As a veterinary specialist practicing in Los Angeles for the last twenty-five years, I have had a tremendous opportunity to work with the overwhelming majority of rescue groups here in the Los Angeles area. I have consistently donated time and effort to rehabilitating animals saved from the shelters for these groups in order for them to be rehabilitated and placed with new families.
The ability to save an animal from certain death and place them in a loving home is extremely rewarding. Working with these groups to provide tremendously discounted services to achieve these results is a way of giving back to the community. It affords me the opportunity to provide top quality veterinary medical and surgical care to animals that would otherwise be unable to take advantage of the fact that such veterinary care now exists in the majority of our communities.
While certainly a rewarding experience, I believe that every veterinarian would love to see the day when their services were no longer called upon to help save unwanted pets as a result of the pet over-population problem. California State bill AB1634 tries to address the problem with pet over-population in an attempt to decrease the influx of animals into our shelter system.
While well intentioned – this bill as it currently stands is not without its flaws and is controversial and divisive. The past twenty-five years of my practice experience indicates that there is no one simple and easy answer to the elimination of pets being relinquished at our shelters. Certainly, the appropriate spaying and neutering of pets is a great place to start. It is just that it is not the complete answer for the elimination of our shelter over-crowding.
The issue to how best to solve the pet over population problem is an extremely controversial topic. The controversy stems from the fact that there are hundreds of thousands to millions of animals euthanized in the State of California alone during the course of one year. A controversial bill known as AB1634 is set for hearing in the California State Assembly Committee on business and professions and is designed to cut the numbers of animals entering the California shelter system on a yearly basis.
The question is whether or not government forced mandatory spay and neutering of dogs and cats older than four months of age will actually solve the pet over population problem. In order to successfully understand why mandatory spay and neuter is not necessarily the answer to the current pet over population problem – one needs to have a detailed understanding of the factors which led to pets arriving at the shelter system in the first place.
The reality of the situation is that an extraordinary number of pet owners are extremely responsible with regards to the welfare of their pets. Their pets are being cared for emotionally and medically and are not breeding indiscriminately if they’re even breeding at all. That’s because the overwhelming majority of pet owners already spay and neuter their pets without undue government interference.
It is a small proportion of pet owners predominantly the indigents that do not avail themselves to even appropriately priced spay and neuter procedures from licensed veterinarians. These owners don’t even pretend to be responsible enough to bring their animals in for even the most routine of veterinary services (i.e. routine physical examinations, deworming, vaccinations, spay and neuter etc.) As such – the veterinary community has limited ability to educate this portion of the pet owning public, because of a lack of contact at any point in time with their pets. The great majority of animals that end up in our shelter system, unfortunately, are derived from this small portion of the pet owning public.
If simply spaying or neutering your pet was the solution to the over-crowding of the pet shelter system – it would have worked already! The top ten reasons dogs are relinquished to shelters in the United States are: moving, landlord issues, cost of pet maintenance, no time for the pet, inadequate facilities, too many pets in the home, pet illness, personal problems, biting or no homes for the litter-mates. Of these top ten reasons, only two (i.e. too may pets in the home and no homes for litter-mates) would be directly influenced by a mandatory spay/neuter provision. These reasons rank sixth and tenth respectively on the top ten list.
It would appear that the overwhelming majority of the time that pets are relinquished to the shelters is because of the owners inability’s to properly care for their pet – not primarily because they have too many. While decreasing the amount of pets these people own will certainly have an impact, by no means is mandatory spay/neuter alone going to impact tremendously the amount of animals being relinquished to the shelter.
In Los Angeles, one could already feel the effects of low cost spay/neuter programs aimed at indigent owners having an effect. There have been a tremendous decrease in the amount of puppies being presented to the shelter because of the success at these out-reach programs going into areas of the city requiring assistance and spaying and neutering pets for free. An expansion of these services would play an enormous role in decreasing an unwanted pet population entering the shelter system, but as we can see from the top ten list of why these animals end up in the shelter – it is not going to even come close to eliminating animals being relinquished and still crowding our shelter system.
As we have seen in Los Angeles over the last few years, the number of puppies entering the system decrease – we have also seen a tremendous rise in the number of animals entering the system that have already been spayed and neutered for just these reasons. Unfortunately, whether spayed or neutered, the majority of animals enter the shelter system because a certain portion of the pet owning population considers their pets to be disposable!
I see multiple cases every week where people adopt animals from the shelter and bring them in when they’re sick or injured. As soon as they realize that they are financially responsible for taking care of the injury or illness – they relinquish the pet. Instead of humanely putting the animal down, we have the owners sign over ownership to our facility so that we could rehabilitate them medically and surgically and working with the rescue groups here in Los Angeles, adopt them out to proper owners who will see to these animals emotional and medical needs. These people turn right around and go back to the shelter to adopt yet another animal! It makes the shelter adoption records look great, because they’re moving that many more animals through their system successfully rather then humanely euthanizing them.
However, the reality is that animals are consistently being given out to a portion of the population that does not have the financial or emotional capacity to properly take care of the pets that have been relinquished to them. It has nothing to do with whether or not the animal was spayed or neutered – it has to do with the mindset of the person that adopted the animal in the first place.
I firmly believe that pet ownership is a privilege and no longer an inherent right in the United States. While extraordinarily difficult to legislate let alone enforce responsible pet ownership is the only way to diminish or eliminate the relinquishment of animals into our shelter system. The enactment of a mandatory spay/neuter provision will enable those low cost to no cost spay/neuter clinics operating in the portions of our city that produce the overwhelming majority of unwanted pets to reach a greater population of indigent owners than previously thought possible.
Because it will be the law – these clinics should be afforded a much better opportunity to convince these owners that their animals have to be spayed and neutered. This should certainly decrease the amount of animals in these areas that would eventually for the multitude of reasons already mentioned eventually ending up in our shelter system. However, it is not enough of an answer to stop the relinquishment of pets into our shelter system. This bill should not be looked at as the answer to pet over-population, but merely as a first step in helping to prevent unwanted pets from being relinquished.
Much more work needs to be done with enforcing animal welfare guidelines that are already in place with respect to the care and treatment that animals receive. If the already pre-existing animal welfare statutes were actually enforced rather than giving violators a mere slap on the wrist – the number of inappropriate pet owners would be substantially slashed leading to a much greater reduction in the amount of animals entering our shelter system than could possibly be accomplished by spay and neuter alone.
I certainly have my concerns with regards to undue government influence regarding decisions that have always been within the domain of the pet owner. What the majority of pet owners must understand, however, is that because they are responsible, the passage of this bill should have virtually zero impact on their ability to own animals appropriately.
The plain fact is that if all people acted responsibly – we wouldn’t need laws. One could make an analogy with regards to laws regarding rape, child molestation and shooting a police officer. Ninety-nine percent of the population doesn’t really need these laws in place because nobody in their right mind would think of raping somebody, molesting a child or shooting a police officer. Unfortunately, a very small percentage does not act responsibly and for that reason laws are required in order to be able to enforce the standards that society has deemed appropriate. It’s the same thing with the passage of this mandatory spay/neuter bill. The overwhelming majority of pet owners are already in compliance, it is the very small percentage that is responsible for a portion of the reason why animals are relinquished to the shelters.
I do have a problem with responsible pet owners being forced by government decree to spay and neuter their pet, considering that they are truly not a part of the problem. In its present form this bill needs to be tweaked to reflect this concern. Currently, the legislative language bans California State residents from owning an intact dog or cat more than four months old without a permit. While early age spay and neuter certainly results in a decrease in the pet population, it also results in a number of unnecessary risks to your pet and I have a hard time reconciling the fact that responsible pet owners should subject their animals to any risk, whatsoever, considering they are not a part of the pet over-population problem.
Exemptions would be offered to breeders who would pay a permit fee to continue to be able to keep intact animals and breed them. Certainly, the concern is that breeders who have intact animals should somehow be responsible for funding animal control. A situation which many feel is extremely unfair.
The truth of the matter also is that very, very few purebred animals end up in the shelter in the first place. The majority of the purebreds that end up in the shelter are of a very few and specific breed types and the majority if not almost all of these purebreds are being bred indiscriminately by inappropriate backyard breeders. Very few purebred Labrador and Golden Retrievers costing upwards of twenty-five hundred to three thousand dollars end up being relinquished to the shelter. If they end up there at all, they do so because they temporarily escaped from their owner. These owners are usually scouring the shelter for their animals immediately and very few if any ever getting euthanized or burdening our shelter system for more than a short period of time.
Ask any shelter rescue group in Los Angeles and they will tell you that the majority of purebred animals crowding our shelter system are Pitbulls, Shar-peis, Chows and Rottweilers. Most of which were given away or sold for incredibly small amounts of money at local backyard breeders in the area. As deplorable as puppy mills are – it is not even these animals that are entering the shelter system. The granting of permits at a price to appropriate reputable breeders to continue to breed animals will certainly generate revenue for the State, but will probably not result in any type of substantial decrease of animals being relinquished to the shelter, because these animals are not the ones crowding the shelters in the first place.
Considering the overwhelming majority of responsible pet owners already spay and neuter their pets – the likelihood of there being substantial revenue of fines for violating the spay/neuter provision is not that great. The sad truth of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of the violators of the spay/neuter provision are the poor and indigent pet owners who cannot afford to take care of their pets appropriately in the first place.
An increased effort must be made to allow an expansion of the already existing low or no cost spay/neuter clinics to operate in these areas more effectively, in order to make sure that the population of pet owners is in compliance. As mentioned previously, this will certainly have an impact on the number of animals presented to the shelter for euthanasia, but by no means will this eliminate the vast majority of animals presented to the shelters for relinquishment.
Once again, there is almost a national absence of puppies in the shelter systems at present, this has been accomplished through education and low and no cost spay/neuter clinics going to the areas of greatest concern and operating without the government being involved. Until a certain portion of the population could be convinced that it is inappropriate for them to own animals in the first place – we will never empty our shelter system. As long as this bill could be tweaked to protect the rights of responsible pet owners – the advantages far out-weight the disadvantages of its passage.
Dr. Alan Schulman is a renowned Board Certified Veterinary Surgeon. While he is particularly known for his orthopedic, neurologic, and reconstructive surgical expertise, he...+ Learn More
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