We Can’t Fix Human Problems By Fixing Dogs

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February, 2019

“Why are there so many pets in shelters?”

This is a common question local officials and people in animal welfare ask. The answer is often, “there’s a dog overpopulation problem.”  The “solution” to that is almost always mandatory spay/neuter (s/n). Sometimes it’s blanket ordinance put in place for all dogs, other times it’s for dogs with a certain label.

But this isn’t an effective solution, not in the long-term or in the short-term – because the problem (if there even is a ‘problem’) isn’t the dogs. This is a human problem. You can’t fix a human problem by fixing dogs.

We use the term animal welfare to describe what we do. But that’s not what anyone in this field really does – at least it’s not what we should be doing. The number of animals in a shelter isn’t a problem with animals, the problem is in how humans relate to one another and then how humans relate to animals.

If we want to fix the problem of pets in shelters, we must ask the right questions. We must look at the underlying human causes. This means that the answer isn’t a simple as “dogs keep having too much sex.” In fact, there isn’t one answer at all because there isn’t only one problem. There are multiple, complex problems. There is no blanket solution, which why mandatory s/n doesn’t work.

The reasons why dogs end up in shelters is different for every community. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula communities can follow. Officials must look at the individual problems in their communities. Unless the dogs coming into a shelter are puppies, the dogs had a home once upon a time. They had a home and something went wrong in that home. What was it?

While we can’t say what the reasons are for your community, there are some things you should think about:

What Are The Reasons Owners Give for Surrendering Their Dogs?

Get detailed information from people who surrender their dogs. Take stock of those reasons and figure out how to troubleshoot those problems. It’s unlikely that someone will say “well, she’s not fixed, so we can’t keep her.” Housing and access to veterinary care are two of the top reasons why people surrender their dogs to shelters or rehome their dogs. A peer-reviewed study published in the Open Journal of Animal Sciences states:

“For those that rented, housing problems were the number one reason for re-homing. With more people living with pets, access to affordable pet-friendly housing is likely one of the most important solutions to decreasing dog and cat homelessness.”

To quote a previous article of ours:

“Seventy-eight percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Studies say that millions of Americans are one health crisis away from poverty.”

The majority of Americans are already struggling, financially. The possibility of Americans being able to afford to spay or neuter their dogs, plus microchipping them (often added to mandatory spay/neuter laws), is slim. What happens to them if they can’t afford to abide by the laws? Pet owners become criminals.

In places like South Carolina, where a proposed bill requires owners of “pit bull” dogs to sterilize and microchip their dogs, people will be required to pay a $500 registration fee to keep their dog if they do choose not to spay/neuter their pet. Those who can’t afford this outrageous fee will face a misdemeanor charge, along with a fine of $1,000 – and here’s the real kicker, they can also face a year in prison.

That’s right, people who aren’t wealthy (aka the majority of Americans) can face up to a year in prison because they live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford $500 or veterinary care.

What happens to the dogs when people are punished for being poor? Where do you think those dogs end up? In shelters.

Does Your community Have Access to Resources or Know What Resources Are Available?

As an extension of the previous point, accessible veterinary care is an issue for many dog owners. This isn’t only for financial reasons. Rural and urban communities alike, often lack geographically accessible care for their animals.

The aforementioned study on owner surrenders, titled Goodbye to a Good Friend: An Exploration of the Re-Homing of Cats and Dogs in the U.S., found that access to affordable training and behavior services were also a factor in pet relinquishment. It’s not that these dogs aren’t trainable and won’t make good pets, it’s that the owners don’t have and/or can’t afford the help they need to manage what are often relatively simple problems to correct.

A lot of this boils down to access to information. You’ll find people of all income levels surrendering pets to shelters for behavioral issues. This isn’t because they don’t care about their dogs. It’s because they don’t know where to look for effective resources.

Are Basic Ordinances Being Followed and Enforced?

Are leash laws in effect and are they enforced? Dogs who are leashed or contained in a yard are not going to roam the streets looking for a mate.

Some officials claim that they are putting mandatory s/n in place to protect the public. But, this regulation won’t have any impact on whether or not people are injured by dogs . The majority of dog related injuries occur inside the family home and are not a result of free roaming dogs having sex and biting strangers.

If your community has a problem with free-roaming dogs, target the owners who let their dogs run at-large, not the pet owners who keep their dogs safely at home.

Why criminalize dog owners simply because their pets aren’t fixed? If they aren’t letting their dogs run loose, then their dogs aren’t contributing to accidental litters and they are not biting random strangers. It’s a bizarre leap of logic to assume that people who don’t fix their dogs are irresponsible pet owners who let their dogs run wild in the streets.

These Laws Don’t Deter Criminal Activity

As we mentioned, laws targeted toward dogs with the “pit bull” label often aim to prevent dog-fighting. The idea behind this is that the laws will force would-be animal abusers to sterilize their dogs, reducing the number of animals in their fighting rings.

This is illogical. People who fight dogs are animal abusers and have already made the choice to disregard the law. People who fight dogs do so with intent and despite the laws that govern responsible pet ownership. 

If dog fighting is an issue in your community then arrest the dog fighters. It’s a felony in all 50 states. And a felony dog fighting arrest is much better than a misdemeanor testicle arrest. This goes back to enforcing current laws. Is your community investigating reports of animal cruelty like they should be? Are you investigating suspicious puppy listings? Those listings will give you contact information. If those people don’t have a license, then cite them and haul them into court to get answers.

And despite what urban legends say, it is highly unlikely that someone will steal an intact dog from its home, for any purpose.

It’s Up to Individual Dog Owners to Decide What’s Best for Their Pet’s Health

We’ve already established that s/n has no impact on public safety, and we’ve discussed how these problems are human problems… so, as long as a dog is happy, healthy and safely contained, what gives us the right to target particular dog owners if their dogs are not sterilized? ? In fact, it probably doesn’t. If challenged in court, breed-specific mandatory spay/neuter laws could be argued as a violation of due process and void for vagueness.

Sterilizing a dog is a medical decision. Individual dog owners may decide to sterilize their pets after they reach a certain age, or they may decide to not sterilize them at all for a variety of reasons. Neither decision defines them as responsible or not.  As long as they are responsible with their dogs, it’s not anyone else’s problem.

Let’s be clear here, we aren’t anti-spay/neuter. We’re pro responsible dog owners and accessible pet care resources.

Animal Farm Foundation has been a major financial supporter of community-based programs that give pet owners access to the care they want for their pets but cannot afford. From 2011-2018, AFF and its founder have given $1,864,855 to such programs.

We are adamantly against mandatory spay/neuter legislation (breed-specific or otherwise) that criminalizes pet owners who cannot afford to or chose not to sterilize their well cared for and loved pet.

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