leading pet products and manufacturers trade association, the largest source of household pets is not the local animal shelter, a breeder, or a pet store. A 2012 APPA poll revealed that while 21 percent of dogs are obtained from shelters and 26 percent from breeders, 39 percent are from the combined random sources of friend, family member or stray — sources that typically reflect impulse decisions, not planned adoptions. The number of cats obtained from a friend, family member or stray is reported to be 75 percent. And for both dogs and cats, the number obtained as a stray is greater than the number coming from pet stores. These figures represent the cycles of pets in poverty; pets obtained from these sources are at risk of producing even more unintended litters that are also likely to join the ranks of the invisible homeless.
An April, 2009, a Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) article revealed that household income is the greatest predictor of whether or not pets undergo a spay/neuter operation, with homes earning under $35,000 being almost half as likely to have pets altered than homes over $75,000. Ultimately, most unwanted litters originate in low-income communities and the pets are likely to be passed on to their new homes unaltered and with the mothers remaining at risk of producing more litters. Those concerned with shelter euthanasias and animal neglect should be alarmed that the animals most likely to suffer are the unplanned puppies and kittens that are passed between family members, friends and neighbors, or given away in parking lots or through newspaper ads and websites like Craigslist. According to Pet-Abuse.com, a national database on animal cruelty, dogs are the number-one animal victim targeted for cruelty. Pet-Abuse.com also notes that “free-to-good home” advertisements, a common method for placing unplanned litters in communities without shelters, increase the risk of an animal becoming a victim. Intact male dogs are victims in 80 percent of canine cruelty cases, followed by puppies.
Even if we were to count only the animals that enter the shelter system, the number of homeless is startling: According to Oxford Pets, roughly eight million surplus animals will enter shelters in the U.S. this year. Some will enter as part of a litter and others will enter as adults. Only 25 percent of the dogs and a very small percentage of cats will be purebred; 75 percent of dogs and nearly all of the cats will be mixed breed animals that originated in unplanned and largely unwanted litters. Most will originate in low-income communities and fewer than half will leave the shelters alive.
Although we may be drawn to complex socio-economic explanations to account for and address the problem of homelessness in people, in the case of homeless pets we need to begin with the simple fact that there are just too many dogs and cats for the number of homes available for them and that being part of this surplus leaves millions of dogs and cats out in the cold. Although affordable spay/neuter services exist in many urban areas of our nation, throughout vast areas of the U.S., spay/neuter services remain spotty and unavailable. Literally millions of surplus animals are born as a result of that void. Without increasing convenient access to spay/neuter programs and mandating their use, effecting change in many areas of the nation could still take decades.
With ad campaigns and other encouragements, we can, perhaps, increase the number of cats and dogs entering and leaving through the revolving door of our local animal shelters, but spay/neuter programs, not adoption, prevent the overwhelming number of excess pets from needing homes, entering shelters or becoming victims, no matter where on the timeline they are counted.
Nancy Atwater, executive director of Tulsa-based Spay Oklahoma, a high volume spay/neuter program founded in 2004 that currently provides over 12,000 spays or neuters to pets in low-income Tulsa City/County homes each year, says that much of this is a matter of common sense. According to Atwater, “The shelters in most large cities are diligent about spaying or neutering pets before release. So if most pets came from either shelters or breeders, urban spay/neuter programs would serve largely purebred dogs and cats. But that’s not what happens. Our clients mainly have mixed-breed animals that were obtained locally. And we see almost as many of these as the number of surplus pets that enter the local shelter every year.”
The number of pets entering shelters may be equaled by the number of surplus pets that are never counted. Our vision, and our solution, needs to encompass all that are at risk of hunger, cruelty and neglect.
Shifting our current practice from the collection and dispersal of homeless animals to preventing their births can stop the suffering and abate the need for building or expanding shelters. It can be done. It just means changing our strategy to spay/neuter, something that is cheaper, easier and more humane than building shelters to lock up unwanted pets. This should not take decades.
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The hidden costs of pet overpopulation make the expansion of affordable spay/neuter services into an ethical and financial imperative. Sadly it is still lagging throughout much of the U.S.
In poverty, people and the companion animals around them suffer together. It’s a tragedy intertwined between dogs and cats and the people they depend on for their basic care. The lack of resources in poor communities is easily ignored, yet like other issues facing low-income communities, overlooking the impact of pet overpopulation has social, ethical and financial implications.
In the U.S. animal control costs are estimated at $2 billion a year or around $6 per person. The majority of animals entering shelters, especially litters, come from low-income communities. Additionally, poor pet care habits are tied to an excessive number of dog bites, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects low-income communities as well, adding another estimated billion dollars each year (in 2011, insurance companies paid $479 million for dog bite claims) or roughly another $3 per person. Nine dollars per person is spent annually to address largely preventable problems.
It’s complicated and sad; neither the animals nor the taxpayers come out ahead. Although statistics point overwhelmingly to the need to expand spay/neuter programs and mandate their use, public dollars for prevention based spay/neuter programs do not equal even 50 cents per person and mandatory spay/neuter remains controversial.
Addressing the issue of too many dogs and cats in poor communities is not simple; overall access to convenient, affordable spay/neuter services is disparate with some states having only a very few accessible, affordable programs to serve the state, and some statewide programs that do exist lack the funds to operate effectively. Additionally shelters that respond to homeless animals are generally operated by municipalities at taxpayer expense; spay/neuter programs that prevent unwanted litters usually are not; these services are opened by nonprofit organizations one at a time, and due to local costs (rent, etc.), some must charge rates that are out of range for many low-income homes to pay.
A 2009 study noted that annual family income was the strongest predictor of whether cats in the home were neutered. The household income that delineated the difference in pet care habits was $35,000 per year. The fact that poverty affects the animals in the home is also a matter of common sense.
“Affordable and accessible” means different things to different people. In the absence of a program to ensure affordability, those who live at minimum wage struggle to have a pet spayed or neutered.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; this is roughly $15,000 per year, or around $53 per day after taxes. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that in 2011 roughly 2.2 million hourly workers earned below the minimum wage. Almost 25 percent of U.S. households earn under $25,000 per year, with close to 40 percent under $35,000 per year. Additionally, according to the Social Security Administration the average person on disability receives a benefit of $710 per month. In November 2012, 8,241,018 individuals received disability payments at an average of $518.80 per person.
Spending over a days’ earnings to spay the pet, driving hours to get to a spay/neuter program or waiting weeks to use an intermittent program places responsible pet care out of reach for low-income homes.
Stray, mangy dogs turning over trash cans to find food are a rarity in wealthy communities in the U.S.; they exist in communities in which the very fiber of people’s lives are also at risk. As a local resident of the low-income community, the financially at-risk person is often the one who reaches out to assist the at-risk pet. Indeed intake forms from thousands of surgeries performed at low-income spay/neuter programs in different parts of the U.S. reveal that over half of low-income homes “obtained” their pet by feeding or caring for a stray. Everyone’s life was fragile when the partnership started and without being able to take the first basic step in responsible pet care, it is unlikely that the newfound friendship will be a stable one. For a female dog or cat, the ability to be spayed may provide the only possibility for remaining in the home.
Not being neutered and remaining on a chain are tied to aggression and territorial behavior in male animals. Guarding litters is one of the top reasons for bites from female dogs. The failure to have pets spayed or neutered, combined with confining pets by a chain, statistically increase the likelihood of the pet facing neglect (including social neglect), producing an unwanted litter, or being involved in a dog bite incident.
Neglect, unwanted litters and dog bites are inextricably tied to an inability to access basic services that include spay/neuter. These issues are tragic, they overwhelmingly affect low-income communities and in large part, they are preventable through good pet care habits. These habits don’t just come about, they require adjusting our thinking and embracing a prevention based model.
An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year. Of these around 800,000 Americans seek medical attention; around 386,000 of those require treatment in an emergency room at an average of about $5,000 each; approximately 16 bite victims will die each year. Intact male dogs are involved in 76 percent of cases and importantly, 25 percent of cases involve dogs that are kept on chains. While a complex set of circumstances are involved when a person is killed by dogs, approximately 92 percent of fatal dog attacks involve male dogs, 94 percent of which are not neutered at the time of the attack. Chaining as a means of confinement is significantly overrepresented in fatal attacks as well.
Remaining intact and chained to a dog house or tree (and not socialized) is a very poor life for a dog. It’s a lifestyle that often deteriorates into chronic neglect that also creates a danger for the community. This entire picture is over represented in low-income communities. The habits can be addressed through minimal resources; the outcomes are, to a large degree, preventable, and indeed worth preventing.
Getting to the heart of an overpopulation issue that exploded in the news when a fatality occurred, in January 2006, San Francisco passed a mandatory pit bull sterilization ordinance. At the time pit bulls filled three quarters of the shelter. Eighteen months after the passage of the ordinance, pit bull impoundments declined by 21 percent; shelter occupancy rates fell and pit bulls euthanized dropped by 24 percent. A 2010 report noted that bites had significantly decreased as well. A spay/neuter ordinance accomplished what adoption efforts had not. Former Animal Care and Control Director Carl Friedman said, “Fewer pit bulls are being abandoned to the pound because fewer are being born, thanks to the spay and neuter requirement.” At the time he added, “I wouldn’t bet the house it’s all because of the ordinance, but nothing else has really changed.”
In 2007 the City of Lawton, Okla., passed an ordinance mandating that pets be spayed or neutered, or that the owner purchase a breeders permit. The ordinance also outlaws tethering. City of Lawton Animal Welfare Superintendent Rose Wilson lobbied heavily for the ordinance which has saved thousands of lives. Wilson said, “If you want to breed animals you must buy a permit and treat it as a business.” She acknowledged that a bit of money is saved by reducing the numbers, but the biggest outcome is in the lives that are spared. The city has gone from euthanizing 1283 of adoptable pets in 2006, to 49 in 2012. The city shelter receives unwanted animals that are turned in by individuals from surrounding towns that are not covered under the ordinance, and Wilson would like to see Fort Sill Military Base mandate responsible pet care since many animals are abandoned when residents of the base move on. When she was 12 years old, Lawson found a dog that was huddled in tall grass in a field near her home. It was snowing out and she brought the dog home. She said, “Then I grew up and realized that dog is everywhere. The problem remains the numbers that are born.” She said, “Limiting intakes to certain localities, or closing our doors to the pets to make numbers look like they’re going down, is the wrong thing to do. If we can save endangered species through action that is across international borders, we can stop the number of pets being born right here.”
Considering the costs of responding to the failure to have dogs and cats spayed and neutered, and the fact that these programs are effective when reaching the homes that produce the majority of unwanted litters, it is time to start the discussion of publicly operated and/or supported programs that make spay/neuter services affordable and accessible for low-income homes to use. Many effective and financially self-sustaining models, including partnerships with private practitioners, exist. It is humane and it is cost-effective.
Mandatory spay/neuter and anti-tethering ordinances support humane initiatives while supporting public health and safety. Most homes pay a portion of the cost of spaying their pet; it is arguably one of the few times in which an at-risk animal is not a taxpayer burden. It is time to prevent tragedies instead of reacting to them.
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You’ve heard the expression “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Well, in many communities throughout the U.S., that rain is a continual flood of tragedy that holds devastating economic and social costs. The problem of too many dogs and cats, commonly called pet overpopulation, overwhelmingly occurs in, and takes its toll on, poor communities. The problem affects the animals and the people around them as well.
Internationally, 75 percent of all dogs, that’s around 375 million of them, along with a similar number of cats, are unwanted. Estimates on the numbers of dogs worldwide varies widely from 9 billion to only 75 million, however, according to WSPA there are about a half billion and three quarters (375,000,000) are unwanted.
The vast majority of unwanted dogs and cats are born in nations without animal welfare laws. Gruesome elimination campaigns occur worldwide. Of the millions of unwanted pets born each year in the U.S., 7-8 million ultimately enter shelters and roughly half do not come out alive.
The growing movement to address animal welfare in areas of chronic poverty reminds us that many people no longer view homeless animals as a tragedy they must simply ignore. While organizations in developing nations create prevention-based animal welfare programs, much of the U.S. still relies solely on collection facilities called shelters. In the U.S., publically supported animal shelters exist in all states (and some states have full geographic access to shelters), but fewer than 10 states have statewide access to low-income spay/neuter programs. The need is clear and low-income families flock to these services where and when they do exist.
People started sheltering homeless dogs and cats in the U.S. in the 1800s. The ability to readily have a dog or cat spayed evolved in the 1960s, and by 1985 high volume spay/neuter programs were on the horizon.
Today, in the U.S. a shocking two billion taxpayer dollars are spent each year to collect, house and then either adopt out, or euthanize and cremate, dogs and cats. But while shelters are publically funded, spay/neuter programs for low-income homes are generally opened and run by local, privately funded animal welfare organizations.
To illustrate the absurdity of our current model, just imagine if the 1952 emergence of the Salk vaccine had been greeted by a lukewarm shrug and a decision to build more hospital wards for polio victims while asking volunteers to hold bake sales to support vaccination drives.
Dogs and cats are born in litters of five to 10 at a time and are adopted one at a time. Open-access shelters are vital; however relying on them to address unplanned litters is a short sighted tragedy. A recent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) study revealed an overall drop in pet ownership spanning the last five years.
Spay/neuter organizations do an amazing job, providing over 500,000 surgeries annually. However, as privately run organizations spay/neuter clinics open one at a time; they are geographically spotty and their operating costs vary based on local rents, etc.
Public hesitation to support affordable spay/neuter services may stem from the belief that if people cannot afford to care for pets they should not have them. However, thousands of client intake forms at Midwestern spay/neuter programs reveal that over 60 percent of low-income owners obtained the pet as a ‘stray.’ Pet ownership was a matter of compassion, not irresponsibility. Life is precarious for a stray dog or cat; they are unlikely to have a permanent home if there is a risk of ongoing litters.
Since sheltering costs include salaries, utilities, supplies and more, even small “outdoor” shelters normally cost at least one hundred dollars per animal. When a pet enters a shelter it immediately becomes a taxpayer burden. High volume spay/neuter models bring the costs down to as little as $40 per surgery, a price that many low-income pet owners currently pay in existing (and self-sustaining) programs. This breaks the cycle before an unwanted litter enters a shelter as a public expense. Everyone wins.
Cost is generally the driving factor in the failure to get pets altered. A 2009 Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) article noted that “annual family income was the strongest predictor of whether cats in the household were neutered.” Researchers determined that cats in homes under $35,000 per year are roughly half as likely to be neutered as are cats in homes with higher incomes. According to Census.gov 2011, nearly 40 percent of U.S. households earn under $35,000 per year, and 24.9 percent of households earn under $25,000 annually.
In counties without shelters, generally found in the South and Midwest, the inability to get pets altered often results in chronic neglect: the unfortunate female cat or dog that becomes pregnant is ‘put out’ of the home. Homeless pets are routinely abandoned roadside, and a plethora of home-based rescue programs have turned into nightmarish criminal “hoarding” situations that were overloaded with animals they intended to ‘rehome.’
Former director of Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Howard Hendrick, wrote a letter in support of increased spay/neuter services for low-income pet owners. He focused on the impact of animal overpopulation on low-income families, particularly on children. Hendrick wrote, “The value of the human/companion animal bond has been demonstrated in hospital and therapeutic settings, particularly [for] children… The inability to have a pet sterilized almost always results in the termination of the human/companion animal bond. Indeed, less than 20 percent of unsterilized pets remain in the home.” He concluded, “… children in marginalized households become aware that ‘normal’ methods of disposing of unwanted animals include abandonment of the pet(s) in a remote location, shooting or drowning. These are poor lessons for children whose lives are already at risk. In addition to breaking the bonds between children and the pets they value, the outcome is a poor lesson in responsibility and commitment for children.”
The incinerators used to cremate euthanized pets cost more than the basic equipment needed for a spay/neuter surgery room, and a “euthanasia room” is not cheaper to build than a room destined for use for spay/neuter. While it’s not as easy as swapping one piece of equipment for another, financially self-sustaining low-income spay/neuter programs exist and can be readily duplicated.
Restricting reduced cost services to income qualified homes (similar to legal aid) supports effective outcomes while avoiding competition with private veterinary practices. Any number of service models from high volume clinics, to mobile spay/neuter units, to regularly scheduled “spay days” in private veterinary clinics, can change the equation if they are accessible to all homes that need them, and pro-active ordinances encourage people to use them.
The fundamental obstacle to stopping the flood of unwanted cats and dogs is not the money, the space or the know-how… the obstacle is the paradigm that prioritizes collection over prevention. We simply must shift our thinking — and our practice. addressing this issue on behalf of the animals, impoverished communities Widespread access to spay/neuter services for low-income homes is vital to everywhere and taxpayers across the U.S.
Spay/neuter is the single most important step in eliminating the pet overpopulation that results in overcrowded shelters and places homeless dogs and cats on the streets. Euthanasia due to being unwanted is the leading cause of death of companion animals in the US and the overall numbers drive euthanasias. Yet, spay/neuter is underutilized; it is not available in many areas where it is needed the most.
In the 1800s animal sheltering started to take shape. At the time, surgical sterilization of pets was not an option; merely opening the discussion of humane options for unwanted companion animals was a major step forward.
By the 1940s surgical sterilization of pets existed, though largely as a novelty item. By the 1960’s many families had pets altered, and by the 1980’s a limited number of veterinarians were striving to reduce the size of their incision and the time it took to complete the surgery, paving the way for high volume spay neuter clinics.
However, changing the primary response to pet overpopulation from sheltering to prevention is going slowly. At best, sheltering and affordable spay/neuter programs exist side-by-side; downsizing the need for sheltering through a serious spay/neuter strategy is not happening in many parts of the US. We rely on a strategy that was initiated over a century ago, while the modern, effective medical solution remains an afterthought. What’s wrong with the picture?
What if we had greeted the 1952 breakthrough of an effective polio vaccine by proclaiming that the official position would still be to care for the sick in hospital wards, while the vaccine would be made available through groups of volunteers who would be funded by bake sales and kindly charities? We continue to do just that in the case of unwanted dogs and cats! Taxpayers build shelters, the inhabitants die by the millions…then maybe someone opens a spay/neuter program.
Spay FIRST! believes that we need to turn the thinking upside down!
- Over 28 percent of US households earn under $25,000 per year, yet at least 70% of homes in the US have one or more pets.
- Depending on the region, five to 25% of homeless individuals or families are caregivers to companion animals.
- In most states over half of the population has access to animal shelters at which to release unwanted pets, yet fewer than ten states have statewide access to affordable spay/neuter services in order to prevent unwanted pets.
- By “statewide access” we mean being able to get a dog or cat altered within one month, within a 50 mile drive from home and at a price that is at or under one full days’ pay ($58.80 or less for minimum wage earners).
Spay FIRST! believes that creating local spay/neuter programs in conjunction with other public health strategies is vital. Together we can change the strategy from collection to prevention.
Spay/neuter is “the equalizer” when it comes to halting animal suffering in big numbers. It’s the equalizer because it provides the exact same opportunity to change the status quo in the poorest community as it does in the wealthiest! And the effect is geometric, not one at a time.
No other single step that can be taken on behalf of animals, sheltering, rescue or anything else, has a similar cost and the very same value in every community that makes the effort.
A spayed dog does not have a litter…whether she lives in a mansion near Beverly Hills, or in chronic poverty with a homeless family, the impact of being spayed is the same…no unwanted litters, a more stable life for the pet and a better canine citizen overall.
High volume spay/neuter programs, whether they are in a large urban clinic or a private practice partnership program, strive for efficiency and the amount of money the client pays often covers the cost of the surgery—shelters cost the municipality while spay/neuter programs break even! Even in the poorest communities, at least a portion of the cost of the spay or neuter is generally paid by the caregiver or owner– other ‘solutions’ are generally supported by taxpayers or funders.
So why do many poor communities operate a small shelter as the ‘first strike’ instead of establishing a spay/neuter program and enforcing no-more-litters laws? The answer lies in the fact that the solution is elusive (we don’t see the ones who are prevented) and the lack of services has made spay/neuter into a consideration that comes later on. Sadly, by waiting until ‘after the fact,’ many more animals suffer.
Spay/neuter…it’s the 99% solution.
That doesn’t mean that the 99% have access to affordable spay neuter programs. It means that for 99% of the population, spay/neuter can be used to reduce or eliminate pet overpopulation even if the community doesn’t have the budget to operate a humane shelter or transport pets to other areas.