Because people in shelters are killing them.
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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