An op-ed in The New York Times by Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist who studies canine cognition, questions the now routine sterilization of dogs and suggests we no longer do so. It is going to infuriate those who have internalized the movement orthodoxy that surgical sterilization is a core component of responsible stewardship and should continue without question. But such a reaction would be a mistake. Although her piece perpetuates some harmful and disproven dogma regarding why animals are dying in shelters — and while I would argue that it is tinged with an unfair level of misanthropy — the piece is worth a read and worthy of discussion.

In fact, it mirrors some of the arguments my wife and I made in Welcome Home, our award-winning book released in 2017, that examines the ethics of living with dogs (and cats) from an animal rights perspective. Although we grapple with many of the same concerns shared by Horowitz, we do not agree with her conclusion. That said, we welcomed, even encouraged, discussion on the issue and Alexandra Horowitz steps up the plate.

Alexandra Horowitz says she understands the reason for sterilization and laments what she views as our “throwaway” culture when it comes to dogs:

‘Spay-neuter,’ as the policy is called, has become the automatic mantra of those concerned with the lives of dogs. It’s not hard to see why. Say you live in a city with a dog. Stepping outside for a walk on a sunny day, you encounter other dogs: smiling golden retrievers; a smattering of small furry white dogs in sweaters; barking and wagging dachshunds; black-and-white dogs of all sizes; wiggling pit mixes — maybe 100 dogs in an hour. For every one of the 100 dogs you see, 18 healthy dogs will be euthanized in the United States on that day — a mile-long queue of recently smiling, barking, wiggling but now dead dogs.

It’s our species’ fault. We molded a resourceful carnivore into an animal critically dependent on humans for survival. But while we made dogs dependent, we have not held ourselves accountable: We lose dogs, let them run unchecked, give them up when they’re a nuisance or difficult. And so there are too many dogs, and the excess must be killed.

As I discuss below, the notion that “there are too many dogs” and “the excess must be killed” is wrong. The supply-demand calculus actually runs in the other direction. But she rightly questions cause and effect by pointing to European nations where routine sterilization of dogs is uncommon, but where strays are rare and killing in pounds even rarer:

In Europe, desexing [sterilization] has not been routine. Until recently, it was illegal to desex a dog in Norway. Only seven percent of Swedish dogs are desexed (compared with more than 80 percent in the United States). Switzerland has a clause in its Animal Protection Act honoring the ‘dignity of the animal,’ and forbidding any pain, suffering or harm, such as would be incurred by desexing. Yet none of these countries has a problem with excessive stray dogs.

She also cites a litany of studies that show the “health” benefits of routine surgical sterilization might be exaggerated and the risks minimized, to the detriment of dogs. These include the risks of surgical sterilization itself (such as infection), the infliction of pain, and increased cancer rates (as well as rates of urinary incontinence and cruciate disease).

Finally, to the extent that we are unconvinced by her argument and remain committed to sterilization as social policy, she argues that we instead utilize less invasive alternatives:

Injectable sterilants are on the market internationally — including one in the United States — and many are in development. Vasectomy and tubal ligation are options that would reduce birthrates, while keeping hormones intact.

What does Horowitz get wrong? What else does she get right? And where do we go from here?

As we argue in Welcome Home, while investment in spay/neuter is to credit for declining birth rates (and intakes) across the country since the 1970s until the mid-1990s, the notion of “pet overpopulation” was not then and is certainly not now the reason animals are being killed in shelters. Even in the 1970s, alternatives to killing were available. Today, the notion that “there are too many dogs, and the excess must be killed” is not just incorrect; it’s absurd.

Using the most successful shelters as a benchmark and adjusting for population, U.S. shelters combined could be adopting out almost nine million animals a year. That is over four times the number being killed. In fact, it is more than total impounds. And the news gets even better. Every year, as many as 30 million people will add a new dog or cat to their home.

Experience bears his out. Across the country, communities with very high per capita intake rates have ended the killing of healthy and treatable animals in their municipal shelters. These include those taking in tens of thousands of animals every year: over 50 per day; sometimes 100 per day, with placement rates as high as 98%. There are communities taking in over 10 times the per capita intake rate of New York City, the most congested urban area of the United States, with placement rates as high as 99%. And the majority did so in six months or less, before a low-cost sterilization program was put into place. Indeed, many of them achieved ended the killing overnight. One day, these shelters were killing; the next day they weren’t. They took killing off the table and adopted their way to No Kill. That would not have been possible if there were too many animals and not enough homes. (She is also wrong that, “For every one of the 100 dogs you see, 18 healthy dogs will be euthanized in the United States on that day.” In fact, for every 100 dogs in homes, less than one, not necessarily healthy, will be killed.)

By perpetuating the false notion of “pet overpopulation,” Horowitz is unwittingly giving political cover to those regressive shelters who choose not to stop killing animals in lieu of alternatives. In other words, in addition to the animal protection movement’s failure to authentically grapple with the potentially adverse aspect of forced sterilization is the movement’s failure to acknowledge the actual causes of shelter killing: habit and convenience. As the data nationally and hundreds of communities conclusively prove, pound killing is a choice.

Horowitz is also wrong that we are a throwaway culture when it comes to dogs. We used to be. And yes, some people still have that careless mentality. But it is now far from the norm. The vast majority of dogs will never see the inside of a shelter or, for that matter, a dog house. They will spend their days curled up on couches and beds next to people who will always take care of them. Members of the Gen-X and Millennial generations tend to regard their animals as family, keep them for life, integrate them more into their daily routines, and value saving homeless animals, regardless of cost, compared to Silent and Boomer generations. As such, the senior pet is the fastest growing segment of the pet population. This rise in elderly animals means that people are keeping animals longer. It also means that animals are living longer. And that has spawned growth in the field of geriatric veterinary medicine, with specialized care and new treatments to keep them as healthy and as comfortable as possible. In fact, spending on animal companions topped $70 billion for the first time last year, thanks to people who are willing to spend anything and do anything to care for their dogs. “Today more than ever,” notes the latest pet industry spend study, “pet owners view their pets as irreplaceable members of their families and lives, and it’s thanks to this that we continue to see such incredible growth within the pet care community.”

While Horowitz gets these wrong, the irony is that the truth actually supports her point of view that routine surgical sterilization is not necessary to end killing or the key to keeping animals in homes as the animal protection movement has long argued. In other words, the reality of supply-demand and our growing lifetime commitment to dogs, combined with the European experience and the health concerns she cites, would appear to strengthen her position that we need to reevaluate routine sterilization.

Another way of looking at this issue is that the need for routine sterilization continues to exist primarily because kill shelters exist, and that we could eliminate one of the perceived “needs” for surgical sterilization by simply opting to stop shelter killing, which we absolutely can do. Unlike humans vaccinating animals to protect them from potentially deadly diseases beyond our control, sterilization is inflicted on animals by humans to protect them, their offspring, or other dogs from kill shelters. Adjusting our behavior, rather than manipulating their ability to reproduce, is one way to solve this ethical dilemma and it places the burden of change where it should rest: on us.

This goes to her core argument that,

[W]e value convenience, and desexing a dog is convenient for us. Menses is messy: a female dog may urinate in the house and will spread bloody vaginal discharge where she rests and walks; her heat lasts for a few weeks. Even more, we have become skittish about dog sex, when we consider dogs our family members, or even our children. The mere act of mounting or humping is seen as horrifyingly rude, and given its own section in training books (despite the fact that it’s perfectly normal behavior in a dog’s toolbox, especially during social play). We’re happy to ignore the question of whether dogs want to have sex: The question is more likely to induce guffaws than an actual discussion — despite the fact that, as animals like us, many surely do.

(This latter issue should not induce guffaws. As Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist argues, “there is solid evidence for acknowledging that the mother-infant bond is a basic biological drive: mammalian species have evolved strong parental caring behaviors… We have no reason to suppose that this mother-baby bond is any less strong in dog or cats or rats or other mammals than in humans…”)

That said, even though we could end the killing and we could do it today, it would be premature to call for an end to routine sterilization. For one, there are those who challenge the negative health findings she cites, concluding instead that this increased cancer risk may be the result of sterilized dogs living longer and therefore being susceptible to diseases they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to contract. In addition to living longer, studies still show that sterilized animals suffer fewer infections (a leading killer of dogs), such as pyometra or uterine infection, which Horowitz fails to address.

Second, dogs domesticated themselves. To the extent that they are going to partner with humans for food, shelter, medicine, and love, people can insist they not be burdened with offspring they cannot take care of. As one commentator noted, while dogs have the right,

[T]o have their offspring cared for and protected by… society… [they] also have the responsibility to exercise their rights in ways that do not impose unfair or unreasonable costs on others, and that do not create unsustainable burdens on the scheme of cooperation. Where animals do not or cannot self-regulate their reproduction, the costs to others of having to care for and maintain their offspring could become prohibitive.

As such, preventing them from reproducing is “a reasonable element in a larger scheme of cooperation.” Dogs, like humans, are bound by social contracts.

Third, despite our ability to end killing today, we have not. So regardless of why animals are dying, they are dying. In addition to playing an important role when it comes to community cats and dogs who are not social with people and are therefore not considered adoption candidates, to the extent that sterilization results in lower intake rates, the easier it becomes for even unmotivated, uncaring, lazy pound directors to place, rather than kill, the animals in their charge. (It also allows jurisdictions which cannot meet adoption demand to bring in animals still under a pound death threat from other jurisdictions.) In fact, as we write in Welcome Home,

The right to life trumps the right to reproduction and bodily integrity, although [admittedly] the implication — that some rights must necessarily give way for another, especially when such calculations would not withstand the litmus test of the human rights movement — should give every animal rights activist great discomfort.

But regardless of what Horowitz got wrong and got right, her article is a breath of fresh air. If, as Horowitz argues, our primary motivation as a society for embracing a program of widespread sterilization is to make it easy for us to prevent reproduction and if sterilization violates the animal’s right to physical integrity (or at least, as she suggests, is changing dogs in detrimental ways), we must also accept the fact that like all paternalistic actions we take on behalf of dogs who are unable to exercise meaningful agency, we are ethically obligated to act in their best interest by using the least invasive means to the ends, such as vasectomies or tubal ligations. (To the extent, for example, the studies showing increasing risk of cancer and other diseases are right, this would address that issue, too.)

Second, even if we don’t ultimately agree with her assumptions and conclusion, we do agree with her that there is unfair resistance to dialogue regarding the morality of spay/neuter within the animal protection movement; one of the many taboo subjects in a top-heavy environment characterized by fealty to large and wealthy but bureaucratic and risk averse non-profit organizations, as well as fealty to antiquated and ethically problematic dogma that provides political cover for the needless killing to continue. As such, we believe that a discussion which weighs the historical reasons used to justify sterilization against the facts, considers the pros and cons of sterilization against the pros and cons of allowing animals to remain sexually intact, is long overdue. Only by forthrightly acknowledging and addressing this and other establishment dogma, can we come closer to ensuring that the choices we make on behalf of animals and without their consent are the right ones, or, at least, the very best choices given the available evidence.

Horowitz’s article, Dogs are not here for our convenience, is here.

Welcome Home, my book with a chapter devoted to the morality of spay/neuter, is here.

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