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The Dilemma of Mandatory Spay and Neuter Laws

Updated on January 22, 2014
One pair of dogs can produce dozens of puppies in their productive lifetime. Cats can have even more young. Over generations, millions become taxpayer problems.
One pair of dogs can produce dozens of puppies in their productive lifetime. Cats can have even more young. Over generations, millions become taxpayer problems. | Source

This hub came about after a discussion about whether or not laws could help reduce pet overpopulation. The discussion ranged over such things as mandatory spay and neuter, anti puppy mill legislation, and bans on selling puppies and kittens in pet stores. It's a controversial subject, but one worth considering for any pet owner or animal rescue advocate.

Despite many backyard breeders working to deny it’s an issue, pet overpopulation in the United States is still a massive problem. According to the Humane Society of the United States, it’s impossible to know just how many animals are euthanized every year due to the lack of reporting, but shelter workers agree that most were perfectly healthy. Their only deficiency is that they didn’t have a home. Today, estimates range anywhere from 3 million to 11 million perfectly healthy and non-aggressive cats and dogs are euthanized every year within the country. Some animal shelters face dozens of euthanizations every day just to make room for newcomers. This is due to a number of different factors. Let’s first address the controversy.

How can there be pet overpopulation when companion animals are imported every year?

It’s true that hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are brought into the United States every year. Does this prove that there’s no pet overpopulation problem? Not at all. Importation statistics do not take any other factors into account except that the animal crossed the border into the country. Most are already owned, and come into the country with their owners who are in the country permanently or for extended stays. Some may be re-entries, counting the same animal numerous times in the statistics. Of the ones that are purchased, most are bought from outside of the country by high-end breeders who want specific bloodlines. A few are purchased by individuals who want an “exotic” breed for a pet, or who otherwise buy into the benefits of this specific dog.

Want to explore this issue more in depth? Check out this book from an author who has done extensive work on the "front lines" of the homeless pet issue

What is the primary contributor to pet overpopulation?

Though it’s difficult to boil such a huge problem down to one specific thing, it’s obvious that more pets are born than there are homes for them to live out an average lifespan. Why there are more pets than owners is a slightly more complicated question. A combination of vigorous spay/neuter programs and owner education may be the only thing that can truly reduce these numbers.

Commercial producers of companion animals, often referred to as “puppy mills” or “kitten mills,” are one of the primary contributors to overpopulation. These operations are known for low standards of cleanliness and animal health, as well as a lack of health testing for their breeding stock. Operators often induce estrous with artificial hormones so that an animal can conceive more litters, faster. Laws are cracking down on these types of businesses, but many still exist and supply pet stores across the country.

Unfortunately, backyard breeders do far more damage in terms of overall numbers for unwanted animals. These include the average pet owner who has “accident litters,” the people who want to breed for profit alone without concern for good genetics or health, and those who breed without having pre-arranged homes for their animals. Most do not screen buyers, do no home checks, and do not otherwise safeguard the well-being of their litters. In contrast, a reputable breeder will be able to provide health certificates and information on both parents, and will have an application process. They often have a spay/neuter contract unless you specifically buy an animal with unlimited registration that is a superb specimen of its breed.

A humorous look at the importance of spaying and neutering...unfortunately, the numbers mentioned are entirely realistic

Are mandatory spay and neuter laws a solution to the pet overpopulation problem?

As part of relieving the tax burden of unwanted animals, many municipal lawmakers recommend laws mandating spay or neuter operations for companion animals that are not licensed for breeding. Would this work? While it has sparked controversy on a number of counts, the areas where it has been enacted report dwindling numbers of homeless companion animals. So why is it a problem?

Companion animals are, like it or not, considered property under United States law. Many pet owners see mandatory spay and neuter laws as an infringement on their rights. While this is true, once could also argue that producing unwanted animals that are likely to become a taxpayer burden in county animal shelters is a matter of public concern. Shelters are expensive. Where there are no shelters, the unwanted animals quickly become a health hazard. Either way, the problem begs some form of regulation where owners in general have proven irresponsible in dealing with the situation.

Enforcing spay and neuter laws can be difficult, and many argue that it can’t be done effectively. However, the vast majority of animals that end up in shelters are not spayed or neutered when they arrive. Currently, most areas have no fines or other regulatory measures for unplanned litters, and the surrender fees charged by most shelters often just raise the numbers of animals abandoned near the shelter.

Despite the inability to completely enforce the law, it could still be a useful measure in reducing the numbers of unwanted animals. Specifically, many accident litters occur because the owners just didn’t see a good reason to get their pet(s) fixed. They either fail to see the importance of preventing unwanted young, or fail to see the possibilities of their pet getting loose and meeting other unaltered animals. Still others think it’s good to let the animal experience parenthood just once, or don’t understand the potential implications of adding more companion animals to the population. If it’s law, these owners may be more motivated to have their pets altered.

An overview of the pet overpopulation in one area. Unfortunately, the United States has thousands of shelters that can tell the same one

Can spay and neuter laws eliminate pet overpopulation?

Simply put, it’s highly unlikely that mandatory spay and neuter laws will put an end to pet overpopulation. Why do they, then? Because it can reduce the numbers, and has proven to be effective in reduction in areas that have such laws. Every small reduction in overpopulation helps, and eventually adds up to numerous lives saved. In recent years, the numbers of reported euthanasia has gone down. While that’s a good thing, it could easily go up again at an astounding rate if vigilance lapses because of the short time frame between birth to productive age for cats and dogs.

What are some other potential problems with mandatory spay and neuter?

The cost of a spay and neuter operation may be difficult for some to meet. Though many municipalities charge more to license unaltered animals, it still takes a lot of years for that alone to make up the cost of alteration. Pet owners and spay/neuter advocates can argue that it should be an assumed cost when you get a new pet, but not everyone will agree. In order for a mandatory spay and neuter law to work, the municipality would also have to have good access to low-cost or no-cost clinics, veterinarians who will accept payment plans, and other such options to make the surgery more affordable for all pet owners. Grants, shelter spay/neuter vouchers and other alternative financing options can also help close the gap.

Where legislation exists for mandatory spaying and neutering, it is also necessary to provide guidelines for breeding animals. Some people wish to keep animals specifically for breeding, and require a licensing process that will help eliminate undesirable mating. Why couldn’t backyard breeders just get a license too? In some cases, they could. The cost of a license, ideally, would be a limiting factor in who chooses to license their dogs and who doesn’t. Cities may require kennel inspections to help eliminate puppy mills or other such facilities where animals are kept in sub-standard living conditions. This could, at least, eliminate or significantly reduce the numbers of people who breed “just to see what the babies would look like” or just to earn some fast cash.

Unwanted animals are brought into animal shelters every day. Here, they are a tax burden and may be killed to make room for more.
Unwanted animals are brought into animal shelters every day. Here, they are a tax burden and may be killed to make room for more. | Source

What can be done right now, regardless of municipal or higher level legislation?

Shelters and rescues don’t have to wait for spay and neuter legislation to encourage altering companion animals. The vast majority of shelters won’t allow their animals to be adopted until they’re altered, while others may offer vouchers for cheap or free surgeries after adoption. Still others may refund a portion of the adoption fee after the new owner provides proof of a spay or neuter. When accidents do happen, a shelter may be able to help find homes for the litter while they’re still in the care of the mother’s owner, contingent on proof that she has been spayed or a contract states that she will be. This may help reduce the burden on shelters by placing the young before they have a chance to end up in a shelter.

Finally, education for pet owners of all types is crucial to keeping pets out of shelters. It’s true that puppies are often adopted quickly. It is equally true that many end up back in the shelters when they reach their “adolescent stage” around 1-2 years of age. By teaching owners how to train their pets, and how to deal with normal behavior changes around this age, it may be possible to reduce owner surrenders once the puppies or kittens “aren’t cute anymore.”

Mandatory spay and neuter laws are far from enforceable, but they’re a step in the right direction. I encourage anyone who thinks that spaying and neutering won’t reduce the unwanted pet population, or who believes that there is no pet overpopulation, to volunteer at your local shelter. The flood of companion animals through every shelter and rescue in the country is astounding. Even one litter prevented translates to potentially dozens of lives being saved.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      If there is no pet overpopulation many of you people who are opposed to mandatory spay/neutering laws currently volunteer at your local animal shelter? Why are cities in the U.S. outlawing the commercial sale of puppies and kittens at pet shops? As a former supervisor of a bio-medical research and training facility, I can tell you that there has NEVER been a shortage of potential canine and feline research models, and never will be.

    • wychic profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mikulin 

      8 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      Since I originally posted this article in 2009 with data from 2005-2008, I did just as you suggest and checked my facts. You're right, the numbers have gone down -- approximate euthanization numbers sit at nearly 4 million for 2010 (obviously the jury is still out for 2011). Try as I might to find reputable sources regarding shelters importing animals, I cannot find anything except in cases where animals are being imported by shelters except in concert with disaster relief operations. I do stress reputable sources here, because I did find a number of dubious-looking personal sites, but none of them cited any sources for their information so I can't follow it back.

      The only recent statistic I could find on overall importation numbers was a blurb from the USDA, stating that many imported dogs are already owned by people who are relocating to the US.

      Yes, most animals in shelters are mixes. I'm really not sure where this factors into the conversation -- is there a question of whether or not a dog should be purebred in order to be exempt from euthanasia? Mixes were still bred at some point. Just to be clear, my issue is not with breeders in general, but backyard breeders and others engaged in irresponsible, inhumane, and/or unethical breeding practices where the welfare of the animal is not considered. Some feral cats come into shelters, but statistically not most -- and that probably accounts for the higher euthanasia levels, just over 70% for cats while dogs are just over 55% of all animals coming into shelters.

      Puppies are adopted very quickly, that is true. Unfortunately, a very high percentage of them are returned to shelters between 1-2 years of age. I do agree that retention is part of the problem, but the vast majority of animals in shelters are not seniors, meaning that they were produced relatively recently. In my own local shelter, every dog except one is under four years of age.

      To conclude -- I agree that spaying and neutering is not the ultimate answer to pet overpopulation, but just one piece in an overall puzzle of what needs to take place in the arena of pet owner education. I don't know that making it mandatory would have a huge impact, or if it's even the best possible answer out there, but it would certainly raise awareness and at least continue a trend in the right direction.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Wychic, check your facts. Shelter euthanasia has been decreasing steadily for years. Most shelter animals are mixes OR feral cats. some 70 - 80% of owned pets are already neutered. If there is such an overpopulation, why are SHELTERS in many large metro areas importing dogs, not only from other shelters in the US where there are localized overcrowded conditions, but from 3rd world countries? Why are there so few puppies and purebreds in most shelters and those that do show up get snapped up like hot concert tickets. The REAL problem is retention not over production. Merely neutering a pet won't keep it in the home. Solve THAT problem and you'll go a long way toward increasing the rate of decline in euthanasia numbers.

    • wychic profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mikulin 

      8 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      If there is no overpopulation, then how do you explain that there are about 25-30 times more animals euthanized in shelters (a large portion of them healthy and with no serious behavioral problems) than are imported every year? It would be great to be able to send excess animals from one shelter to another, except that I have never seen a shelter that had extra space in order to accept overflow from another.

      I definitely agree that people are the problem -- these are domesticated animals, and their numbers are at the whim of humans. Despite everything, waves of unwanted puppies and kittens hit virtually every animal shelter in the country every spring.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Spay and neuter are not the answer to pet overpopulation. As stated by another poster - enormous numbers of dogs are brought into this country to fill the demand for pets. Why can't the overage from one shelter be brought to another instead of bringing in dogs from Asia, Mexico, etc. Many of these dogs are sick and haven't had the benefit of pet health care. Outbreaks of parvo can be traced to these imported animals. Additionally, in some overseas countries spaying and neutering is considered a crime unless medically necessary, i.e Germany. There is not an overpopulation problem. Animals are not the cause - people are. Until people can be taught that it is unnecessary to breed their pets, until strictly commercial corporations can be curtailed, you will have problems. Having an intact dog is not a crime. Being an irresponsible owner - is. And that opens up another can of worms - the definition of irresponsible.

    • bassfishingguide profile image


      9 years ago from Somewhere in the US

      What a wonderful hub wychic! I totally agree with you, spay or neuter your fury friends is a must regardless of the law. I found an abandoned cat almost 2 months ago, and through her discovered a sad reality, and a great long term solution. Here is the story

    • wychic profile imageAUTHOR

      Rebecca Mikulin 

      10 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      Are the dogs imported because they're needed, or because people want particular breeds? If a shortage of dogs exists anywhere in the country, I know several thousand perfectly healthy animals in shelters in my county of residence alone that could certainly fill the need. Reports state that about 6-8 million animals are put down in shelters every year, most of which were healthy animals.

      Enacting laws that cannot be enforced completely is the normal mode for government operation. At the city level, which is where I would expect spay/neuter laws to be enacted, most ordinances are difficult to enforce yet are still deemed useful. Many people choose to follow the law without compulsion because it is the right, socially-conscious thing to do.

    • profile image

      Roberta Pliner 

      10 years ago

      Unwanted or even wanted litters of dogs and cats are NOT

      born every minute in the U.S. On the contrary, there is

      such a shortage of dogs nationwide that the CDC reports

      300,000 dogs are imported from third-world countries every

      year. Overpopulation, therefore, is not an argument for

      mandatory spaying and castrating of dogs.

      As for cats, the highly respected APPMA's National Pet

      Survey's latest edition (2008-2009) reports 87 percent

      of all owned cats in the U.S. are castrated or spayed.

      As for feral cats, no one owns them, so no one can be

      held responsible for spaying or castrating them. It is

      the responsibility of communities to manage colonies

      of feral cats, if they think feral cats are a problem.

      Finally, enacting laws that cannot be enforced is not

      only a waste of legislative and law-enforcement resources,

      but it teaches disrespect for the law. If no one has time

      to see that a dog is licensed (for example) and the owner has no compelling personal reason to license her, then she

      will not be licensed, regardless of the law.


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