Why Sterilize?

April 18, 2015

Because people in shelters are killing them.

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Although this graphic cites an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association for the proposition that an unsterilized male and female cat will yield millions more, the article cited to says no such thing. And it says no such thing because it isn’t true.

I am an advocate for sterilization. It is a core program of the No Kill Equation I champion. And when I ran shelters, we performed a lot of it. In one of those shelters, we did 10,000 surgeries a year, over 80% of which were free. But that doesn’t mean we have to misrepresent and even lie to people about why they should sterilize companion cats and dogs. And that is what a lot of graphics do, even though the perpetuation of such lies can cause severe harm to animals.

For one, “If a male and female cat and their offspring are left to breed on their own,” we do not get over 2,000,000 cats in 10 years. And we do not get over 32,000 cats in seven years. After seven years, the number, according to an analysis by the University of Washington, would most likely yield less than 200 cats. In fact, a mathematician put the number as low as 98. Even that number may be too high, however, when one takes into account the fact that some of the cats will get adopted by people, get sterilized, and/or become indoor-only. Not only does exaggeration undermine the movement’s credibility, but those who hate cats—like nativists who blame them by falsely claiming they are decimating bird populations—use these figures to promote round up and kill campaigns. We arm them with weapons to use against cats when we propagate such bad information.

Second, while perhaps technically accurate, it is grossly misleading to say animals are “less likely to get certain kinds of cancers.” Google “Top 10 reasons to spay/neuter your pet” and you’ll repeatedly find this and other health claims among the top three reasons to sterilize both dogs and cats. It is true that sterilized animals tend to live longer and that females are less likely to get mammary cancer. But, there is a nascent, though growing body of literature that indicates that the risk of other cancer may increase after sterilization, at least in dogs. In fact, the risk of seven of eight kinds of cancer in dogs actually increased with sterilization, though it wasn’t clear if this was the result of sterilized dogs living longer. In one study, however, dogs had a 3.5-fold increase in mast cell cancers, nine-fold increase in hemangiosarcoma, 4.3-fold increase in lymphoma, and 6.5-fold increase in higher incidence of all cancers, with researchers opining that it may be the result of the removal of growth and sex hormones which, among other things, regulate growth, differentiation, survival, and function of many cells involved in homeostasis and immunity.*

Third, while the language of this graphic is tempered (targeted sterilization can reduce the number of cats entering shelters), other graphics are not. They imply—and sometimes claim outright—that we cannot adopt our way out of killing or end the killing in shelters today when we absolutely can. Not only does the data prove it, so does experience. Many communities that are saving over 90% of dogs and cats did it in six months or less and often before a comprehensive sterilization program was in place. We stop shelter killing by reforming the institutions of killing, not eliminating the supply of victims. To reduce every discussion about shelter killing to a failure to sterilize is exactly what the regressive shelter director and the large, national groups which fight No Kill want animal activists to do: point the finger of blame anywhere but on those who are actually doing the killing, and perpetuate the lies they have historically peddled that portray that killing as necessary when it is not. Instead of perpetuating lies which allow those who commit daily violence against animals to continue to do so, we should be demanding that those we pay to care for homeless animals with our tax and philanthropic dollars provide animals with the care, kindness, and a loving home that is their birthright.

So what are the “top three reasons” to sterilize dogs and cats?

Although we can adopt our way out of killing, at the top remains the ongoing danger of death presented by American animal shelters. Today, the single greatest cause of death for healthy animals in the United States is deliberate killing at the local animal shelter. Because, overall, four in 10 animals will be killed if they enter a shelter, and in some communities the risk is as high as 99%, and because stray animals, litters of animals, or homeless animals within a community may end up in their local kill shelter, sterilization is a means of reducing the number of animals entering a shelter, thereby increasing the chances of survival for those who are already there. Moreover, sterilization saves unsocial, free-living community cats who are not candidates for adoption by providing an alternative to killing—Neuter and Release—should they enter a shelter that would otherwise end their lives. It must be emphasized, however, that sterilization, or the “N” part of neuter and release, isn’t the reason those cats exit such shelters alive—the “R” part is. And most shelters won’t do the “R” without first doing the “N,” even if it means taking the life of a self-sufficient animal who should have never entered the shelter in the first place. As such, Neuter and Release gives these animals a get out of jail pass they would otherwise be denied.

Moreover, continued promotion and availability of high-volume, low-cost sterilization is a means to help a community reach stasis in its shelters where adoptions equal intakes, making the achievement of No Kill even easier. This is important because the lower the intake, the easier it is for even unmotivated, ineffective, and uncaring directors (in short, your average kill shelter director) to achieve No Kill. Moreover, if sterilization allows a community to drop intakes significantly enough so that local demand for animals can no longer be met, the community can begin importing animals from high-kill rate jurisdictions, saving those lives, too, as some shelters in No Kill communities are currently doing. Until all communities become No Kill, this is yet another means of reducing and preventing shelter killing and saving more lives.

Second, regardless of why animals are being killed, they are being killed and, as long as they are being killed, adopting from a shelter or rescue is an ethical imperative. Millions of animals are killed annually because they enter shelters which have yet to replace killing with available, humane, life-affirming alternatives. Until we force them to do so through political advocacy, legislation, and by ensuring that such facilities are taken over by true animals lovers averse to needless killing, adoption saves these animals from those who would choose to kill them out of habit and convenience.

Third, there is the open question as to whether surgically sterilizing animals has increased the demand for them by eliminating behaviors associated with sexual reproduction that humans may find frustrating, such as temperament issues, roaming, spraying, and howling. More people adopting animals means less animals being killed at regressive shelters.

In short, people should sterilize their animals because people in shelters are killing them. That’s a sufficient reason. We do not need to mislead people with trumped up statistics and hyperbole to do so; statistics which are then used by unscrupulous people—such as nativists and regressive shelter directors—to defend their unscrupulous behavior.


* This, of course, begs the question of whether we should be supporting alternatives to surgical removal of ovaries or testes, such as vasectomies and tubal ligations so that growth and sex hormones can remain intact. With this post, however, I wanted to focus narrowly on what we tell people as a movement and what is, in fact, the state of the evidence for those claims. As to cancer, it may be that sterilized dogs live longer and therefore you are more likely to see a rise in the detection and treatment for cancer. One of the studies shows that even though sterilized dogs did get cancer more often, it didn’t lower their lifespan and, in fact, sterilized dogs lived longer. The other study found the opposite so there may be a link between sterilization and cancer.


The problem is that both the studies I cited have their limitations. What we really need is a study that doesn’t use past records or surveys to answer a new question, but one that follows the health of dogs over the course of their lives with this particular question in mind. There is such a study being conducted with Golden Retrievers from puppyhood on, but it just got underway. They picked Goldens because one analysis shows that 60% of them will die of cancer. It should be noted, however, that it will be years before it gives us any answers. And, as always, the people who live with these dogs and have chosen to allow researchers to track the health of their dogs over their lives might indicate bias in favor of better care.

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As Progress is Made, The Status Quo Grows Desperate

April 15, 2015

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A community cat. Groups like VACA fight efforts to save them through TNR and promote efforts that empower animal control officers to round them up and kill them. Thankfully, legislators are listening less and less.

Why do some commonsense legislative efforts to protect animals in shelters fail? Because the groups that legislators often turn to for guidance—the shelters themselves and their state associations—betray the animals in order to defend the status quo. Thankfully, that is changing.

The Virginia Animal Control Association (VACA), for example, opposed and fought against a bill that required private shelters in Virginia to try and find homes for animals, rather than just kill them out of convenience. They called the requirement that shelters try adopting out animals before killing them “government overreach.” Thankfully, the legislature did not agree and overwhelming approved the bill (95 to 2 in the House and 35 to 1 in the Senate), which the governor signed. At the same time, VACA supported a bill which would have empowered animal control officers to round up community cats on private property and then kill them. Thankfully, the legislature did not agree and defeated the bill. VACA also fought efforts to mandate more transparency in shelters, saying that it would lead to high “paper costs” regardless of whether it would protect animals and their families. They fought efforts to protect community cats by allowing TNR in lieu of round up and kill. They took no position on legislation which would have created an animal cruelty conviction database that would have allowed rescuers and others to know if someone trying to adopt animals had been convicted of cruelty. Like in other states, the legislative and regulatory efforts to protect animals in Virginia from animal cruelty, convenience killing, trap and kill, and by mandating transparency and accountability found shelters and their lobbying group on the wrong side of almost every issue.

Ironically, VACA goes on to chastise shelter reformers for having the audacity—as citizens in a democracy, as taxpayers who fund their salaries, and as animal lovers whose values these agencies are supposed to represent—to “second guess” and try to “undermine” their decisions to kill. Introducing legislation, filing petitions for rulemaking with regulatory agencies, and participating in the democratic process is called “bullying” and “troubling.” What’s next, they ask, “Threats to [shelter workers] and their families?… Not as far-fetched as one might imagine.”

Actually, it is far-fetched and a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. They are the ones who commit violence towards animals by injecting them with lethal drugs. We’re trying to stop the violence through the same peaceful, democratic means embraced by every other movement for social improvement in history: legislation. To equate engagement in the legislative process as one step removed from the inciting of violence and to malign people who do so as “extremists” serves only to reveal how desperate they have become. When you can’t argue with the message, shoot the messenger. And when the messenger is merely calling for an end to systematic violence against animals and the implementation of humane, life affirming alternatives most citizens would be stunned to learn are not already standard operating procedure at our nation’s animal shelters, fear mongering about the nature of that agenda serves only to further reveal their own extremism, thereby eroding their credibility and with it, their influence among our elected representatives.

Their desperation is evidence of our progress.

To learn why groups like VACA are no friend to animals in shelters and no friend to animal lovers, click here.


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A Blessing & A Burden

April 9, 2015


My dog of 14 years before he died. Pickles was deeply loved and is sorely missed. For the last year of his life, he was paralyzed. In addition to daily pain management, I had to carry him up and down the stairs and everywhere else. We made it a point to always have him in the same room with us so he knew how much we loved and wanted him around. When his pain became unmanageable and he was in the end stages of his disease, we said goodbye and ended his suffering. Picturing him on the floor of the vet’s office still drives me to tears. You can read about my life with him by clicking here.

Last year, I received a call from someone whose dog was near the end of his life. She told me that he was a 16-year-old dog who had nerve damage and no ability to use his back legs or hind quarters. For about a year, she took him for walks in a doggy wheelchair, but he no longer had the strength. She explained that she couldn’t leave the house for long periods because he couldn’t be left alone; she hadn’t gone on a vacation in years. Every other week, he became blocked and she had to help him defecate, an ordeal that kept her up all night with him and caused him pain. But most days, she said, he just relieved himself without control. Sounding embarrassed, she told me her house smelled like pee. But… he had a good appetite, had more good days than bad, and was genuinely excited and happy to see her. He still had the spark. The day when he no longer did would come, she knew; when there would be lots of bad days and he would he no longer find comfort in her gaze or caress. Is that when you know for sure it is time, she asked me?

More recently, another person told me of her 23 year old cat losing a battle with kidney failure. The cat was nearly blind and had suffered a stroke. Her person explained that she still had quality of life, was still eating and drinking and using the litterbox but that she was getting weaker. She said she had other kitty family members pass away naturally in her home before, and called it “heart wrenchingly horrible.” Is humane euthanasia, she wanted to know, truly humane?

This week, someone asked me a similar question. Her cat was also suffering from kidney disease and the daily sub-q fluids were not giving her the boost that they used to. Nonetheless, she still purred when she was being caressed and seemed to take genuine pleasure in being held. Should she opt for “euthanasia” when the time came, she asked?

Those who follow my work know that I am an unrelenting critic of shelter killing, that my efforts are focused on working to expose the myths and misperceptions upon which the systematic and needless killing of millions of healthy and treatable animals every year now rest, chief among them the myth that killing is kindness. I have worked for decades to expose that what happens to healthy and treatable animals behind closed doors in our nation’s animal shelters in no way bears a resemblance to the favored euphemism the animal sheltering industry uses to describe it – “euthanasia,” a word the dictionary defines as “the act of killing hopelessly sick or injured animals in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.” And I wonder if it is because of these efforts I am so often consulted on end of life issues by people who share my love of animals and want to make sure than in opting to take the lives of their beloved animal companions when the very end is near, they haven’t likewise been misled to believe that this sort of killing is also morally justified when it is not. The most I can offer when asked about such issues is to share my own experiences and struggles with the choice as it pertains to my own animals, struggles which time and again have ended with me opting to end their life.

As an adult, I have shared my life with many, many animals who have since left this world. In each case, it was always my hope that they would die peacefully, in their sleep, at home in my arms or that of one of my family members, but that has never happened. Although a few people have shared their experiences of letting their animals die naturally and did not regret it, describing it as “peaceful,” that has not been our experience. Each and every time, when death was near, suffering was evident, and we were never able to justify letting them continue to experience it. They were leaving the world, nothing was going to change that, and there was simply no reason we could think of to allow them to go on suffering to no greater end. For as one palliative care veterinarian once told us in what is the understatement of the year, “Dying is hard work.”

In my family, when one of our animals is dying, we do all we can to care for them for as long as possible after treatment has failed, including fluids, hand feeding, and pain killers. When they are truly dying, we wait for a combination of symptoms that demonstrate to us that the end is very near: not eating, incontinence, and no longer seeking or enjoying the comfort of me, my wife, and my kids.

And in those final moments when it became clear to me and my wife that our animal was in the last days or hours of life, and only when we could be fairly certain that a near death was inevitable, we have opted to take their lives. I wrote about one such time, about my experiences with one of those cats, Gina, and the struggle of not knowing what the right thing to do was. I wrote it in hope that it was a help and a comfort to others facing similar difficult and sad times. As I look back now, I believe I did the right thing.

I don’t begin to pretend to have all the answers here. And I am loathe to make blanket, definitive statements. With animals, we have the possibility of ending their suffering in a way the law, in most places, does not allow for humans. As such, we bear a tremendous responsibility; one that experience has taught me to regard as both a blessing and a burden.

For further reading:

For the Love of Dog

What is True Euthanasia?


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Rejecting Arbitrary Labels That Enable Great Harm

April 6, 2015

A Guest Article on Death of a Million Trees by my wife and I.

Every day, my wife and I go for a walk with our dog in an Oakland Hills park. The entire path is lined with trees, creating habitat for animals, and an idyllic, shady trail for running, hiking or dog walking We pass literally thousands upon thousands of trees that the City of Oakland plans to begin cutting down this summer, leaving behind up to half a million stumps which will then be soaked in chemicals that will poison wildlife and the people and the dogs who visit this park. These chemicals are made by Monsanto and Dow and have been proven to cause severe birth defects when tested on poor animals including rats born with their brains outside their skulls. They are toxic to birds and aquatic species, and cause damage to the kidneys, liver and the blood of dogs. And yet the plan is being proposed by people who call themselves environmentalists.

Environmentalists, however, don’t advocate for the clear cutting of healthy forests. They don’t advocate for the spreading of tens of thousands of gallons of cancer causing chemicals in public lands. They don’t seek to decimate and poison the habitat upon which wildlife depends. And in a world just beginning to understand and experience the cataclysmic results of climate change, they don’t seek to cut down as many as half a million carbon sequestering trees.

When an agenda has means and ends that are identical to timber and chemical companies, when it is based on methods which the environmental movement was formed to fight against, and when it calls for clearcutting trees and pouring poison on the stumps, you can call such a plan many things: foolish, short-sighted, dangerous, tragic, heart-wrenching, and cruel, but the one thing you can’t call it is environmentalism.

Why are they doing it? They claim the trees do not belong here because they are “non-native,” a false, short-sighted, arbitrarily label that ignores the one constant of life on Earth: change.

My wife and I were asked to write a guest article for Death of a Million Trees, the website of a true environmentalist who is working to stop this and other equally stunning plans to destroy healthy forests in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read, “Rejecting Arbitrary Labels That Enable Great Harm: Fighting the Oakland, UC Berkeley & East Bay Regional Park District’s War on Nature,” by clicking here.


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Bunnies have rights, too

April 5, 2015


Bunnies are sweet, good-natured,* cuddly, vegan animals. And yet not only are they horrifically abused to test consumer goods (you can avoid supporting such cruelty by looking for the “cruelty-free” label), but they are treated like pariahs in shelters that are already awful to the dogs and cats they claim to care about. Some states which have holding periods for dogs and cats have none for bunnies, allowing shelters to kill them right away with no attempt to rehome them. Even the No Kill movement has largely ignored bunnies. You won’t hear about saving bunnies on the websites of many No Kill advocates. They have resisted calls to add bunnies to statistics when calculating overall community save rates. Many shelters that are saving over 95% of dogs and cats either have no safety net at all for bunnies—turning them away—or they kill them in large numbers but still call themselves No Kill. Even some bunny advocates do them a disservice by choosing death at the pound, rather than have them adopted out to homes with children (buying into the same misanthropy that dog and cat rescuers rejected a decade ago). And now Whole Foods wants people to start eating them. They are trying to create a market for rabbit meat where one does not (and should not) exist.


As we work to create a society where animals are cherished and protected, let’s not leave a single bunny behind. Hoppy Easter!

* Even the grouchy ones deserve love and have the same rights, too.


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