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Pet Overpopulation and Mandatory Spay/Neuter

Updated: Jun 8, 2019



Pet overpopulation and mandatory spay/neuter: two topics that seem to come up nearly every time killing of healthy and treatable pets in animal shelters is mentioned. But, neither topic is really what they seem.

Hi. I’m Mike Fry from No Kill Learning and if you are one of those people who believes that animal shelters are killing healthy and treatable pets because they have no choice – because of so-called “pet overpopulation” and that, therefore, mandatory spay neuter will prevent the killing, I’m here to change your mind.

But, before I do that I will confess that for much if my life I believed that pet overpopulation was a reality that forced shelters to do the unthinkable: destroy pets they were supposed to shelter and care for.

It wasn’t until I read Nathan Winograd’s book “Redemption: the Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America” that I first became aware of the notion that so-called “pet overpopulation” didn’t really exist. The idea that pet overpopulation was a myth did not sit well with me. In fact, I found the phrase “myth of pet overpopulation” in the subtitle of the book to be offensive to my belief systems. Those words made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because they challenged a core belief that I had held onto pretty strongly.

In spite of that, I read Redemption with an open mind and I learned a lot. Since then I have learned even more, and I have found that evidence exists everywhere disproving the idea that there are too many animals and not enough homes.

Take, for example, the fact that the average animal shelter in the United States takes in a relatively small number of animals compared to the population of people they serve. I’m talking a really small number.

For every 1,000 residents, animal shelters in the USA admit only 14 animals per year. Shelters with the highest annual per capita intake admit about three times that number, but it is still a tiny amount relative to the community size.

Looked at the other way, what that means is that for every 14 animals that enter animal shelters each year there are 1,000 residents to reach out to in order to save them. And, they have a year to do it. The numbers aren’t even close.

But, it is even more extreme than that, because not every animal that enters a shelter needs rescue or a new home. Some, like free-roaming cats, need Trap-Neuter-Release services. Some need simply to be reunited with their families. There is also a tiny percentage that are terminally ill, beyond rehabilitation and that actually benefit from humane euthanasia.

If you remove animals that don’t need new homes from the intake, we are left only needing to rescue about 10 or 11 animals PER YEAR for every 1,000 people.

If we examine the data even more closely, and focus only on US households that acquire new pets each year, the numbers are still far apart.

Every year, nearly 24 million families in the USA acquire new dogs and cats. Yet, only 8 million dogs and cats enter animal shelters each year. And, again, not all of those dogs and cats need new homes.

The argument, therefore, that there are too many animals and not enough homes has no objective basis.

People who believe in pet overpopulation tend to look at shelter kill rates as proof that pet overpopulation exists.

But, what people see as “pet overpopulation” is actually shelter overpopulation. And, that is an important distinction, because it is animal shelter policies and practices create and exacerbate shelter overpopulation. That means animal shelters can do something about it.

Most animal shelters, for example, take in animals that do not need shelter. Healthy free-roaming cats are perfect examples of that.

While people may not agree with people who let their pet cats outside, doing so is perfectly legal in most of the USA and many/most free-roaming cats live long, healthy lives. I know the cats in my neighborhood are doing just fine.

In spite of that, animal shelters routinely take in felines that people find while the kitties are out on perfectly legal strolls through their neighborhoods. Those cats don’t need rescue. They certainly do not need to be taken to shelters where there is a high probability they will be killed. Doing that is of no benefit to the cats or their families.

Animal control officers also take stray animals to the shelter that can easily be reunited with their families in the field, without ever going to the shelter in the first place. And, animal shelters regularly fail to help people struggling with pet-related issues, so those people can keep their pets, rather than taking them into the shelter.

Many animal shelters also make getting animals out alive too difficult: inconvenient hours, poor marketing, bad customer service, arbitrary adoption rules that screen out perfectly viable homes, and more all reduce positive, live outcomes.

When animal shelters take in more animals than the number that leave alive, shelter overpopulation and unnecessary killing result. The causes of the killing are 100% within the walls of the shelters and can be 100% eliminated with the right policies, practices and management.

Falsely blaming the illusion of pet overpopulation for the killing of pets in animal shelters causes a host of problems. Most importantly: it prevents people from exploring actual solutions that will stop the killing. It also causes them to pursue “solutions” [use air quotes] that don’t actually work, or that make matters worse.

The most common non-solution put forward by people who believe overpopulation is real is mandatory spay/neuter, in other words, mandating surgical sterilization for pets. This takes many forms, ranging from significantly increased fines or fees to reclaim lost pets if they are intact, to requiring a special “breeding license” to keep a pet that is not sterilized.

While implemented by people who have the best of intentions, mandatory spay/neuter actually makes shelter overpopulation worse, because it creates more reasons for shelters to confiscate pets while making it harder for people to get the pets out of shelters alive. That results in increased killing, not less.

To be clear: Low-cost or no-cost spay/neuter programs are crucial components of the No Kill Equation, and every community should embrace those efforts. Done in an open, friendly and engaging way these programs build important links between the animal shelters and the community, which helps the community to learn to be better stewards of their companion animals. They are efforts in which everyone truly benefits. They are radically different from punitive, draconian and authoritarian-style “mandatory spay/neuter laws,” which only serve to push the community away from the shelter while increasing shelter intake and reducing live outcomes.

If you have historically believed that animal shelters kill because of “pet overpopulation” and that you supported mandatory spay/neuter in order to reduce shelter killing, you should go easy on yourself. Both are phrases that have been repeated on a nonstop loop for decades, with very few people bothering to look at the actual data.

But, now we know. And, it is time for all animal shelters to embrace what we have learned in the sheltering industry so that the killing can stop.

So, the next time someone says something to you about “pet overpopulation” you can correct them and say “you mean shelter overpopulation,” which is the result of outdated shelter practices and policies. And, that is the good news, because it means killing healthy and treatable animals does not need to happen. We know how. And more and more shelters are doing just that.

Help the people you know to become better animal shelter advocates by liking and sharing this video. If you know a shelter looking to save more lives and stop killing, have them contact me. Information is on my web site at http://nokilllearning.net.


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