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.

13 Comments

  1. It has been our experience that as there are fewer puppies and small dogs available, adopters are choosing large breed adults instead, yes, even pit type mixes. As puppy numbers go down, adult adoptions go up. Our community is adapting and adjusting to what is available rather than turning to another source.

    • Interesting. What do you base that statement on? Did you actually survey your community’s habits, or are you basing it just on success of placing large shelter dogs? What do you attribute your community’s response to?

  2. A couple of corrections. Some commercial breeders left AKC in the 1990s because AKC instituted stricter kennel inspections and DNA testing requirements for large volume breeders to make sure the puppies had the correct parents — not because it was more expensive to register with AKC.

    I suspect you aren’t a cat person or you might be more aware of differences among different kinds of cats.

    Any lifespan information collected by the Kennel Club related to purebred dogs only applies to dogs in the UK, not to purebred dogs in other countries. For the most part the gene pools don’t mix very much. My dogs — my LARGE purebred dogs that don’t want to be spayed or neutered — are living longer now than their counterparts were 20 years ago.

    Lots of people enjoy large dogs and they don’t want a bully breed mix or a small breed dog. As with cats, dogs and dog breeds are not interchangeable. You can’t just say you want a 30-lb or 60-lb dog and think that all dogs of that size are the same. I suppose it’s commendable that you take a marketing approach to finding homes for animals, but there are a lot of other things to consider. If someone is really going to be happy with a dog then the person and dog need to be a good match. Good breeders are good at matching puppies/dogs with the right families because they know their breed.

    • If someone wants a purebred dog, I often point them to breed-specific rescues. These rescues will know the breed just as well as a breeder. They often have adult dogs for adoption, as opposed to puppies, and not everyone wants a puppy. Adoption counselors are also skilled in helping families find a good match. Responsible breeding and shelters can co-exist – this makes great options for everyone.

      • This is true for some breeds but not all. A lot of breeds are relatively rare and hardly ever show up in rescue. I have a breed that’s on the vulnerable list in the UK and only registers a few hundred dogs per year in the U.S. Our rescue takes in field dogs (for hunting) but if someone is looking for the AKC/show type, they might have to wait a very long time. There are lots of breeds that register even fewer dogs annually. Most of the larger breeds are not very popular with commercial breeders. There is not a lot of demand for them and they are more expensive to house and raise.

        While you’re concerned about which dogs to spay and neuter, many breeders today are worried about which breeds we may lose in the near future because so few people are breeding them now.

        • I’m concerned with ending the euthanasia of adoptable pets and stopping the puppy mill industry. I don’t have a problem with responsible breeding, though I don’t quite bemoan the loss of a breed the same way I do the loss of adoptable pets, mixed breed or purebred, in any situation.

          • From my perspective, many of the laws aimed at stopping the “puppy mill” industry also affect what you might consider responsible breeders. If you read bills proposed for state breeder laws they often include things like warrantless searches, repeated fees for pre-application, application, inspection, re-inspection, etc., fining breeders if they are not present when an inspector comes by without warning, and some interesting kennel and other requirements. If you are a small breeder keeping a few dogs in your home as your pets, these regulations can drive you out of breeding. These are good breeders who do health testing for their dogs and find good homes for their puppies but breeder laws, pet limit laws, and other pet laws are driving them away. We need people like these breeders. They are not dumping unintended litters at shelters.

          • Carlotta, I’d really like to see an example of any state law on dog breeding that is onerous enough to deter a “reputable” small-scale breeder. I’ve never seen such a law myself. If you know of one, please reply with the name of the state and the citation for the law in the state’s legal code. Thanks very much.

  3. In answer to your title question – no. This has to be the most ridiculous thing I have ever read. Spay and neuter is not about supply and demand. It’s about saving lives.

    I would love to see the day we had to turn to responsible breeders to adopt, because we didn’t have enough dogs to kill. The goal is to stop the killing and irresponsible living conditions. Not provide a market for consumers.

    This article disgusts me.

    • What disgusts me is people breeding dogs for money, or for “glory” in the show ring. If people cannot get dogs from shelters, they will be forced to turn to commercial breeders. You refer to “adoption” from “responsible” breeders. No, that would be “purchase” from people who are in the business of selling dogs. I would far rather see us import dogs from overseas than see commercial breeders being able to elbow their way back into the dog market. When people have a choice, they more and more want to adopt mixed-breeds rather than the artificial and unhealthy purebreds. Shelters should make sure that people continue to have that choice

      • LOL that is funny you would rather see imports than dogs bred in the USA from breeders who have regulations and rules.. have you been overseas? have you visited any kennels there? You want to make sure shelters provide people with dogs ? what are you smoking? shelters are NOT stores ( although many act like they are)

  4. I will reiterate an earlier comment; NO, we have not gone too far in spay/neuter. I would like to see your research that states that 83% of owned dogs are spayed and neutered, because in my professional experience as a spay/neuter veterinarian, that is absolutely false. I’m sure in some regions of the United States this is true. I know that the New England region has good control of their dog population. And you say that the higher numbers come from the southwest region of the U.S. What about the southeast? Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, as examples. And the midwest; Illinois, Indiana, Ohio? I live in Colorado, and there is still a huge demand for low cost spay/neuter. I work with an organization that goes to unserviced (or underserviced) areas and do low cost spay/neuter. The waiting list for appointments is enormous. Did you look into the animal shelters and evaluate the kill rate of their population? There are still shelters that have over 80% kill rate because there are too many animals coming into the shelter and not enough adoptions.

    To address another point in your opinion piece, there are many large breed dogs in shelters. In order to understand why the population between large breed and small breed dogs is skewed, think for a moment of which dogs are more likely to roam, and be producing unwanted litters. Small dogs are easy to keep indoors and may never see an animal they might want to breed. The large dogs are allowed to roam (or climb the fence and roam) and impregnate/ are impregnated by the other roaming dogs. Many people do not want a ‘bully breed mix’. Unless you own your home, it is difficult to find a place to live that allows bully breeds. Many apartments specifically exclude these breeds from their list of allowed breeds. There are also whole cities that do not allow bully breed dogs into their community. Where is a person supposed to live if they adopt bully breed mix? Or they have one and then need to move and can no longer keep the dog because the new landlord does not allow that breed.

    We do not need to go overseas and import dogs in order for U.S. residents to have a choice of adopting a dog or purchasing from a breeder. There are still plenty of unwanted dogs in this country.

    • I footnoted the research in my blog – the stats on sterilization of owned pets are from the American Pet Products Association. That organizations does surveys that are relied on by large companies for their business planning, so I think they are pretty reputable.

      Edited to add: Colorado animal shelters are saving over 90% of dogs, even though they imported 17,000 or 18,000 dogs in 2014 from out of state. I think that qualifies as pretty strong evidence of a shortage of dogs in the state overall.

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