Why mandatory spay and neuter laws don’t work

With 3 to 4 million animals euthanized in American animal shelters every year, rescuers and animal lovers everywhere continually wonder what can be done to stem the tide of homeless pets flowing into the system. When you work in a shelter, and in a single day, you receive two dozen puppies and kittens, carried in by the box-full, and only two or three adopters, it’s easy to get desperate to do whatever you can to save more lives. And out of that desperation, came the concept of mandatory spay and neuter laws that require pet owners surgically sterilize their pets or face fines, or confiscation.

So, why doesn’t this animal rescuer support mandatory spay and neuter laws?

Simply put:They do not work.

I am completely in favor of taking strong, proactive measures to reduce the numbers of homeless pets on our country but I cannot support laws that have been proven not to work in multiple jurisdictions, especially when there are far more effective alternatives.

The problems with mandatory spay/neuter are numerous, but include:

  1. Lack of enforcement: Most jurisdictions do not have the animal control resources to enforce the laws to the 62 percent of American households that own a pet.
  2. A short-sighted solution: The greatest obstacles to widespread spay/neuter have been found to be cost and education, not an outright opposition to the procedure. Mandating something people either do not understand, or cannot afford, is not going to address the root problem.
  3. Lack of affordable access: A low-cost spay, for a dog belonging to a low-income person in Washington DC, for example, is $171. At DC’s minimum wage of $8.25, that would take 21 hours of work, just to pay for the surgery. (And before anyone starts on the argument that “poor people” should not have pets, keep in mind that if every pet owner who currently lives below the poverty line turned those animals into a shelter tomorrow, it could mean an addition 7 million pets entering the shelter system.)
  4. Increased shelter surrenders: Jurisdictions with mandatory spay/neuter laws, such as Los Angeles, have found that an oft-quoted reason for people turning pets into animal shelters is “spay/neuter.” With costs for low-cost spay/neuter as high as $155, and clinics typically a substantial distance from the communities with the greatest need, it is no surprise some people see that complying with the law through surrendering their dog to the animal shelter might provide the pet with services that they cannot access or afford. Los Angeles currently euthanizes about 36 percent of the animals in their shelters — a statistic most people remain unaware of.
  5. Impacting the “wrong people:” Just as with breed bans, a mandatory spay/neuter law would not impact those who have illicit breeding operations in backyards with unsocialized puppies and dogs on chains, staying below the radar of the law. However, it would force responsible owners with dogs who are not spayed or neutered to go underground — meaning walks, vet visits, and socialization opportunities would be minimized.
  6. High cost, low results: Mandatory spay and neuter laws are as expensive as they are ineffective. Why should cash-strapped governments spend money on enforcing a law that does not reduce the numbers of cats and dogs dying in shelters?
  7. Not impacting adult animals: Even if perfectly executed, mandatory spay and neuter does not address the causes of adult animals being surrendered to shelters (such as cost, lack of pet-friendly housing, and behavioral issues) and in most communities, far more adult cats and dogs are surrendered than young kittens or puppies.

And for every reason that mandatory spay/neuter laws don’t work, there are programs out there that do, including:

  1. Low-cost, accessible spay/neuter clinics — meaning no-waiting lists at affordable clinics with appointments at non-traditional times and in communities with the highest need.
  2. Education, especially in non-English speaking and low-income communities, which may have previously not encountered the pet overpopulation message.
  3. Non-judgmental veterinary, shelter and educational staff to work in the field and help work towards the common goal in a compassionate way.
  4. Proactive, supportive, and non-breed-specific licensing laws.
  5. Mandatory spay/neuter requirements for dogs with a demonstrated history of aggression.
  6. Humane care laws, with enforcement, for those who choose to breed their dogs.

So, if there are programs that work, and programs that don’t, and every day more than 8,000 animals are still being euthanized in American animal shelters, maybe it is time for us animal lovers to get back to basics. Reducing overpopulation is too important to waste time on ineffective laws. So let’s do what works, scrap what doesn’t and save more lives than ever this year.


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