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  • Writer's pictureSusan Houser

Can We Go Too Far With Spaying And Neutering?

We have achieved very high spay-neuter rates for owned cats and dogs (83% for owned dogs and 91% for owned cats*). If people are to have dogs and cats, the dogs and cats must come from somewhere. Hence the title – are we in danger of cutting the number of dogs and cats available for adoption to the point that we see negative consequences in the form of shelter shortages? Will spay-neuter programs that are too successful wind up driving potential adopters into the arms of puppy millers?

For cats, the answer to the question of whether we are going too far with spaying and neutering is a resounding “no,” at least for now. Owned cats are perhaps no more than half of the total number of cats, and feral and community cats will continue to supply kittens to meet the demand for the foreseeable future.

For dogs, the answer is “maybe.” The dog supply differs from the cat supply in two important ways. First, unlike with cats where we have perhaps as many as tens of millions of feral and community cats, feral dogs have almost disappeared in the United States. There are persistent reports that a few areas (Detroit, Dallas, San Antonio, Houston and parts of the southwest are often mentioned) have a feral dog problem. We don’t know for sure because there have been no studies to find out one way or the other, but if there are places with feral dog problems they are rare.

The second way in which the dog supply differs from the cat supply is that breeding on a large commercial scale is common with dogs and almost unheard-of with cats. The reason why large-scale commercial breeding of cats is almost unheard-of is that there is much less diversity in the cat population than the dog population. Although there are cat breeds, in most cases the differences from one breed to another are relatively minor – differences in coat characteristics and color and slight differences in size and build. Brachycephalia (a harmful genetic mutation) is unfortunately present in a few cat breeds, but overall you do not see anywhere near the size, conformation, and temperament variations in cats that you do in dogs. Because cats are mostly of one type there is less reason for people to want “purebred” cats than purebred dogs and less incentive to breed cats in large numbers for commercial gain. Lucky cats!

In the last 40 to 50 years the percentage of people who buy their dogs from a commercial breeder as opposed to adopting from a shelter or rescue has decreased.

There are many reasons for this. Knock-off breed registries have been created to undermine the near-monopoly that the American Kennel Club (AKC) used to have on purebred-dog registration. Commercial breeders embraced these new registries because they were less expensive than AKC registration. The existence of a multitude of registries may have cheapened the overall worth of the “purebred” concept in the public’s eye, since the new registries have exposed the fact that a pedigree is just a piece of paper with little intrinsic value.

Another reason that people have become disenchanted with purebred dogs, in my opinion, is because show breeders have pursued ever more extreme “type” in their dogs, and as a result the health and soundness of purebred dogs has declined. A recent survey by the Kennel Club in England indicated that the lifespan of purebreds has dropped. No surprise to anyone who looks objectively at what is being rewarded as the ideal breed type at dog shows.

Yet another reason why mixed breeds have become more popular in recent decades is that the advent of the computer made it much easier to adopt a dog. Petfinder, which started up in the mid-1990s, evened the playing field between commercial breeders and shelters, giving shelters a way to publicize their animals. Petfinder and the increasing number of pet stores that feature homeless animals also seem to have led to a big increase in the number of rescues that take in owner surrenders and pull mixed-breeds from shelters. They too now have ways to compete with the commercial breeders.

And there has been a change in the attitude of the public toward shelter animals. That is partly because of all the efforts that shelter workers have made to make visiting a shelter a better experience. It also may be because people today more and more view their own pets as family members, and that increases their empathy for homeless animals. All these changes mean that today we have more demand than ever from the public to adopt shelter dogs, at the same time that we have less supply of dogs.

Today, spay-neuter programs for dogs are concentrating less on the overall number of dogs and more on an imbalance in the demand for dogs. Shelters in most places consistently report that they have too many large dogs, especially of the so-called “pit bull” type, and too few cute, fluffy, small dogs. People will stand in line at the shelter to adopt a 20-pound poodle mix, but a healthy, friendly, well-mannered 60-pound pit mix may have to wait months before an adopter comes along.

So the answer seems to be that we still need to go full speed ahead, all hands on deck for feral and community cat sterilization, but for dogs we need a more targeted approach. The difference between today and the situation we faced 25 years ago, when the big spay-neuter effort of the 1990s started, is that today we need to work smarter, not harder. We need to start integrating our spay-neuter efforts with the current state of the market for shelter cats and dogs. Ideally we can adjust spay-neuter efforts so that we have enough supply to meet the demand from people who want to adopt, but not so much supply that shelters have to scramble to find homes for them all.

As for the future, any systemic shortages of dogs in the United States could be addressed by importing homeless dogs from overseas. There is a lot of fear-mongering by commercial breeders about dog importations, though, so it remains to be seen whether a significant number of imported homeless dogs will be allowed. There is also some “friendly fire” from No Kill advocates who oppose transportation and importing of dogs because they would like to see shelters go out of business entirely. This is a viewpoint I don’t understand. If shelters close down due to a lack of pets available for adoption, commercial breeders will bounce back and we will be stuck with all the horrors of commercial dog breeding forever. We have the puppy millers on the ropes — let’s keep them there.

* American Pet Products Association National Pet Owners Survey 2013-2014 (Greenwich, CT: American Pet Products Association, 2014), 16.



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