Mandatory spay and neuter laws are all the rage across the U.S. As with breed bans, legislators are hoping that laws might be a great antidote to the depressing and expensive problem pets sometimes pose.  

But this time it’s not about potentially menacing breeds and the public health risk some individual dogs pose, it’s about the ability of pets to reproduce with wild abandon. In so doing, pets overpopulate our shelters and lead, inevitably, to major animal welfare issues our current policies are unable to alleviate. 

If we would only legislate mandatory sterilization, some animal welfare proponents and frustrated legislators posit, the pet overpopulation problem could be solved in just a few years. 

Unlike breed bans, this one’s a great idea––in theory, anyway––but one that ultimately proves too complex to actually solve entirely. After all, it requires public compliance, enforceability and veterinary support; three major areas in which these laws are found lacking. 

Unfortunately, it’s also the case that these laws, by and large, require that pets are spayed and neutered at four months of age––another sticking point if you ask most vets. Because, in the case of dogs, not all of us agree on when spaying and neutering should ideally take place. Is it six months for all? Or is it older for athletes, show pets, working dogs or dogs with specific health concerns? 

Even if it weren’t for the questionable enforceability of laws like this, veterinarians wouldn’t like them. They take the medical decision-making out of our hands and put it in the hands of clueless legislators. These laws may mean fewer pets will pass through our doors seeking medical care if pet owners begin to see us as the de facto spay/neuter police. Not a good thing, we say. 

In my view, it’s the disease of short-sighted animal welfare advocacy that's at the root of this increasingly widespread legislation boom––one which pits veterinarians, breeders, and independent-minded animal welfarists against those who would advocate population control over the individual needs of our pets.

No longer would the decision of your pet’s spay/neuter status be one made individually or with consideration of your veterinarian’s specific advice. No, it’ll be a decision left to state legislators and county officials like mine––most of whom I can only hope are good ol’ boys whose huntin’ dogs’ testicles are as precious to them as any gemstone of their exact proportions. That way, at least, they’d vote against such laws.

Ultimately, my entire position on this subject can be boiled down to a few points made by veterinary medicine’s leading reproduction-oriented organization. Enjoy. 

1. The American College of Theriogenologists (ACT) and The Society for Theriogenology (SFT) believe that companion animals who are not intended for breeding should be neutered.

2. In these message points, the term "neutering" will be used to refer to both the spaying of female pets (ovariohysterectomy) and the neutering of male pets (castration).

3. Both groups also believe that the decision to spay or neuter is a decision that the pet owner and veterinarian should make on a case by case basis. In general, mandatory spay/neuter laws are not in the best interest of the pet or the owner.

4. The benefits of neutering are well documented and include population control, decreased roaming, decreased aggression and decreased risks of mammary, ovarian, or testicular cancers.

a) As an example, spayed female pets are unlikely to develop mammary cancer, a common small animal neoplasia.  This cancer is malignant 60 percent of the time in dogs and 90 percent of the time in cats.

5. Less well known are the disadvantages of neutering surgeries. They include increased risk of obesity, diabetes, increased risk of certain cancers, endocrine disorders, and even increased incidence of hip dysplasia.

a) Other research has shown that intact cats of both sexes experience a decrease in shyness when compared to neutered cats.
b) Additionally, there appears to be a decreased incidence of cognitive dysfunction in intact dogs of both sexes.

6. Mandatory spay/neuter programs (MSN), while well intentioned, are often responsible for decreases in licensing of animals and routine vaccinations in areas where MSN has been implemented.

7. Owners of intact animals are less likely to seek veterinary assistance because of a fear of being reported to local authorities or a fear of fines associated with their intact animal.

8. If owners avoid veterinary care, public health could be at risk due to decreased rabies vaccinations and routine prophylactic de-worming of our pets.

9. Some pets may possess medical conditions that could result in complications during anesthesia or surgery. Therefore, a mandate of spaying or neutering, especially at a specific age, is not in the best interest of the pet.

10. The pet overpopulation problem will not be resolved by mandating obligatory neutering of our pets. The problem is multi-factorial and must be attacked on a variety of levels.

a) Countries in the European Union where neutering is illegal do not have significant pet overpopulation problems.

11. Most pets in the U.S. are relinquished because of behavioral issues or economic/life changing conditions of the owner.

a) Accurate data on numbers of relinquished dogs and cats is essential to enable humane organizations and governments to help resolve reasons why pets are relinquished and/or abandoned.

That’s my a nutshell. What’s yours?

Dr. Patty Khuly