Have spay/neuter policies in the US been too effective?

After years of warnings about too many dogs come worries about too few

February 17, 2021 (published)
By Lisa Wogan

Photo by Ed de la Fuente
Joyce Briggs, who has worked in companion animal welfare for 25 years, no longer believes that spaying and neutering should be automatically required for every, single adopted dog, owing to regional shortages. Briggs is pictured with Dexter, a shelter dog she met in Hawaii in 2019 and helped relocate to the mainland, where she fostered and eventually adopted him.

Before COVID-19 restricted visits, people would often line up outside the Humane Society for Southwest Washington hours before the building opened. They gathered on days when new dogs and especially puppies brought in from overcrowded shelters in other parts of the country were scheduled to be available for adoption.

"People would go to great lengths to get a first look at the dogs," said Lisa Feder, former vice president and director of operations at the Vancouver shelter. By the end of the day, every puppy would be adopted. Older dogs didn't linger much longer. On average, they landed in a new home in three days.

Today, regardless of the pandemic, dogs of all shapes and sizes — from Chihuahuas to hounds, mixes to purebreds — continue to arrive at the Vancouver shelter several times a week via transports from California, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. They comprise the majority of dogs adopted out. Feder, who is now chief operations officer for the Nevada Humane Society, said local intakes tend to be older and have behavioral or medical issues that make them harder to place.

She could be describing a shelter in any number of cities or towns. Years of adopt-don't-shop messaging and widespread spay/neuter campaigns have been so successful that in some parts of the United States, shelters struggle to meet demand. Transports from areas with an excess of homeless dogs allow them to fulfill their animal welfare mission and continue to generate important adoption revenue.

In some ways, it is the long-dreamed-of outcome: shelters and rescues with few pets in need of homes. However, what seems like a situation to celebrate has some animal welfare advocates worried. They see regional disparities as a harbinger of a widespread dog shortage. Already, they say, people motivated by a rescue ethic strain to find a dog, reputable breeders have long waiting lists for expensive puppies, ever more "puppy mills" are incentivized to churn out dogs under cruel conditions, and some people are shut out of having the humanely produced and affordable companion animal they want.

One proposed response to the projected undersupply is dialing back policies requiring all shelter dogs to be sterilized before adoption, and rejecting the cultural taboo on intact dogs.

Suggesting even a very limited reversal of decades of policy and practice is a big ask. Neutering, or gonadectomy, is the most common elective surgery for dogs in the U.S. Widespread spaying and neutering is credited with reducing cat and dog overpopulation and reducing annual euthanasias from 13.5 million dogs and cats in 1973 to about 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats today.

The majority of dogs in the U.S. are neutered, although estimates of the proportion vary. The American Veterinary Medical Association puts the desexing rate at 69%; the American Pet Products Association (APPA) says about 78% of dogs are neutered. Two-thirds of U.S. states and the District of Columbia legally require desexing before adoption. 

Cat supply is not on the radar in the same way as dogs. While significant progress has been made toward reducing shelter euthanasia for cats, their high fertility, their greater unfettered access to the outdoors, and populations of stray and feral cats make unwanted litters more prevalent.

Dog transport: An imperfect solution

Joyce Briggs, president of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, based in Portland, Oregon, has witnessed firsthand the new brand of pressure on shelters. She has worked in companion animal welfare for 25 years. For much of that time, she was a staunch believer in the drive to increase sterilization rates to stem overpopulation. However, after studying dog demographics and sheltering trends, Briggs has modified her position, as far as dogs in the U.S. are concerned.

She is now one of a small but growing community who believe the number of new dogs born in the country is falling short of demand. She endorses what she calls "right-size" sterilization and reimagining breeding.

"I believe a high percentage of dogs need to be sterilized, but at the same time, we should be thinking about which dogs a community wants to have puppies from, and preserving a population of healthy 'American Mutts'," she said. "It's more complex than having a one-size-fits-all policy."

She would like to see opportunities for select shelter and rescue dogs that are healthy and behaviorally well-suited to life as a pet to have a litter or two after being adopted. She suggests that neutering could be delayed until owners who are open to breeding know more about the disposition of the puppy they adopted. Doing a better job of breeding and raising "successful family dogs," Briggs said, will improve dog welfare overall.

Suggestions to modify neutering guidelines for shelter dogs dovetail with recommendations to pull back on neutering for health purposes. A coterie of researchers say neutering should be delayed or avoided for some dogs based on studies showing it may be linked to disorders later in life for particular breeds and large mixed-breed dogs. 

The idea of delaying the surgery for health reasons in some cases appears to be gaining traction among practitioners. However, accepting the notion of a dog shortage and rethinking spay/neuter as a pillar of population control so far has only a small number of vocal adherents.

Briggs concedes the idea is controversial. "It's like popping the lid off the bottle," she said. "It's not the responsible owners [we worry about]. It's the fact that if spay/neuter goes out of favor, it gives a lot of other people the rationale to slack off. Then what do we have?"

'Depends on which side of the fence you're on'

Dr. Phil Bushby, a professor specializing in shelter medicine at Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, believes the discussion about shortages has merit, but whether you believe a shortage is imminent "depends on which side of the fence you're on," he said, referring to differences among regions.

In general, in the Northwest, Upper Midwest and New England, widespread neutering and responsible ownership practices have resulted in a diminishing number of homeless dogs and shelter intakes. In addition, puppies and juveniles make up a very small percentage of dogs in shelters in these regions.

In contrast, in the South, Southeast and Appalachia, desexing is not as widespread. "In areas that are more agricultural than suburban, in many respects dogs haven't moved out of the back yard into the home," Bushby said. As a result, there are more unplanned litters. Shelters in Alabama and Mississippi have the highest puppy ratios, and those in Puerto Rico, Alabama, Louisiana and North Carolina have the highest euthanasia rates, according to Shelter Animals Count, a database of sheltered animal statistics.

Over the years, animal welfare groups in the North have worked with those in the South to address the imbalance by moving dogs from overcrowded shelters to high-demand areas, via transports like those Feder described. The mutually beneficial system relocates around 778,000 dogs annually, according to a survey by MSU researchers presented at the National American Veterinary Community annual conference in 2017. 

Without transports, Bushby said, "the pet overpopulation problem in the Southeast would be that much worse, and we'd go back 20 years to having shelters with extremely high euthanasia rates." MSU's veterinary school is home to its own fostering and transport group, called the Homeward Bound Project of Mississippi. It was started by veterinary students in 2007, and is still run mostly by veterinary student volunteers.

At the same time, Bushby believes that even in Mississippi, adoptable dogs eventually will be in short supply — although at age 71, he doesn't anticipate living long enough to see it. "It's not going to happen that fast," he said. "But there will be a day when people might very well start to say, 'OK, shelters in Mississippi, we don't recommend spay/neuter prior to adoption anymore.' That day will come but probably not in the next 20 or 30 years."

Meanwhile, in light of current regional disparities, Bushby believes it's time to consider allowing shelters that depend on receiving transports from other areas and/or consistently function well below capacity to adjust their spay/neuter policies as they see fit.

Trying to grasp the big picture

Trying to make a data-based case for a countrywide dog shortage is difficult because statistics about the number and sources of dogs acquired in the U.S. are inconsistent and incomplete. APPA and AVMA routinely publish population, sheltering and ownership figures based on surveys. Their counts often do not agree. APPA 2015-16 survey results, as reported by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, illustrate the murky nature of pet sources. It found that 34% of dogs came from breeders and 23% from shelters and rescues. The rest came from friends or relatives, "private parties" or "other," or were acquired as strays.

In addition, there is no national reporting requirement for shelters and rescues. Shelter Animals Count has been trying to create a voluntary national database of sheltered animal statistics since 2011. The 2019 report included information from 2,269 shelters and rescues. It's far from complete: The Humane Society of the U.S. estimates there are 3,500 brick and mortar shelters and more than 10,000 rescues in the U.S.

Meanwhile, commercial breeders licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are not required to report their production numbers and still other breeders are completely off the radar or deliberately underground. The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has no estimate of the number of puppies produced in the country.

Even less is known about dogs handled by rescue organizations or imported for sale. In a 2019 report, the USDA estimated 1.06 million dogs are imported every year. The report said that the majority come in as owned pets. However, since no single agency tracks them, it's impossible to know how many are brought in to be sold or adopted. 

Because of these data gaps, those who agree there is a shortage offer numbers that vary in magnitude.

Roger Haston, an animal welfare consultant and data analyst based in Arizona, was commissioned in 2019 to conduct a dog population study for a dog welfare organization.

"We've done such a great job of convincing people that it is awesome to have a dog; there is a lot of science that supports the social and health benefits of having a pet," Haston said. "So now an important question is, where are they going to get it from and how do we influence how people acquire a dog?" 

Haston used human demographic and pet ownership data, statistics from Shelter Animals Count, and an average canine lifespan of 10.5 years for his calculations. He calculated that around 7.6 million new dogs are needed to meet annual demand now, which could rise to 9 million by 2050.

Figuring out whether the overall supply of dogs, including those produced by breeders, can meet demand was not part of Haston's remit. His focus was on the role of "homeless" dogs. He estimates that about 2.4 million dogs come into shelters and rescues annually. Of these, some are returned to owners, others are euthanized due to health or behavioral issues, and around 1.4 million are adopted (slightly fewer than a recent ASPCA estimate of 1.6 million). That leaves another 6.2 million dogs that need to come from breeders or other non-shelter sources.

Haston projects that the number of intakes will continue to decline, in large part due to the success of spay/neuter programs. As supply shrinks, adoptions will also decline, flattening to about 1 million adoptions a year. As Haston sees it, shelter dogs play an ever-smaller role in meeting an ever-growing demand for new dogs.

"We never thought we would be here," Haston said, adding that he believes breeders and shelters will have to work together to figure out where dogs will come from to meet the demand, and how to produce them humanely.

"I think we are, on both sides of the equation, ill-prepared," Haston said. "It's going to force us to have to have a lot of conversations that maybe weren't traditionally in our realm that will be uncomfortable for all of us."

Haston isn't the only one trying to fill the data gap around pet dogs.

During the past few years, Mark Cushing, a lawyer and CEO of the Animal Policy Group, a consulting firm with clients in the pet industry and the veterinary profession, has become a leading voice arguing that there aren't enough dogs to meet demand in the U.S.

Working on behalf of the Pet Leadership Council, whose members include the American Kennel Club, the APPA, the AVMA, Mars Petcare and the Pet Food Institute, Cushing has overseen research that challenges the overpopulation message. Using publicly available data and internal research, he calculates new-dog demand to be about 8.3 million each year.

On the supply side, Cushing figures shelters and rescues adopt out about 2.6 million dogs (nearly twice Haston's estimate), and breeders supply around 3.4 million. That makes for a 2.3 million dog shortfall, by his calculation.

Briggs' estimates track with Cushing's, although she believes he may be overestimating the number of shelter dogs as a source of replacement dogs because they generally aren't "new" to the overall population, like puppies. According to Shelter Animals Count data, only about 20% of shelter and rescue dogs are 5 months old or younger.

Cushing dedicates a chapter to the shortage in a book, Pet Nation: The Love Affair That Changed America, published in 2020. "If we aggressively spay and neuter every puppy we can find, and shut down commercial breeding," he writes, "then America is left with no choice but to rely upon unregulated foreign breeders or accept that puppies will become a luxury good."

Curbing mandatory neutering is only one change Cushing would like to see. He also advocates bringing breeding in from the cold, where bad actors and puppy mills have driven it. He proposes more regulation, greater transparency and regulatory oversight to ensure a humane breeding industry is available to meet demand.

Worries about modifying policy

Photo by Tom Thompson/Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Dr. Uri Donnett (right) and Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine student Patricia Mann examine a shelter puppy in 2015 as part of the Homeward Bound Project. Run by veterinary student volunteers, the program transports companion animals from overcrowded shelters in Mississippi to shelters with excess capacity in the Northeast.

All this talk about undoing strong spay/neuter practices deeply unsettles some in the pet sheltering community. Count Dr. Susan Powell among them. Powell is a shelter medicine consultant at the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service. It's hard to hear "something that I believe in and strive for — and I know that most shelter veterinarians are passionate about — is being attacked on some fronts," she said by email. "Until the shortage is a national problem and there is no other solution, I hope we never go backwards on the spay/neuter front."

Powell believes the focus should be on better regulation of shelter animal transports and eliminating puppy mills.

She cautiously offered one middle-ground idea for producing puppies within a shelter environment. She explained that, "Most shelters spay pregnant dogs up until delivery as long as the dog isn't in labor," effectively aborting the pregnancy.

Powell said that if there were a nationwide puppy shortage and in cases in which pregnant dogs are healthy and behaviorally sound, some shelters might opt to allow the pregnancies to go forward and result in puppies. "Should we be using these dogs as a new source of puppies?" she asked. "I think this makes much more sense than not spaying/neutering and allowing inexperienced adopters to breed these dogs, especially if they see profit to be made." 

Soon after making the suggestion, she added, "Each shelter/rescue would need to make sure they have the resources to do this successfully, and the concept still gives me pause."

Like Powell, the ASPCA isn't entertaining a shift in spay/neuter policy. The organization called neutering vitally important to the overall success of multipronged efforts to combat pet homelessness and improve animal welfare, in a statement provided to VIN News. 

"Spay/neuter prior to adoption creates efficiencies in shelter operations and allows animals, once adopted, to leave the shelter and go home faster," the statement said. "Minimizing the length of time an animal must spend in the shelter by removing bottlenecks or unproductive waiting time is one of the most important things an organization can do to improve the health and welfare of animals, and it helps to maximize that organization's capacity to help even more animals."

The organization acknowledged that some estimates suggest that the population of homeless dogs, especially puppies, will continue to decline, resulting in fewer dogs available in shelters. Without weighing in on the merits of these estimates, the ASPCA said, "Despite the significant progress made over the past decade, there are still millions of homeless dogs and cats in need of loving homes."

Pointing to the fact that shelters in some communities and regions still take in more adoptable animals than they can place locally, the ASPCA avowed its support for responsible relocation. Since 2014, a relocation program run by the ASPCA has transported more than 163,000 animals.

"As the field continues to make progress in finding successful placement options for more of the animals in their care, there may be fewer animals in shelters, which could lead prospective pet owners to seek out alternate sources," the ASPCA said. "We recognize that there is a demand for purposefully bred dogs and we believe that there are dog breeders who share our vision for humane communities in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness. These breeders reject the practices of commercial breeders, brokers, pet stores, auctions and others who profit from cruelty." 

The long shadow of puppy mills

Concerns about inhumane breeding practices are driving some of the thinking about lightening up on the spay/neuter requirement. While talking to the VIN News Service, MSU's Bushby recalled reading an article that argued the policy was fueling puppy mills. "It kind of took my breath away," said Bushby, who has seen more than his share of inhumane breeding operations. "If we ever reach the point that the only source for puppies is puppy mills, we've made a terrible mistake."

Feder worries that point may be coming. "I'm very afraid — I think all of us [in animal welfare] are — that all the hard work that we've done to decrease people going to mills as their source of dogs, [they are] just going to come roaring back," she said.

Briggs described a troubling pattern she sees among people who believe in the importance of adopting a shelter dog and also want a certain type of dog for their family, such as a bichon frise. "They are chasing down leads around the country on PetFinder and 'score' if there is a puppy mill bust, seizing a bunch of bichon puppies," she said. "That's sad because those are the same puppies that have been badly bred."

In some cases, puppies may be sold directly to rescue groups. In 2018, The Washington Post reported that dozens of rescues and advocacy groups purchased puppies from breeders at auctions and then listed them as "saved" or "rescued." 

That clash of ethics and supply "make us think you need to find … an acceptable approach to coexist with going to the shelter," Briggs said.

She has convened a group of animal welfare professionals, including Feder, animal behaviorists and a veterinarian with a doctorate in genetics and genomics to brainstorm responsible breeding solutions. Among their ideas are cooperatives of breeder experts and pet owners who collaborate to identify dogs who should reproduce. These "successful family dogs" live in homes. Puppies are bred and raised based on standards that prioritize health and behavior rather than purebred confirmation. In this model, Briggs sees a new, and likely controversial, role for shelters, in offering oversight, veterinary and behavior expertise, experience managing foster programs and counseling prospective dog owners.

Both Briggs and Feder believe the animal welfare industry has a responsibility to think about the issue of blanket spay-neuter possibly being too effective and outliving its usefulness.

"I believe that the perception of shelter-based dog overpopulation and the related stigma of breeding is keeping key parties, like veterinarians and animal welfare advocates, from participating in how to innovate a solution to manage the dog population to a healthy balance," Briggs said. "It's a wonderful opportunity to reinvent."

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