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.

16 thoughts on “False Promises: Spay-Neuter is Not Magic

  1. Thank you for saying this. I get tired of reading and hearing that everything would be hunkey-dorey if only everyone got their pets “fixed”. Wonder what some of the “shelter” administrators would even do if that happened. What excuses would they use for the mass killings then? Mandatory spay-neuter does not prevent the deaths of pets . . . the only thing that does that is to STOP KILLING THEM!!!

    1. Actually, it’s already close: Alley Cat Allies reports that 80% of owned cats are sterilized.

    2. they’ll just up the imports of overseas, unregulated, no history animals. After all, they surely don’t want to lose their cushy jobs…

  2. I can’t tell you how many s/n cats my shelter stuffed into the gas chamber over the years…being surgically altered did nothing to protect those animals and somehow killing them didn’t do anything for the community at large, either. Huh.

  3. Not only do some people not spay and neuter, but also, there are some wild companion animals (both dogs and cats) we just can’t catch, for whatever reason. As for the people who choose not to s/n, perhaps some alternative sterilization—such as tubal ligations and vasectomies—would work for them. Also, spaying might shorten an animal’s life: http://www.gpmcf.org/respectovaries.html Personally, I’d rather do a sterilization that optimizes an animal’s health.

  4. As usual the reference here is PET OVERPOPULATION with the emphasis on the terms “pet” or “companion animal” or “shelter pets” ; but the reality is that over 80 percent of that so-called overpopulation comes from the stray, feral and other abandoned animals, especially community cats; and among these animals many, if not most, are deemed unadoptable and that is where TNR programs come in, programs which get the spaying and neutering done with at least rabies vaccine and some form of identification (either ear-tipping or microchipping or both) and since these cats will remain in managed colonies on a long term basis, they never enter the shelter system in the first place (where they would invariably and inevitably be put down in any case); statistics show that the vast majority of PET owners do get their pets “fixed” while S/N affordability is still a serious concern for many others with evidence-based research showing that the NUMBER ONE REASON people don’t get their animals “fixed” (any animal in any circumstance) is the LACK OF AFFORDABLE VET FEES;notwithstanding some notable exceptions, we have long known that the vet community has been and is a big part of the problem in their reluctance to assist with affordable services and with far too many vet clinics focusing on the BOTTOM-LINE; many are also very good at disseminating erroneous or false information about how they will lose business if low cost, high volume S/N clinics are established when in reality their business increases because they will take on new clients (the ones who never had any association with a vet clinic in the first place); so S/N is not a panacea and should never be used as a cure-all and blaming the nameless “IRRESPONSIBLE PUBLIC” is often a deliberate obfuscation and excuse of those still running high-kill shelters and many vets themselves who have been directly complicit in the very KILLING they claim they abhor….and, NO, IT’S NOT CALLED EUTHANASIA when the animal is treatable, savable and deserves to live!

  5. thank you for this BEAUTIFULLY written article. And no, sterilization is not the answer. Responsible pet ownership IS.

    We had multiple dogs for years. NEVER EVER had an ‘unwanted’ or ‘oops’ litter. Nor were our dogs (or cats, for that matter) allowed to run willy-nilly all over the countryside as the pets of other neighbors were.

  6. It should also be noted, although many of us are already painfully aware of this and continue to be reminded on a daily basis, that there are, in fact, a sizable number of IRRESPONSIBLE people out there; and they run the gamut from those doing the “dumping” or disposing of animals(mostly cats) into the community to those whom the words “animal cruelty” have no meaning whatsoever because they are totally desensitized to any other living being other than their own pathetic existence; and, of course, there will be none among this population who will care one iota about spaying and neutering regardless of lower cost or no cost at all; and this area alone is a key part of the problem because far too many jurisdictions are not enforcing anti-cruelty or even local by-laws or making the prosecutions they should be making and, consequently, only add to the “animals are expendable” mentality.

    1. But as you already point out, that problem is not nearly so large as it is made out to be. To hear shelters speak of it, you’d sincerely think the vast majority of owned pets are not s/n…when the reality is that better than 80% of owned animals ARE in fact altered. Of the rest, many go unaltered due to financial concerns.

      There will always be ‘irresponsible’ owners who let their cat have a litter every year. That’s where the shelter should come in. If every shelter used effective programs, there would be plenty of space for the animals coming from those irresponsible owners.

  7. Thank you for your excellent post in explaining why S/N is not the solution, but just part of it. This should be part of the discussion with the Rhode Island legislators who are considering statewide MSN! See: http://www.akc.org/press_center/article.cfm?article_id=5490
    The article mentions discussion yesterday (5/21), but I haven’t heard the result. Evidently, RI has had MSN for cats since around 2006, but they actually have a *shortage* of dogs (imports from other states and overseas), so the only reason for pushing MSN seems to be a “feel good” action to mollify anti-breeders. IOW, to eliminate purpose-bred dogs in the state (which are NOT a problem), no matter what other rhetoric they are spouting.

  8. In the first place no informed animal advocate is going to believe the propaganda and/or spin coming from many shelter spokespeople and this includes many of the SPCAs themselves whose only priority is making themselves look good; of course effective programs such as TNR ,fostering and adoptions and low cost S/N are all vital parts of effective strategies or no-kill solutions; but this also includes education of those irresponsible owners and, if required, even some sort of legal accountability or local by-law enforcement for those who may think they have the right to let their cat have unlimited litters because it is the “natural” thing to do; this type of willful ignorance should not be accomodated by “effective programs” so that “plenty of space” will theoretically be available to take on this particular group’s irresponsibility; a shelter’s job is not just to protect and care for the animals coming under its care but to be proactive in educating the community about the need and value of S/N and why allowing unlimited litters(regardless of reason) helps no-one concerned, especially not the health and welfare of the cats.

  9. thank you , Shirley. In the height of kitten season , while begging for foster homes to save the lives of those the shelter refuses to save , I am so very weary of ” why don’t you people in the South spay and neuter?” comments..These , coming from inside and outside the county impound. I cannot tell you the number of calls , emails , messages I get EVERY day from folks who want to do the right thing and 1) don’t know where to look 2) cannot afford it 3) have found another “stray ” mom and kittens but don’t want them killed at the local facility.

  10. Excellent article. Thank you for that.

    As someone working to bring no kill programs to my area, let’s take this one step further. We had a low cost SN clinic here. It is now closed due to the antics of our state vet board and a few select folks. We know that having low cost SN is key to reducing shelter intake. If we had been focused only on that one “cure all” solution, where would we be now?

    We continue to tout all of the programs of the equation as the solution as they function together in what we call the “keep them out, get them out” method. We will continue to do this as we try to rebound from the loss of the clinic. Which was always part of the bigger picture to resolve systemic issues in our community and inside of our shelter.

  11. The once honorable and humane profession of being a vet has been replaced with the same disdain lawyers are viewed in.
    Shame on the vet boards and the AVMA.

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