Calif. spay/neuter program breeds skepticism among veterinarians

State attempts to tackle pet overpopulation by selling specialty license plates

September 23, 2010 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

California veterinarians and the public are being asked to back a plan to offer free or subsidized spays and neuters statewide through a proposed specialized license plate program — an initiative that, while lauded by many, carries plenty of controversy and political baggage.

The request for support comes from the California Veterinary Medical Board (CVMB), official sponsor of a specialty license plate designed to fight pet overpopulation in a state that reportedly euthanizes more than half a million animals in shelters annually.

To date, roughly 1,500 pre-orders have been placed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles. State law requires at least 6,000 more commitments by next summer for the plate to go into production, though a grace period could add another year to that window.

In a letter to licensed veterinarians, CVMB Executive Officer Sue Geranen notes that the California Spay and Neuter License Plate Program will raise awareness about the overwhelming number of unwanted or homeless dogs and cats in the state, as well as the importance of sterilization.

“This program will fund spay and neuter surgeries through local animal care and control agency voucher programs and through in-house or local veterinary clinics,” the letter states.

But such voucher programs breed skepticism, especially from the veterinarians who deal with them. They have a negative reputation, some contend, because the grants often are not distributed to those who desperately need them — underprivileged pets from low-income households — but rather to owners who drive away in new cars and live in wealthy suburbs.

The process for vetting low-income owners is neither foolproof nor easy. In many cases, it’s ignored altogether, creating a system whereby public funds are being used to compete with private practices.

So far, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has not weighed in. But that hasn’t kept veterinarians quiet about voucher programs in general. Dozens of discussions airing complaints against government-subsidized spay and neuter programs attract debate on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.

Dr. John Hamil, a practitioner in Laguna Beach, Calif., characterizes the sentiments of his colleagues this way:

"We all forgive bills for people who can't pay them; that's routine stuff. I think that all veterinarians want to help animals and owners in need but resent programs that are being abused by those with the financial means."

He adds: "We have limited resources, and we want them to reach those in true need."

Right now, language governing how the proceeds from sales of the proposed license plate will be distributed is still being written. Those decisions rest largely with Judie Mancuso, an animal activist who, like Hamil, lives in Laguna Beach. She heads the California Spay and Neuter License Plate Fund, a 501(c)(3) charged with administrating the license plate program.

A founder of several other non-profits tied to aiding animals, Mancuso has earned the moniker “animal crusader” by local media. Last April, she brought the license plate idea to the CVMB where members voted unanimously to support it.

Since then, she’s earned a seat on the CVMB and is scheduled to be sworn in next month as the regulatory agency’s newest public member. In an interview with the VIN News Service, she noted that vetting the financial status of voucher recipients is important but not a deal breaker when putting spay/neuter programs in place.

“Veterinarians can squabble about a couple of dollars here or there, or they can look at the big picture,” she says. “When we get to a place where we’re not killing all these animals, then let’s talk. The upside of voucher programs is that veterinarians do get new customers. Some will get people who will come back to them again.”

For the most part, that’s not true according to the anecdotal reports of DVMs. But the financial status of recipients of subsidized veterinary care isn't the only issue that troubles veterinarians.

Recently, some practitioners in California’s Los Angeles County stopped accepting the $30 to $70 vouchers given to low-income families for spays and neuters. The problem, practitioners say, stems from a $130,000 backlog in the system; Los Angeles Animal Services reportedly had not reimbursed veterinarians who have been turning in vouchers for more than a year.

Officials with animal services blame the problem on the mountain of paperwork tied to voucher surgeries. According to a recent article in the Daily News, the city is responding with an automated billing system designed to track vouchers and surgeries so that payments are doled out in a more timely fashion.

Hamil, who practices outside the Los Angeles region, reports the situation is not unique.

"We've seen it happen over and over with vouchers. Yes, there's an obvious need, but veterinarians also are pretty unhappy when they feel like they're getting gulled. And that happens all the time,” he says.

Additionally, some question the validity of figures on which the license plate initiative rests. According to the California Department of Public Health, the total number of dogs and cats euthanized in public shelters rose from 375,445 in 2004 to more than 432,000 in 2008. When private shelter numbers are included, intakes rise to more than a million with half of those animals euthanized annually.

Critics of voucher programs often contend that the haphazard nature of the state’s reporting system makes the data too unreliable to act as a basis for creating policy. Dr. Allan Drusys, chief veterinarian of the Riverside County Department of Animal Services, agrees that the state's euthanasia figures are weak in terms of validity but believes the numbers are “grossly underestimated.”
After more than a decade running animal shelters and heading animal control, Drusys says he’s personally euthanized “hundreds of thousands” of animals, many due to overcrowding in shelters. In his experience, 50 percent of all intakes are put down, he says. Separate cats from dogs and the number of feline intakes that result in euthanasia climbs to 85 percent.

“I deal with it from a public health perspective,” he explains. “For whatever reason, there’s excess product that impacts public health — from the manure on the streets to animals that bite and spread zoonotic diseases. I didn't go to vet school to deal with this, but I did go to vet school to manage the problem.

“There have been cases where I did not want to euthanize animals, but what are you supposed to do when the cages are full?” he asks.

Drusys believes that a lack of punitive action tied to failing to report annual euthanasia numbers to the state allows some shelter systems — even those in big counties — to slack on the mandate. Moreover, shelters that do not have the governmental jurisdiction to perform rabies control are not legally obligated to report euthanasia totals.

“That gives us a snapshot with incorrect numbers. So people who would be philosophically against (subsidized sterilization programs) in the first place don’t need to look hard to say we’ve been making stuff up,” he says.

Drusys should know. As part of Mancuso’s team, he's fielding the critics while trying to implement the spay/neuter license plate initiative and work on structuring the program’s operations. With some specialty plates known to bring in more than $4 million a year, Drusys says it's imperative that those in receipt of the funds operate in a transparent fashion.

Though a member of the California Spay and Neuter License Plate Program’s board of directors, Drusys says he is not permitted to vote on how funds will be distributed because the county he works for could be a recipient. Still, he comes to the table with experience. Drusys runs a voucher program that’s distributed $750,000 in the past three years to residents of Riverside County, the fourth largest county in the state.

The $25 to $50 vouchers that come from the county's general fund are expected to merely offset the costs for pet sterilization. Drusys acknowledges that $50 is nowhere near the true cost of providing the service but explains, “We didn’t want to debate about how much a spay or neuter was worth to private practitioners.”

He notes that the county — like many other municipalities — does not have the manpower to police an income threshold tied to the voucher program.

“Yes, some who get vouchers obviously have the means to pay full fare,” Drusys says, making the argument that most of the people who utilize vouchers would never visit a veterinarian in the first place.

“Bottom line: The reproductive capacity of the population of animals needs to be reduced,” he adds. “And you can’t rely on human behavior to limit their reproductive capacity. Yes, education can solve these things. But if we can’t educate our kids effectively, how can you expect to educate the population on animal management?”

At least some at the state capitol appear to share that sentiment. California legislators have twice considered bills designed to mandate the sterilization of dogs and cats statewide. Both attempts failed to make it to the governor's desk.

In 2007, the CVMA withdrew its support for AB 1634 after members strongly objected. The controversy stemmed from language in the bill that banned owning intact dogs more than four months old as well as an exemption for breeders that some considered unfair to mutts. The bill reportedly garnered 20,000 letters of protest as well as support to lawmakers with thousands of complaints fielded by the CVMA, an original co-sponsor of the measure.

The issue again reared during the 2009-2010 legislative session, yet this time the CVMA was absent from the debate, adopting a "watch" stance. CVMA Executive Director Valerie Fenstermaker noted that after dealing with AB 1634, it became clear that spay/neuter was best handled at the local level. “Cities and counties are doing their own thing,” she contends.

Yet SB 250, like AB 1634, put animal lovers at odds in the state. The bill, mandating sterilization for dogs and cats aged six months and older, failed earlier this month as the legislative session ended. In his closing comments, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon gave a nod to the issue’s wherewithal despite its divisive nature.

“I can’t understand that this bill is about euthanasia, yet it just won’t die,” he reportedly stated before fellow lawmakers.

Perhaps he might have looked to a one-woman political powerhouse in Laguna to get his answer. Judie Mancuso, this time working behind a 501(c)(4) known as Social Compassion in Legislation, proved to be the lobbying muscle behind the measure.

Much like Mancuso’s other endeavors, the non-profit is focused solely on reducing pet overpopulation.

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.