It is accepted as sacrosanct in veterinary medicine that spays and neuters save animal lives and reduce pet overpopulation. Veterinarians are indoctrinated to believe that it is our duty to provide animals and human society with affordable spays and neuters.
I wholeheartedly agree that sexually altering pets benefits the individual cats and dogs who undergo the surgeries. In my career I have met tens of thousands of animals; in my experience spayed and neutered pets generally are healthier and happier than their intact brethren. (I concede however that some confusion may occur because diligent owners are more likely to spay and neuter pets, whereas careless owners are less likely to get around to it.)
I also agree that spaying and neutering prevents individual animals from reproducing. These animals’ offspring won’t be euthanized in shelters because they won’t be born.
However, I never bought into the notion that spays and neuters reduce animal overpopulation in general. This is especially true in the case of feral cats.
During my first few years of veterinary practice the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) actively pushed its members to participate in a feral cat spay/neuter program. Volunteers trapped feral cats and brought them to vet clinics. Vets spayed or neutered them at their own expense. (No spay or neuter is ever free — someone always must pay for supplies, drugs, support staff expenses, and so forth. When a veterinarian provides a “free” surgery, the truth is that the vet is paying for the surgery.)
The CVMA’s bimonthly newsmagazine regularly raved about the success of the program, measured by the number of cats that had been spayed or neutered.
Here’s the problem: the program’s “success” was being measured in the wrong way. The goal of the program was to reduce the number of cats suffering in the wild as ferals. Spaying and neutering feral cats undoubtedly benefits the individuals who undergo surgery. However, I never have seen any evidence that trap-neuter-release programs have any impact whatsoever on the number of cats living as ferals.
A rudimentary study of ecology lays waste to the notion that trap-neuter-release programs can reduce feral cat numbers. Long-term populations of animals such as feral cats are determined by each ecosystem’s carrying capacity. If breeding animals are removed from the population, the breeders that remain will pick up the slack. Unless every animal is sterilized (which never will happen), the population will remain stable in the long run.
Enter Dr. Craig Woloshyn, author of an article in the most recent edition of Veterinary Economics. The article claims that spays and neuters do not address or prevent pet overpopulation. It further claims that veterinarians who provide low-cost spays and neuters debase the profession in general and lower our worth as perceived by the public.
For the past 20 years our profession has attacked the animal overpopulation problem. We’ve spawned a network of cheap clinics across the country, championing them as a noble cause. Low-cost spay-neuter clinics are now so well-inculcated into our national culture that it seems blasphemous to say that our efforts are fruitless and self-serving. And since the wrath of our profession will fall heavily on those who doubt, it has become sacrosanct that population control and, specifically, low-cost spay-neuter clinics are furthering animal welfare and human society in general.
I for one will stand and say it’s a fraud. We’ve had very little effect on the dog and cat population in this county, nor will we with this approach. Dog and cat populations are affected by factors we haven’t learned to control. This isn’t the place for an exposition on procreation, but you won’t find a single well-documented study that shows significant decrease in animal populations anywhere in this country. Those few studies that exist show essentially flat shelter fill and euthanasia rates. If what we said would work were working, we’d see it by now.
Those are some strong words.
Dr. Woloshyn later proceeds to make a point with which I agree:
Feral cats are so fecund that even if we leave one pair unneutered, we’ll soon see the population restocked naturally.
He goes on to point out how, in his opinion, cheap spays and neuters are damaging the lives of veterinarians everywhere:
Clients who don’t understand why real surgery costs 10 to 20 times the price of a spay bristle at the idea of paying us a living wage.
And then he wraps up his article with some choice words:
We’re rapidly becoming a profession led by mushy statistics and ever-lowering standards of scientific curiosity and honesty. There was a short-lived, abortive effort to make our profession evidence-based. But now, led by corporations that produce no real evidence that what we do is worthwhile, we’re becoming feel-good flower children. We’re leaving science behind in our quest to find fulfillment in an ill-fated endeavor.
I can’t say that any corporation ever has encouraged me to provide low-cost spays or neuters — there’s no money to be made in the endeavor, so no corporation is interested. But the article is strongly written and definitely thought provoking. Please read it, and let me know your thoughts.