Photo by Molly Wald
Dr. Erin Katribe is shown with Beckham, a former Best Friends Animal Society shelter dog, who has since been adopted.
Just the other day, I walked through a shelter in Texas not unlike hundreds of other Southern shelters. Every one of the hundreds of kennels is full, some with two or three or more dogs. Animal control trucks begin lining up to unload even more as soon as the gates open. On average, this shelter takes in about 50 dogs per day, every day of the year. The supply of dogs here far exceeds the current community demand, and while this shelter has successfully managed to avoid killing dogs due to lack of space, every single day is a balancing act. The shelter staff work tirelessly and with urgency to ensure that they do everything possible to save each life. Any number of potential events risks tipping the fragile balance, from a single hoarding case to a natural disaster to staff being out for quarantine — all of which happened in the past year.
The VIN News Service article, “Have spay/neuter policies in the U.S. been too effective?” published Feb. 17, refers to the “long-dreamed-of outcome: shelters and rescues with few pets in need of homes.” While this dream-come-true may be a reality for some shelters, it is a far cry from the situation at this shelter and for too many shelters across the South and in underserved parts of our country.
The article recognizes that annually, hundreds of thousands of dogs still lose their lives in shelters. This is too many. There are regional disparities where this happens, as well as disparities in the types of dogs that we still struggle to place. Solving such distribution and marketing challenges should take priority long before we start to discuss increasing supply. Additionally, many of the proposed solutions to the perceived lack of supply could have severe unintended consequences.
It has been suggested that select dogs from shelters and rescues could, in the care of private owners, have a litter or two before sterilization in order to breed and raise “successful family dogs.” This strategy poses several challenges. It presumes that offspring behavior will model that of the parent. However, we know that behavior can be variable and is influenced by a variety of factors, not only hereditary ones.
The larger strategy raises many questions. What will the selection process look like for individual breeding dogs, for families and for qualified participating sheltering organizations? What organization or agency will oversee the selection process? Without comprehensive regulation and oversight, what guardrails will be put into place to ensure that this selective breeding doesn't land us back where we were only a few short years ago, where millions of dogs lose their lives each year simply because there isn't space?
Regulation within the animal welfare and breeding industries historically has been lacking to absent. Without regulation, relaxing spay/neuter policies at shelters undoubtedly will have inadvertent results. Implementation of a mechanism to ensure that breeding is done only in the right locations and for the desired kinds of dogs will be nearly impossible, given the large number of sheltering organizations and their geographic distribution.
If the idea that spay/neuter may not be necessary begins to become accepted by the general public, it could have dire consequences, leading to more homeless pets and more animals dying in shelters every day. It has taken decades of advocacy and education efforts to make spay/neuter the social norm. Any relaxation on this message has the potential to result in far too many litters, far too many puppies and, subsequently, too many adult dogs for the demand.
Many veterinarians are reevaluating a one-size-fits-all approach to sterilization for the family pet. An idea gaining traction is that private veterinarians should, with the client, consider the individual circumstances of each pet when discussing options for sterilization. There is a large disparity between these two situations, though.
In one case, an owner and their veterinarian might make a decision to postpone a spay or neuter surgery for a few months, based on the latest research and a conversation about health risks and benefits for that individual pet. In the other proposed case, a shelter dog is treated as potential breeding stock. In that scenario, the dog goes home intact, and the new adopter is tasked with evaluating this particular dog's behavior and suitability to breed, and then subsequently has to manage maternity, parturition and puppy care until weaning.
Other ways to meet growing demand
These conversations come at a time when hundreds of thousands of homeless dogs die annually, particularly in the South or underserved areas where access to spay/neuter and veterinary care is limited or absent. Before the animal welfare industry starts rapidly implementing programs that could set our lifesaving work back decades, we should continue exploring viable alternatives and expanding existing programs.
The article mentions one approach that some shelters are considering that could help meet the growing demand for dogs without opening the floodgates: postponing spay for obviously pregnant dogs and allowing them to give birth. In specific locations, on a case-by-case basis, and when resources are available for adequate care, this is a middle-ground approach that can help meet demand without risking an uncontrolled increase in the dog population. If local or regional circumstances change, the practice can be reversed and the flow decreased. This solution also avoids both the resulting public perception issue of a reversed stance on spay/neuter and the problematic practice of endorsing the intentional breeding of shelter dogs.
Another strategy is to extend the scope of our transport programs. If we look even just to our closest neighbors in Mexico and Puerto Rico, we find that vast numbers of dogs still need help. While international transport is even more resource-intensive than the current transport programs in the U.S., it is possible to implement programs in a responsible way that reduces disease risk, saves lives and gives families the loving pet they are looking for. Is it not our responsibility to address this needless loss of life first before we consider increasing local supply?
Finally, improving marketing strategies and adoption counseling may help to increase the demand for the types of dogs less likely to find homes. A common theme is that as individual shelters increase their lifesaving, they find strong local demand for certain types of dogs, typically small breeds and puppies, while they still struggle with finding homes for medium to large breeds.
Animal welfare has yet to significantly explore the impact that organizations might have on that demand for dogs, specifically the types of dogs that people want. Perhaps a next step to consider is improving marketing strategies and adopter counseling to successfully place dogs whose breed, age, size, temperament or lack of training make them tougher to adopt, rather than encouraging overpopulation of small breeds or, even more dangerous, puppies of the very same breeds that are relinquished to and dying in shelters due to lack of space. As Steve Jobs said, “People don't know what they want until you show them.”
Animal welfare and the veterinary profession have an opportunity and a responsibility to elevate the visibility and the value of dogs that are overlooked and subsequently losing their lives.
Spay/neuter policies across the U.S. have been broadly effective, as evidenced by dramatic decreases in the number of cats and dogs losing their lives annually in shelters. As effective as they have been in some parts of the country, we still have a lot of work to do. Relaxing our stance on spay/neuter and allowing for an increase in the supply of dogs has the potential to become a tidal wave and lead to the rapid destruction of the lifesaving progress of the last decades. The hundreds of thousands of pets that still lose their lives every year could easily become millions.
Whatever we do, whatever approach we — as animal advocates, as veterinarians or as animal services professionals — decide to take, we must proceed with caution and carefully consider the potential for unintended consequences. Millions of lives are at stake.
Dr. Erin Katribe is medical director for Best Friends Animal Society, a national animal welfare organization working to end the killing of dogs and cats in America's shelters by 2025. Best Friends runs lifesaving programs in various cities across the country and works with a network of more than 3,200 animal welfare and shelter partners.