Attitudes Towards Spay / Neuter In The U.S.
It is estimated that about 1.5 million companion animals are euthanized in shelters each year as a result of overpopulation. Though this number is devastating, it used to be much higher. Estimates suggest that in the early 1970’s for every 1,000 cats and dogs, anywhere from 64 to 115 were euthanized. To curb these high rates of euthanasia, advocates began pushing for increased use of spay and neuter. Using widespread spay/neuter to curb companion animal overpopulation was a novel idea at the time. However, as communities began to support the idea it became more commonplace. Los Angelese led the charge, opening a low cost spay/neuter clinic in 1971, and promoted the procedure by charging more to license unsterilized cats and dogs.
A focus on public education about spay/neuter began and continued through the 1970’s. Famously, Bob Barker became a part of these efforts in 1979 when he began signing off on his television show The Price is Right with: “Help control the pet population, have your pets spayed or neutered.”
He continued to do this at the end of every show for three decades.
These efforts were successful and spay/neuter became a more routine practice throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Throughout this time, cost has remained one of the greatest barriers for guardians to access veterinary care. To address this need, advocates have worked tirelessly to develop and secure grants and donations to subsidize these surgeries and establish low-cost and mobile spay/neuter clinics in communities around the country.
All these efforts have had a significant impact and euthanasia rates in shelters have dropped by an estimated 90% since the 1970’s.
While that number of animals being euthanized in shelters today is much lower than it was 60 years ago, 1.5 million is still a huge number of animals being killed and animal advocates continue to work hard on this issue. Some are turning their efforts to working with state and local governments to develop legislative measures that will support spay/neuter in their communities. These community-level measures are varied. Some aim to create state and local laws or ordinances mandating spay/neuter at some level while others advocate for adding taxes to pet food or finding other public ways to fund spay/neuter programs.
There are currently no state laws requiring that all cats and dogs are spayed/neutered. However, according to statistics kept by PETA, 26 U.S. states currently have laws requiring that all cats and dogs adopted from animal shelters must be spayed or neutered and 78 towns have passed ordinances requiring spay/neuter or placing restrictions on breeding.
These measures are not widespread and are not without controversy. For example, though animal advocates have promoted mandatory spay/neuter laws in a number of communities, both the HSUS and ASPCA feel that state laws are often an ineffective route to increasing spay/neuter. However, HSUS does advocate for legislation that can increase funding for spay/neuter services. Similarly, there is evidence that shelters that spay/neuter animals before adopting them out have lower future intake rates, and these measures enjoy more support among advocates. Regardless of the type of legislative measures advocates support in their communities, this tactic is becoming more widespread—23 states introduced some type of spay/neuter legislations between 2017-2019.
In order for these efforts to be successful, community support is needed. Most of what we know about people’s attitudes toward spay/neuter comes from research that asks guardians of companion animals about their attitudes and behaviors regarding the practice. While that is important, it is also important to know how the general public (including those without companion animals) feels about the practice. This is because support for passing legislation to fund or require spay/neuter will need to be supported by a majority of community members if they are going to pass.
I recently conducted an online survey of U.S. adults that I hope can shed some light on how the general public feels about spaying and neutering cats and dogs. Respondents were recruited to be representative of the broader US population in terms of age, gender, race, and education. Quotas were also set to ensure respondents were split evenly between urban and rural areas, since relationships with animals vary in these contexts. The final survey included responses from 991 US adults. A majority of the respondents (67%) had companion animals, which is slightly higher than the general US population.
Here are a few findings from this study that might be particularly helpful to animal advocates who are working on legislative efforts in support of spaying and neutering:
People Support Spay/Neuter
The most encouraging finding of the survey is that people generally support spay and neuter:
- 81% of survey respondents agreed that spay/neuter is important to control pet overpopulation
- 74% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that spaying/neutering “is the right thing to do.”
This means that continuing to advocate for this method of reducing cat and dog overpopulation can be successful if animal advocates remain strategic. In the 1970’s, the idea that you could reduce euthanasia rates to almost zero through interventions like spay and neuter seemed controversial (and maybe even laughable) to many people. However, today this is a real possibility. Due to the efforts of animal advocates, people know about the role of spay and neuter, believe it is safe, and see it as playing an important role in our communities. The question now becomes, how can animal advocates continue to promote spay and neuter successfully and strategically?
It’s Important To Continue Public Education
Though the public health campaigns about spay and neuter in the latter part of the 20th century were successful, younger generations may need to hear that messaging again. Consider these findings:
- Millennials (age 18-34) were less likely than Baby Boomers (age 55+) to believe that spay/neuter was “the right thing to do.”
- Millennials (age 18-34) were less likely than Baby Boomers (age 55+) to believe that spay/neuter is an important tool for controlling pet overpopulation.
Advocates may want to consider the broader community, not just guardians, to be the target of spay/neuter education campaigns. Consider these findings:
- Animal guardians were more likely than those without companion animals to believe that spay/neuter was “the right thing to do.”
- Animal guardians were more likely than those without companion animals to agree that spay/neuter is an important tool for controlling pet overpopulation.
Messaging about spay/neuter often targets guardians when they are adopting companion animals or receiving veterinary services. However, for legislative measures to be successful the broader community will need to support spay/neuter as well. Therefore, messaging should be targeted more widely and include the positive impacts that sterilization can have for the greater community.
Finally, animal advocates should consider how to continue and increase education and messaging about the availability of low-cost spay and neuter clinics.
- Half (52%) of the survey respondents felt that these surgeries were expensive.
This suggests some people may not be aware of low-cost options that are available in many communities.
There Is Not Much Support For Legal Intervention
Most people who took the survey were mixed about whether they thought that there should be laws requiring the spay/neuter:
- 71% of respondents felt it should be up to an animal’s guardian if animals are spayed/neutered.
- Only 38% of respondents agreed that requiring laws to enforce spay/neuter was a good idea, while 26% were “unsure.”
Does this mean that legislative efforts to require or support spay/neuter should be avoided? I don’t think so. But it does suggest legislative efforts to support subsidizing spay and neuter might gain more traction than mandatory spay/neuter laws. It also means that messaging about spay/neuter might need to change. Spay and neuter campaigns have generally focused on animal guardians—encouraging personal responsibility to spay/neuter companion animals. New legislative efforts, however, will need people to start viewing this as a community-level issue, rather than merely as a personal choice. As new legislative measures are being developed, there will need to be outreach into the community about the importance of spay-neuter for the entire community, and the positive impact that these laws can have.
Reducing companion animal overpopulation will remain an important area of focus for animal advocates until euthanasia rates are lowered even further. This work has to continue from many angles–improving or finding methods of sterilization, convincing guardians to adopt from shelters, restricting breeding, and continuing to support and increase spay/neuter. Moving forward, advocates must continue to consider the most strategic ways to accomplish goals. So far the work being done by animal advocates has had a major impact and millions of animals are spared from euthanasia each year. Thanks to all of you on the front lines–keep up the great work!