The Controversy Over Shelters Spaying Pregnant Animals

A perennial issue for No Kill has been whether it is ethical for No Kill shelters to spay dogs and cats who are known to be pregnant. Some No Kill advocates argue that a community cannot truly be No Kill if community shelters are spaying pregnant dogs and cats rather than allowing the litters to be born, raising the puppies and kittens, and adopting them out. I’d like to propose a structure for looking at this question in the ideal circumstance of an existing No Kill community with adequate resources, and then look at whether and how this proposed structure might need to be modified in the triaging that often accompanies No Kill transitions.

First, the proposed structure. I think the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), offers a framework for dealing with this issue in the shelter context. The Court in Roe v. Wade balanced the interest that a woman has in controlling her own body against the interest that a fetus has in being born, and concluded that in early pregnancy the balance favors the woman’s choice, but the closer a pregnancy is to term the greater the weight given to the interest of the fetus. That’s an oversimplified description of the Roe v. Wade decision, but it will suffice for this discussion.

The parallel between choices made by humans and choices made for shelter animals is not exact, of course, because we cannot consult a dog or cat and ask her if she would prefer to carry her pregnancy to term. But since a shelter is in the position of making decisions for dogs and cats in their care, it is reasonable to delegate this choice to the shelter.

When a shelter animal is in early pregnancy, is it in her best interest to be spayed? I think it would be reasonable for a shelter to conclude that the answer to that question is “yes,” for two reasons. First, it means the animal can be immediately adopted rather than going through some 4-6 months of gestation and care of her and her litter in a foster home before the litter is raised and she has been rehabilitated and readied for adoption. Second, an early spay is probably safer for an animal’s health than going through gestation and birth of a litter under the stressful circumstances of living in a shelter or a foster home.

With an animal who is close to delivery, the calculus is different. By that point, the spay surgery is riskier for the mother and the recovery period is longer. The time to adoption for an animal who is spayed late in pregnancy may not be that much longer than if she delivers and raises the litter. And the lives of puppies and kittens who are nearly full term are entitled to more weight than when they were early fetuses. I think it would be reasonable for a No Kill shelter to conclude that late-term spays are unethical and not in line with the principles of No Kill.

However, that conclusion might need to be modified when a shelter has not achieved No Kill and is instead in transition to No Kill. The transition to No Kill is a heartbreaking time, because a commitment has been made to save every savable animal, but the shelter does not yet have the capacity to accomplish that. There are some No Kill advocates who argue that No Kill can be achieved overnight in every shelter. No Kill overnight may be possible in some shelters, particularly those that are small, located in wealthy and progressive communities such as resorts or college towns (where the live release rate is likely to already be over 70%), and where the shelter director has the power to run the shelter the way he or she wishes. I’ve seen no evidence that No Kill is achievable overnight in more typical conditions of cash-strapped municipal shelters with high intake, outdated facilities, multiple layers of city management, and a population that includes many people who are indifferent or even hostile to No Kill. Oddly enough, the people who argue that No Kill can be achieved overnight anywhere never seem to be the people who actually take jobs as shelter directors in cities like Memphis, Dallas, Sacramento, and El Paso.

So, accepting the reality that the No Kill transition in most cities involves triage, how does that impact the decision on weighing the interest of a pregnant dog or cat versus the interests of the fetuses she is carrying? Successfully managing a pregnant dog or cat through birth and delivery and then helping her raise the puppies or kittens to an age when they can be adopted is a labor-intensive endeavor, as anyone who has ever done it knows. If the job is going to be done well and the puppies or kittens given the best chance to survive and thrive, it requires that the pregnant animal go into a foster home. And not just any foster home, but one that has facilities for raising a litter and a foster who has both the knowledge and the time for the task.

Raising a litter of puppies or kittens is not merely a matter of letting mom do all the work. The birth of the puppies or kittens must be monitored, and the foster caregiver must know how to recognize if a problem has developed, and what to do. A puppy or kitten may need help to start breathing. The mom, especially if she is a first-time mom, may need help in figuring out how to take care of the litter. The biggest task of all is socialization. From the age of 3 to 8 weeks, the foster caregiver must provide intensive exposure of the puppies or kittens to human contact. The foster must also ensure that mom and the puppies or kittens receive veterinary care, including vaccinations. And finally, when the work is all done and the puppies or kittens are old enough for adoption, the foster has to give them up to their new homes. Then mom must be rehabilitated from the stresses of pregnancy and readied for adoption.

Finding fosters is one of the challenging tasks that face shelters that are in the process of No Kill transitions. It is much easier on people to foster for an established No Kill shelter, because fosters know that when they return their charges to the shelter they will be adopted out and not killed. It’s much harder to recruit fosters for shelters that are in transition. Finding fosters that are willing and able to care for litters, and setting up a system within the shelter to provide the support they need in terms of veterinary care, is even more challenging than finding ordinary fosters.

A shelter that is in transition to No Kill may not have sufficient fosters to care for pregnant animals and raise their litters. In that case, a shelter might reasonably consider a spay late in pregnancy to be in the best interest of the mother and outweigh the limited prospects for life that the puppies or kittens would have if born in the shelter.

One additional factor may need to be considered in a transitional shelter’s decision whether to do a spay on a pregnant animal, and that is the effect on the lives of other animals in the shelter. The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade balanced only the mother’s interests against the interests of the fetus. That was reasonable because it is hard to think of any situation in our modern world where a woman carrying a pregnancy to term in the United States might threaten the lives of other people besides the mother and fetus. With animals in a transitional shelter, it’s different. The lives of other animals in the shelter might be compromised by the space, supplies, and staff time that would be taken up by housing a mother and litter in the shelter until the puppies or kittens are old enough to be adopted.

Even though the Court did not consider the circumstance of additional lives being threatened by a pregnancy, the balancing test of Roe v. Wade can still be applied to that issue in the shelter context. A shelter that is in transition to No Kill may find that it would be reasonable to establish a policy that all female cats and dogs should be spayed, regardless of pregnancy status, because to do otherwise would lead to a significant loss of life among other shelter animals. Such a policy is obviously not ideal, and should be made only after careful consideration and weighing of the interests of all the animals involved. It should also be clearly designated as an interim policy, to be modified as soon as circumstances permit.

When a shelter is in transition to No Kill, rather than criticizing the shelter for doing spays on pregnant animals, No Kill advocates could offer to foster the mothers and raise the litters. This would solve the problem at its root, by giving the shelter the help it needs. Criticism of shelters in transition, without such offers of help, risks being destructive of the No Kill effort by making it harder for the shelter to raise money and recruit volunteers and fosters.

7 Comments

  1. I’m in favor of gravid spay for dogs for reasons not mentioned here…the real danger to a dog when pups are unknown. A chihuahua or even a Lhasa Apso is in mortal danger if she has been impregnated by a Great Dane, Saint Bernard, or Mastiff. And many other size combinations less extreme can still kill; pressure on internal organs from large pups or from a large number of pups can kill the mother long before birth, or can mean an emergency c-section, or may mean some pups die while others live, but the dead can cause others to die and necrosis can take out everyone, including the mother.

    These are things humans don’t have to consider. A woman cannot keep getting pregnant with more and more offspring by more and more men all at the same time. and humans don’t vary in size that much. Humans, if they do vary in size, actually know and pay attention to things like that because they have doctors and ultra sounds, so you never find a dead woman in a back yard with a gigantic dead baby hanging out of her because everyone assumed she was just fat.

    Cats do not have the diversity in size dogs do, but Persians have gigantic heads and many cats have narrow frames. Bulldogs and pugs have huge heads and some cannot be born naturally; whippets and many other dogs have slender frames.

    When a pet is in a shelter, staff seldom have any idea how and where it got pregnant. Early on, they would not be able to tell. Later, they might. Do they have the facilities and funds to do ultrasounds and such? Do they have specialist vets to deal with complex birthing?

    Even when they do, not all animals want to be mothers in the first place. As the article points out, fostering a mother and pups is labor intensive. Fostering a cat and her kittens is also labor intensive…they are messy. If the parent rejects the litter? Far, far, far more complicated.

    Domesticated animals do not limit litter size. They come in heat all the time. They can have more young than they have nipples. We, humans, made a real mess when we made pets to suit our whims of what would look “cool”.

    I am a Christian, I believe in planning families, and in adoption for people..

    But I trust in my God to be able to do what he will with the souls of little creatures. When we spay pregnant dogs or cats, we are not tinkering with a carefully planned family decision. We are often averting tragic and painful deaths of creatures God did not create, which we created and which we are responsible for. I think that is okay.

  2. Great, thoughtful article, as always. My personal moral calculus goes like this: Are there kittens at the shelter right now who don’t have a home? Then we don’t need more. I cannot wait until the day when I need to revisit that. 😉

      • let’s be serious.. dogs and cats are not humans even after birth pups and kittens have no hearing and are blind for the first two weeks or so.. queens and dams are not “moms” so please use correct language. It is not the shelters job to supply pets for people by allowing the birth of dogs/cats they know nothing about and come from unknown sources Buy a dog from a good breeder .. one who knows the background of the breed. or even cross breed if you insist.. does health checks and raises the animals in knowledgable conditions. Or from a well respected pet store where you have a guarantee on the heath of the puppy/kitten.
        From a heath standpoint ( I will discuss dogs here) when a pregnant bitch comes in there no knowledge of there health care.. who the sire is or if she is capable of whelping the litter .. much safer for her to say her at any stage and find her a good home..

        • You are correct that dogs and cats are not humans — but they are mammals who have a great deal in common with humans. Merely stating that they are “not human” isn’t going to get you very far in any moral argument.

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