Making the Case for Municipal Spay/Neuter Programs

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.