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Ready, Set, Spay!: Making Sure Adopted Animals Won't Reproduce

Twenty-five years ago, the essence of animal homelessness could have been summed up in one image: a box of kittens left on the front counter or abandoned on the front steps in the middle of the night. While the issues have broadened considerably, spaying and neutering is as important today as it ever was. 

Twenty-five years ago, the essence of animal homelessness could have been summed up in one image: a box of kittens left on the front counter or abandoned on the front steps in the middle of the night. While the issues have broadened considerably, spaying and neutering is as important today as it ever was. 

© John Arnold

And the Law Won...
With the law on your side, you can gain more credibility for your cause—and more funding

Maybe you've been admiring from afar those dog-training programs that are helping more adopters hold on to their pets. Maybe you're looking into working with the apartment community in your area, hoping to make pet ownership feasible for more renters. Perhaps you already operate an off-site adoption center that helps you promote your animals outside the traditional confines of the shelter.

If you've even begun exploring these concepts, congratulations! Your organization is progressive and forward-thinking. You've examined the studies of relinquishment trends and discovered that behavior and lifestyle issues are often at the top of the list of reasons for surrender. You've looked at the statistics that reveal where people obtain pets and observed that still only a small fraction of pet owners adopt from shelters. And most importantly, you've taken creative steps to address these issues.

But a few questions remain: Are all the animals you're placing guaranteed not to breed? Can you say for certain that no cat or dog leaving your shelter will undertake a random roll in the hay with a neighboring stray and generate five more homeless animals?

If you answered yes, then read no further. But if you think you may have let even a few animals back into the community with their reproductive organs intact, it's never too late to learn how other agencies ensure they are not exacerbating the problem of animal homelessness.

The Kindest Cut of All

Since the 1970s, animal shelters have led the charge in decreasing the sheer numbers of homeless dogs and cats through spay/neuter initiatives such as low-cost clinics, education campaigns, certificate and voucher programs, and partnerships with local veterinarians. National organizations that were once at odds with the humane community over spaying and neutering are now fully behind the procedure; even the breeder-backed American Kennel Club (AKC) touts the behavioral and health benefits of sterilization. And while still controversial, early-age sterilization—or sterilization of cats and dogs as young as eight weeks—has been supported by The HSUS, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the AKC, the Cat Fanciers Association, the American Humane Association, and many state and local veterinary organizations.

The landscape has changed so much that in many regions, animal advocates are beginning to declare victory over the ignorance that used to breed generation after generation of homeless puppies and kittens. Some agencies finally feel comfortable enough to address other major contributors to animal homelessness; influential leaders are throwing their weight behind programs designed to prevent and resolve these problems. The HSUS Pets for Life National Training Center at the Denver Dumb Friends League, sponsored in part by Animal Planet and Frontline, is just one example of how far the movement has come. At workshops for animal care and control professionals from around the country, The HSUS is planting the seeds for a nationwide network of behavior helplines, behavior classes, and support services for pet owners.

But new services and programs to help owners hold on to their animals cannot come at the expense of programs that ensure the sterilization of all animals adopted from shelters. One unsterilized animal has the potential to set off a cycle of breeding that can indirectly generate thousands of litters; shelters cannot afford to let down their guard on the issue of spaying and neutering. To find the time and resources required to address other reasons for relinquishment, shelters must first ensure they are not responsible for allowing adopted animals to reproduce.

© Peter Casella
The landscape has changed so much that in many regions, animal advocates are beginning to declare victory over the ignorance that used to breed generation after generation of homeless puppies and kittens.

Leading by Example

A shelter that emphasizes the importance of spaying and neutering but still sends unsterilized animals back into the community is sending an unfortunate message: "We believe in sterilization, but not enough to do it ourselves." Before you can convince the public of the need for sterilizing their new pets, you must first demonstrate the same commitment. A primary tenet of your agency must be that you do not send animals back into your community to breed.

"That is the one rule that is written in stone," says Bob Oelke, senior animal control officer at Henderson Animal Control in Nevada. "Here, [no animal] goes out of this building who is not spayed or neutered.... By adopting out unneutered animals, we're not resolving our problem of animal overpopulation. We're contributing to it."

That's why the public agency has hired a part-time veterinarian to spay and neuter all its animals prior to adoption. The funds required to provide such a service are offset by adoption fees, which cover not only the adoption but also surgeries and vaccinations. While some agencies initially think sterilization at adoption is beyond their financial means, in the end the investment pays off, says Oelke. "Considering what we charge for the surgeries, I don't think it's really costing the city any more money," he says. "I think it's saving the city a lot of grief because we're not seeing so many litters of puppies and kittens in the spring and fall."

Establishing Zero Tolerance

In communities like Henderson, a rate of zero unsterilized animals adopted from the shelter is now an assumption. It has become one of the core parts of the mission of this public animal care and control agency. But it wasn't always this way.

Just a few years ago, the construction of a new shelter motivated Henderson Animal Control to get serious about spaying and neutering. The agency wanted to be progressive and knew that a sterilization program would be essential to that goal. A veterinarian friendly with the shelter's director was willing to spay and neuter all animals prior to their adoption—and that was all the impetus the agency needed to go before the city council and request approval of higher adoption fees that would help cover the costs of the surgeries, licenses, and rabies vaccinations.

The shelter sent a letter to all other veterinarians in the area, informing them of the plans and asking if anyone else would be interested in assisting with sterilization services. Although no one else responded to the offer, the shelter didn't encounter any resistance, either. "It depends on how you approach it," says Oelke. "We don't do any spays or neuters for the outside. These are strictly for the shelter animals.... When you're doing it for the outside, that's when the veterinarians get upset."

For a few years, the agency transported animals to the clinic, and adopters picked up their new pets after the procedure had been completed. The arrangement was beneficial to everyone, says Oelke. "It was a good practice-builder for the veterinarian because when the clients came in to pick up the animals, then [the veterinarian] had a chance to talk to them about after-care," he says.

© Meri Boyles
One unsterilized animal has the potential to set off a cycle of breeding that can indirectly generate thousands of litters; shelters cannot affort to let down their guard on the issue of spaying and neutering.

Today, that veterinarian still helps provide medical services for injured or sick animals. But the shelter has its own veterinarian for spay/neuter surgeries. "It's just easier to have it all under one roof—the shelter, the veterinarian, everything," Oelke says. "It saves us a lot of time because we're not transporting animals. It gives us better control of the situation. If we spay and neuter an animal and he gets sick, we can treat him here."

Fighting Follow-up Fiascoes

Just as importantly, the shelter does not have to worry about follow-up—often the biggest pitfall of mandatory spay/neuter programs. While Henderson never gave out certificates that adopters could redeem at veterinary clinics for sterilization surgeries, the shelter did, at one time, operate such a program to try to ensure rabies vaccinations. Oelke and his colleagues learned from that experience how tedious and labor-intensive a certificate program can be when resources are limited. "We had very low compliance," he says. "A lot of people will never get [the procedures] done. You've got to have the manpower to go and check, and then to go enforce. ... It's just easier to have it done before the people [take possession of] the animals. That way, there's no question as to whether it was done or not."

Emmanuela "Mandy" Cannistraro, shelter manager of the Cape Cod branch of the Massachusetts SPCA (MSPCA), agrees that programs requiring extensive tracking are hard to run efficiently enough to guarantee 100-percent compliance. Her shelter's spay/neuter program has been through several incarnations; the deposit program was the most difficult for staff. In theory, when adopters give the shelter a monetary deposit that's refundable only after they provide proof that their animals have been sterilized, the potential to get their money back should be sufficient incentive to follow through with the procedure. In practice, however, even pet owners who have had the surgery performed on their newfound friends are often unaware of how important it is to tell the shelter about it. "When we did spay/neuter deposits, it was a follow-up nightmare," says Cannistraro. "You just couldn't track all those people....People would spay and neuter but then [not let you know, thinking they'd] just let you keep the money as a $30 donation. It was a real time-consuming process."

Even when organizations have the law-enforcement authority to seize animals from adoptive owners who have not complied with a spay/neuter contract, they may have little recourse when owners claim that the animal is no longer with them. While agencies such as Williamson County Animal Control in Nashville, Tennessee, have achieved a high compliance rate through strict follow-up procedures, they are unable to track the handful of owners who claim their animals have "run off" or "been hit by a car." "In those cases," says co-director Jan Lowe, "we can never be sure whether the animal is really still living and reproducing."

© Peter Casella
"No animal goes out of this building who is not spayed or neutered.... By adopting out unneutered animals, we're not resolving our problem of animal overpopulation. We're contributing to it."—Bob Oelke

Sending Them Home in Stitches

That's why the sterilization-at-adoption approach is increasingly attractive to shelters trying to stop the revolving door of unsterilized animals going in and out of their facilities. Gaining cooperation from local veterinarians may necessitate your strongest powers of persuasion in the beginning, but the time saved in the end makes it a no-brainer for a growing number of agencies. "It's 100-percent compliance," says Pam Burney, director of Environmental Services for the city of North Richland Hills, Texas. "And it simply eliminated hours and hours of staff time spent following up with adopters."

Like Henderson Animal Control, North Richland Hills found that the support of a single veterinary clinic was enough to get the program off the ground. After finding one veterinarian who was willing to provide sterilization services, Burney sent a letter to other local veterinarians explaining the new program and inviting their participation. Several hospitals agreed to cooperate, with some even offering to perform early-age spay/neuter surgeries, and the program was soon launched. Now Burney's staff delivers animals, accompanied by sterilization vouchers and microchips, to participating veterinary hospitals.

After the animals recover from surgery, adopters pick their new friends up from the shelter. Adopters go home with paperwork from the veterinarian that explains when the pet will be due for his next appointment. "We get a final interaction with the adopters [at the shelter]," says Burney, "but we also begin building that bond between them and their new veterinarians."

Gettin' Veterinary Love

It is this potential for gaining new clients that has sold many veterinarians on the spay/neuter program of the MSPCA's Cape Cod shelter. Most enjoy the program because it helps them attract new patients, who often want to return for routine care. "Veterinarians love animals ... but they're not obligated to help you," Cannistraro says. "You scratch each other's backs and you help each other out, and together you can make a difference for animals. But if you're fighting with each other, you're not going to get anywhere."

© Jodi Frediani
While agencies often believe that sterilization-at-adoption is beyond their financial means, the payoff—100-percent compliance—is too great an opportunity to miss.

One local veterinarian who dislikes the subsidized spay/neuter program still supports the shelter, sometimes even offering free medical services for its animals. And even though he has no interest in having lots of patients come to his own clinic for discounted surgeries, he was one of the first people to volunteer to work at the in-house clinic Cannistraro is building.

In fact, Cannistraro's shelter has already secured the volunteer services of five local veterinarians as well as the donated funds necessary to set up a small clinic in an existing room. When all is said and done, Cannistraro estimates that she will have spent only about $5,000 on the initial setup of the in-house clinic; donations of services and equipment will help her keep the costs to a bare minimum.

Sterilization at—and before—adoption is the ultimate goal of the MSPCA's Cape Cod shelter. But until she can pull everything together and get the clinic up and running, Cannistraro says, the shelter's current voucher system is the "next best thing." Under the voucher system, adopters pay an $85 adoption fee that includes heartworm testing, basic vaccinations, fecal tests and deworming, a collar and tag, a bath, de-flea treatment, nail-clipping, and a voucher for sterilization surgery and a rabies vaccination. "A lot of people at first glance say, 'Oh my gosh, that's so much money.' But when we talk to our clients and say what that includes, they're blown away," says Cannistraro. "You can go out on the street and get a kitten, but if you get shots for her, get her de-fleaed, tested for worms, get her a collar and tag, some food, and get her spayed, when all is said and done, it could be $300 or $400."

At the time of each adoption, shelter employees help adopters select a veterinarian from a designated list, make an appointment for the sterilization surgery and the rabies vaccination, and then send the adopters home with their new pet and a voucher. After the surgeries have been completed, the participating veterinarian sends the voucher back to the shelter and receives $55 in return. If an adopter fails to show up for an appointment, the veterinary clinic alerts the shelter. This helps streamline the follow-up process; the shelter need only call those adopters who have missed their appointments. "It happens very infrequently," says Cannistraro. "Whenever those circumstances have arisen, it's because the animals have become ill."

When an adopter appears reluctant to sterilize an animal, especially if he is, for example, a beautiful, purebred golden retriever whom the new family may be tempted to breed, the shelter takes special precautions. "If people are hesitating and aren't sure, we drive the animal to the clinic," Cannistraro says.

At the Animal Welfare League of Arlington (AWLA) in Virginia, shelter employees use similar tactics for high-risk cases. "For some people, it's a religious thing, so they don't want to be involved in it," says Executive Director Linda Willen. "It's not that they're opposed to having a neutered animal, but they're not going to take that step... so we just take care of it."

A Force to Be Reckoned With

Other adopters of animals from AWLA enter into strict contractual agreements with the shelter, which has cooperative arrangements with 45 area veterinarians. A law mandating sterilization of adopted animals has been on the books in Arlington County for about 20 years, and several years ago, the Virginia legislature passed a statewide law requiring spaying and neutering of all animals adopted from shelters. (To date, 27 states have laws requiring sterilization of animals adopted from shelters, with penalties for noncompliance that range from forfeiture of a deposit to seizure of the animal.)

© Peter Casella
Under a deposit system, even pet owners who have had the surgery performed on their newfound friends are often unaware of how important it is to tell the shelter about it.

Because of these legal requirements, the Animal Welfare League is able to use contractual language that's strong enough to ensure compliance in most cases. "If ever we're in doubt as to whether the adopters are going to do it, we either take the animal before we give her to them and have it done ourselves, or we don't adopt to them," says Willen. "Our application is pretty direct about it. We say on the application that it's a law, that you must do it, and why it's a law. And [we ask them] how they feel about it."

Adopters receive a certificate from the shelter that's redeemable for the surgery, and veterinarians send back the bottom portion upon completion of the procedure. If the shelter does not receive that "receipt," staff members or volunteers send out a reminder letter and, if necessary, contact the adopters by telephone at a later date.

Adopters help cover the costs of the surgeries up front; adoption fees are $90 for a dog, $70 for a cat, and $50 for a rabbit. "If somebody balks at the adoption fee, we tell them most of that goes to neutering," says Willen. "If they happen to be adopting an already spayed or neutered animal, [we tell them] that money just goes to help another animal. You also try to educate them as to the health benefits of spaying and neutering, the reduced cancer risk, and things like that."

The shelter promotes sterilization in its newsletter, in its fundraising, at community events, and over the counter when pet owners relinquish litters. "I think all the shelters in this area push spay/neuter so much all the time that by the time adopters come here, there's not a lot of arguing," Willen says. "They know we're obsessed with it."

© Handy/HSUS
"I trust our counselors to talk to the person and find out what options are available, to find a solution that's going to work for us and for the animal."—Emmanuela "Mandy" Cannistraro

Send in the Lawyers

Even so, if you use a contract, it helps to make its language as strict as possible; a strongly worded contract may be the greatest ally you have in gaining compliance. With the help of an attorney, any shelter can draft a sterilization contract and follow-up paperwork; the contract must be a separate document from your adoption agreement, presented in a way that helps the adopter understand the seriousness of the pact.

One of the keys to a successful sterilization contract lies in gleaning detailed information from adopters. By requiring not only personal contact information but also the contact information of employers, friends, and relatives, shelters can more easily track an adopter who seems to have disappeared. People are used to supplying this information when they sign other binding agreements such as loan applications, so they shouldn't be surprised if your shelter requests it; such a request also emphasizes the serious nature of the agreement.

The contract should clearly designate a date by which the animal must be sterilized. For sexually mature animals (typically six months or older), two weeks to one month may be too long—long enough for some animals to breed. But depending on the volume of patients handled by your participating veterinarians, you may have to consider this a reasonable amount of time. For younger animals, determining the date can be trickier. Although the sheltering community and a growing segment of the veterinary community have embraced the concept of spaying and neutering dogs and cats as young as eight weeks old, veterinarians in many communities may not yet offer the service.

"Flexibility is the key," says Cannistraro. "Sometimes animals can't be spayed or neutered at the time of adoption." Animals may have developed an infection just after the adoption, or the adopter's veterinarian may be opposed to spaying and neutering at eight weeks—but willing to perform the procedure once the animal has reached four months.

© Cris M. Kelly
"I think all the shelters in this area push spay/neuter so much all the time that by the time adopters come here, there's not a lot of arguing. They know we're obsessed with it."—Linda Willen

"I'm not worried about a puppy that I adopt out today to a person who has had two dogs in the last 30 years and has seen the vet for every little sniffle," she says. "I'm not going to say [to that person], 'Oh no, you can't have this puppy.' ... I trust our counselors to talk to the person and find out what options are available, to find a solution that's going to work for us and for the animal."

In areas where sterilization is required under state law or municipal ordinance, shelters may be able to take legal action against adopters who consciously decide not to honor an agreement. Civil action can require a substantial amount of time, expense, and effort on the part of the shelter. But this is when your contract will prove most helpful; it should include a variety of options for action, including forfeiture of the animal, enforced sterilization of the animal (in those cases in which the home is otherwise a suitable one), and reimbursement to your agency for the costs associated with civil action.

A "liquidated damages clause" can help you establish the amount of damages to be awarded as the result of a breach of contract. If the amount of liquidated damages reasonably reflects actual or anticipated damages in such cases—for example, the costs of locating, recovering, and sterilizing the animal—then the courts are more likely to enforce the clause. An attorney familiar with the use of liquidated damages clauses in your state can assist your agency in drafting a sterilization contract.

Although you should always be willing to pursue civil action against an adopter for noncompliance, it's not wise to employ the option unnecessarily, says Kate Pullen, director of Animal Sheltering Issues for The HSUS and the former executive director of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Virginia. Taking your case to court can backfire if you lose, setting a bad precedent for future cases. "If you can find another way to reach a satisfactory outcome for that animal and his adopter," Pullen says, "jump on it."

Putting those creative juices to work is what sheltering is all about; ingenuity has been the hallmark of the animal care and control field for the last three decades. Although it may be tempting to apply that entrepreneurial spirit solely to the programs of the future, it's important not to do so at the expense of the programs that are at the foundation of our cause. Shelters with great community services—behavior training, pet-parenting classes, and outreach partnerships—must have at their core an effective sterilization program. While working to keep animals in responsible homes, we must also work to keep them from reproducing—so we can accomplish what we've been after since the beginning: pets with loving families and no homeless offspring.

 

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