World Spay Day — marked on the last Tuesday in February — is an international effort started by the Doris Day Animal League to encourage the sterilization of dogs and cats.
It is an effort that is supported by animal advocates such as the Humane Society International and celebrities such as Katherine Heigl, Josh Kelley and Lily Tomlin. And of course Bob Barker, who ended the The Price Is Right with the phrase: “This is Bob Barker reminding you to help control the pet population — have your pets spayed or neutered.”
As a researcher studying meaning and well-being, especially in later life, I have found that the human-animal bond crops up repeatedly as an essential element of quality of life. Recently I wrote about how, for many people around the world, pets are family members, who actually contribute to our health and well-being.
Read more: When pets are family, the benefits extend into society
Sterilization and population control
We are horrified by stories of dogs and cats abandoned and unwanted, living on the streets, abused or killed in shelters that just don’t have room for them all. But there is a simple fix for this problem: sterilizing puppies and kittens before they are old enough to have babies themselves.
Spaying or neutering not only prevents unwanted puppies and kittens, it also decreases undesirable behaviours like aggression and marking indoors. In fact, spaying or neutering our pets increases the likelihood that we will keep them. Multiple studies have shown that unsterilized pets are more likely to be abandoned at shelters than those who were “fixed.”
For both cats and dogs, sterilization also reduces the likelihood of testicular, ovarian, uterine and/or mammary cancers and increases life expectancy.
Sterilization to reduce animal suffering
Spaying and neutering dogs and cats is an effective way to prevent the miserable life unwanted animals face, including starvation, abuse and suffering. Many animal welfare organizations, including the Soi Dog Foundation, the Nova Scotia SPCA and Chiots Nordiques, employ pediatric sterilization, (spaying/neutering puppies and kittens under four months old) to manage overpopulation and/or prevent unwanted litters post-adoption.
In Thailand, John and Gill Dalley co-founded Soi Dog Foundation to respond to the plight of street dogs, living what they describe as short, misery-filled lives on the streets. Part of their strategy is to sterilize street dogs, as research shows that spaying or neutering decreases the birth rate and increases the average lifespan of the animals which, in turn, assists in promoting public health and animal welfare.
In Phuket, the Soi Dog Foundation has successfully sterilized over 80 per cent of street dogs. In Greater Bangkok, six mobile sterilization teams are spaying and neutering as many of the estimated 640,000 free-roaming dogs as possible. However, John Dalley pointed out that “until we can get people to stop buying commercially bred puppies and adopt instead, there will always be a problem.”
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) programs are a humane way to manage populations of feral animals. For example, the Nova Scotia SPCA has been combating an overpopulation of feral cats using mobile sterilization clinics paired with the adoption of sociable cats and kittens. In 2018, they completed 7,330 spay/neuter surgeries, and many of these were on puppies or kittens as young as eight weeks old. They also sterilize all animals from their shelters prior to adoption. Consistent with other programs using TNR, the NS SPCA has seen a noticeable decline in the number of feral and abandoned cats and kittens.
Based in Quebec, Chiots Nordiques addresses the high turnover rate of stray dogs in Indigenous communities. A dog population with a high turnover rate has high birth and mortality rates, with each dog having, on average, a relatively short lifespan. The high mortality rate implies high rates of illness and low quality of life.
Chiots Nordiques goes into communities and holds three- to four-day sterilization and vaccination clinics, spaying or neutering 50 to 60 dogs per day. In 2018, they sterilized approximately 500 dogs, about 200 of whom were puppies. By sterilizing these dogs, they help manage the dog population without resorting to culls, where large numbers of dogs are shot and killed.
Traditionally, sterilization is done around six to nine months, or older. However, decades of research suggest many animals can be sterilized at a much younger age. Research shows no difference in terms of most behavioural and medical conditions between early-age and traditional-age sterilization of dogs and cats. Some research suggests that cats and male dogs of many breeds can be sterilized as early as six to eight weeks for population control.
Given that there are breed-specific concerns with regard to when to spay or neuter, pet owners should consult their veterinarian, since for some dog breeds sterilization at four to five months of age or older may be better for their long-term health. For female dogs, sterilization is generally recommended after three months and before the dog’s first “heat” (estrous cycle), after which there is a higher risk of cancer as well as unplanned litters.
Sterilization does not affect pets’ intelligence or ability to learn, play, work or hunt. It can help protect against some serious health problems, as well as reduce many of the behavioural problems associated with the mating instinct. And, sterilization is associated with longer life spans.
Around the world, animal rescue and protection organizations are actively working to manage the overpopulation of street and feral cats and dogs humanely. But they will not succeed unless pet “parents” do their part and spay or neuter their animals.
Choosing to spay or neuter our pets is the best way to prevent overpopulation — and the associated suffering among these animals who collectively contribute so much to human well-being.