The hidden costs of pet overpopulation make the expansion of affordable spay/neuter services into an ethical and financial imperative. Sadly it is still lagging throughout much of the U.S.
In poverty, people and the companion animals around them suffer together. It's a tragedy intertwined between dogs and cats and the people they depend on for their basic care. The lack of resources in poor communities is easily ignored, yet like other issues facing low-income communities, overlooking the impact of pet overpopulation has social, ethical and financial implications.
In the U.S. animal control costs are estimated at $2 billion a year or around $6 per person. The majority of animals entering shelters, especially litters, come from low-income communities. Additionally, poor pet care habits are tied to an excessive number of dog bites, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects low-income communities as well, adding another estimated billion dollars each year (in 2011, insurance companies paid $479 million for dog bite claims) or roughly another $3 per person. Nine dollars per person is spent annually to address largely preventable problems.
It's complicated and sad; neither the animals nor the taxpayers come out ahead. Although statistics point overwhelmingly to the need to expand spay/neuter programs and mandate their use, public dollars for prevention based spay/neuter programs do not equal even 50 cents per person and mandatory spay/neuter remains controversial.
Addressing the issue of too many dogs and cats in poor communities is not simple; overall access to convenient, affordable spay/neuter services is disparate with some states having only a very few accessible, affordable programs to serve the state, and some statewide programs that do exist lack the funds to operate effectively. Additionally shelters that respond to homeless animals are generally operated by municipalities at taxpayer expense; spay/neuter programs that prevent unwanted litters usually are not; these services are opened by nonprofit organizations one at a time, and due to local costs (rent, etc.), some must charge rates that are out of range for many low-income homes to pay.
A 2009 study noted that annual family income was the strongest predictor of whether cats in the home were neutered. The household income that delineated the difference in pet care habits was $35,000 per year. The fact that poverty affects the animals in the home is also a matter of common sense.
"Affordable and accessible" means different things to different people. In the absence of a program to ensure affordability, those who live at minimum wage struggle to have a pet spayed or neutered.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour; this is roughly $15,000 per year, or around $53 per day after taxes. Additionally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that in 2011 roughly 2.2 million hourly workers earned below the minimum wage. Almost 25 percent of U.S. households earn under $25,000 per year, with close to 40 percent under $35,000 per year. Additionally, according to the Social Security Administration the average person on disability receives a benefit of $710 per month. In November 2012, 8,241,018 individuals received disability payments at an average of $518.80 per person.
Spending over a days' earnings to spay the pet, driving hours to get to a spay/neuter program or waiting weeks to use an intermittent program places responsible pet care out of reach for low-income homes.
Stray, mangy dogs turning over trash cans to find food are a rarity in wealthy communities in the U.S.; they exist in communities in which the very fiber of people's lives are also at risk. As a local resident of the low-income community, the financially at-risk person is often the one who reaches out to assist the at-risk pet. Indeed intake forms from thousands of surgeries performed at low-income spay/neuter programs in different parts of the U.S. reveal that over half of low-income homes "obtained" their pet by feeding or caring for a stray. Everyone's life was fragile when the partnership started and without being able to take the first basic step in responsible pet care, it is unlikely that the newfound friendship will be a stable one. For a female dog or cat, the ability to be spayed may provide the only possibility for remaining in the home.
Not being neutered and remaining on a chain are tied to aggression and territorial behavior in male animals. Guarding litters is one of the top reasons for bites from female dogs. The failure to have pets spayed or neutered, combined with confining pets by a chain, statistically increase the likelihood of the pet facing neglect (including social neglect), producing an unwanted litter, or being involved in a dog bite incident.
Neglect, unwanted litters and dog bites are inextricably tied to an inability to access basic services that include spay/neuter. These issues are tragic, they overwhelmingly affect low-income communities and in large part, they are preventable through good pet care habits. These habits don't just come about, they require adjusting our thinking and embracing a prevention based model.
An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the U.S. each year. Of these around 800,000 Americans seek medical attention; around 386,000 of those require treatment in an emergency room at an average of about $5,000 each; approximately 16 bite victims will die each year. Intact male dogs are involved in 76 percent of cases and importantly, 25 percent of cases involve dogs that are kept on chains. While a complex set of circumstances are involved when a person is killed by dogs, approximately 92 percent of fatal dog attacks involve male dogs, 94 percent of which are not neutered at the time of the attack. Chaining as a means of confinement is significantly overrepresented in fatal attacks as well.
Remaining intact and chained to a dog house or tree (and not socialized) is a very poor life for a dog. It's a lifestyle that often deteriorates into chronic neglect that also creates a danger for the community. This entire picture is over represented in low-income communities. The habits can be addressed through minimal resources; the outcomes are, to a large degree, preventable, and indeed worth preventing.
Getting to the heart of an overpopulation issue that exploded in the news when a fatality occurred, in January 2006, San Francisco passed a mandatory pit bull sterilization ordinance. At the time pit bulls filled three quarters of the shelter. Eighteen months after the passage of the ordinance, pit bull impoundments declined by 21 percent; shelter occupancy rates fell and pit bulls euthanized dropped by 24 percent. A 2010 report noted that bites had significantly decreased as well. A spay/neuter ordinance accomplished what adoption efforts had not. Former Animal Care and Control Director Carl Friedman said, "Fewer pit bulls are being abandoned to the pound because fewer are being born, thanks to the spay and neuter requirement." At the time he added, "I wouldn't bet the house it's all because of the ordinance, but nothing else has really changed."
In 2007 the City of Lawton, Okla., passed an ordinance mandating that pets be spayed or neutered, or that the owner purchase a breeders permit. The ordinance also outlaws tethering. City of Lawton Animal Welfare Superintendent Rose Wilson lobbied heavily for the ordinance which has saved thousands of lives. Wilson said, "If you want to breed animals you must buy a permit and treat it as a business." She acknowledged that a bit of money is saved by reducing the numbers, but the biggest outcome is in the lives that are spared. The city has gone from euthanizing 1283 of adoptable pets in 2006, to 49 in 2012. The city shelter receives unwanted animals that are turned in by individuals from surrounding towns that are not covered under the ordinance, and Wilson would like to see Fort Sill Military Base mandate responsible pet care since many animals are abandoned when residents of the base move on. When she was 12 years old, Lawson found a dog that was huddled in tall grass in a field near her home. It was snowing out and she brought the dog home. She said, "Then I grew up and realized that dog is everywhere. The problem remains the numbers that are born." She said, "Limiting intakes to certain localities, or closing our doors to the pets to make numbers look like they're going down, is the wrong thing to do. If we can save endangered species through action that is across international borders, we can stop the number of pets being born right here."
Considering the costs of responding to the failure to have dogs and cats spayed and neutered, and the fact that these programs are effective when reaching the homes that produce the majority of unwanted litters, it is time to start the discussion of publicly operated and/or supported programs that make spay/neuter services affordable and accessible for low-income homes to use. Many effective and financially self-sustaining models, including partnerships with private practitioners, exist. It is humane and it is cost-effective.
Mandatory spay/neuter and anti-tethering ordinances support humane initiatives while supporting public health and safety. Most homes pay a portion of the cost of spaying their pet; it is arguably one of the few times in which an at-risk animal is not a taxpayer burden. It is time to prevent tragedies instead of reacting to them.