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Foundation Offers Massive Prize for Technique that Might Render Spays and Neuters Unnecessary

Anyone who has ever used treats or praise to train a canine companion knows that dogs respond to incentives. I'm sure you're aware from your...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Jan 27th 2012

Anyone who has ever used treats or praise to train a canine companion knows that dogs respond to incentives. I’m sure you’re aware from your own experience that humans do, too. For many of us, one of the greatest incentives is money, which is being used to inspire us to find a solution to one of the most intractable problems for dogs, cats, and the people who care about them: canine and feline overpopulation.

Throwing money at a problem rarely solves it; cash has a way of being used up without results being attained. However, a new model of incentivizing scientific progress has shown that money can motivate true changes, if it is in the form of prizes.

The X Prize Foundation has shown that offering large sums of cash, along with heaps of prestige, can spark rapid scientific progress. Most famously, the Ansari X Prize motivated massive leaps forward in the exploration of space by nongovernmental entities.

Therefore, I was very happy to see that veterinary medicine now has its own version of the X Prize. And it’s aiming big.

The January/February issue of Animal Sheltering (a publication of the Humane Society of the United States) published an article on the Michelson Prize and Grants program. The program is named after Gary Michelson, a billionaire with a strong interest in animal welfare. Here is a quote from the article. (At the time of writing, the article was not available online so I was unable to link to it.)

In late 2008, the [Found Animals Foundation] announced an eye-popping brass ring: the Michelson Prize and Grants in Reproductive Biology. The prize promised $25 million to the first entity to develop a low-cost, single-dose, nonsurgical method of permanently sterilizing cats and dogs. The project made another $50 million available in grants for related research.

People have been discussing an alternative to spaying and neutering for decades. Many experts see it as a massive step forward in large-scale animal welfare. But finding an almost mythical alternative has proven devilishly difficult.

Combining a large incentive with money to back up research is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in veterinary medicine. And, according to the article, several ideas are in the works, and many knowledgeable pundits are thinking this so-called Holy Grail of reproductive science might be within reach.

This research is relevant to cat and dog lovers for several reasons. First, on a population-wide scale, it could dramatically reduce unnecessary euthanasias. Although experienced vets can perform dozens of spays or neuters in a day, make no mistake about it: the procedures are complicated, and they are expensive. Properly performed surgical sterilizations require use of costly anesthetic agents and surgical supplies. An inexpensive nonsurgical sterilization method could be used more widely and, happily, could reduce shelter kill rates. (If you are tempted to bluster in the comments section that animal overpopulation is not a true problem, I suggest you volunteer to assist with euthanasias at a rural animal shelter for a few weeks. After that, your soul will be too crushed to make noise on the Internet.)

If such a technique is developed,family pets might be spared the need for spay-and-neuter procedures. All surgery is by definition invasive, and in general it is better to accomplish a goal with noninvasive tactics when possible.

The article points out that, even if a nonsurgical sterilization technique is successfully developed, it might not replace spaying and neutering in all cases. It could be more appropriate for feral animals (by eliminating the need to trap them for surgical sterilization), while spaying and neutering might still be superior for owned pets.

Either way, I hope that the Michelson Prize accomplishes its goal.

The article cited in this post is “Million Dollar Ideas,” published on pages 45-48 of the January/February 2012 issue of Animal Sheltering.