There are literally millions of unwanted pets in this country. The number is staggering, and so are the problems they create. Stray animals spread disease, bite people, attack livestock and pets, and cause traffic accidents.
Overwhelmed by the number of animals showing up in their shelters, most communities until recently had only one response: give the animals a few days of care and a humane death. National figures are impossible to come by, but no estimates are below three or four million euthanized animals each year.
That's changing now. Spurred by animal shelter workers sickened by their jobs, shelters and local governments are turning their attention to the root of the problem: the surplus of unwanted animals caused by owners who let their animals breed. There are several ways to attack the problem: neutering of animals adopted from shelters or rescue organizations, low-cost spay and neuter clinics, education programs, and mandatory spay-neuter laws.
All these efforts have already increased the rate of spaying and neutering, leading to a steady, long-term decline in the number of dogs and cats that must be euthanized each year.
Especially as adopting a rescue animal has become the first choice of many people looking for a new pet, the shelters' and rescue groups' practice of altering all animals that they release for adoption has had an effect. for public shelters, it's the law in most states. If the animal hasn't been sterilized before it's released for adoption, the new owner may have to sign an agreement to get the animal sterilized and to put down a deposit (around $50), which can be reclaimed only with evidence that the animal has been spayed or neutered. Low-cost sterilization is now also available in many cities.
A much more far-reaching (and controversial) policy is mandatory spaying or neutering of all pets unless the owner acquires a special permit. So far, this approach has been tried in only a few places. Denver, Colorado, requires dogs over six months old to be sterilized unless their owners buy a permit each year. Fort Wayne, Indiana, requires a breeder's permit for anyone who intentionally or accidentally causes the breeding of a dog or cat. In San Mateo County, California, the County Board of Supervisors, pressed by Humane Society staff—who put to death up to 10,000 animals every year—declared that such large-scale euthanasia was not a cost-effective, acceptable, or ethical solution to the problem of pet overpopulation.
The San Mateo law requires all dogs and cats over six months old to be spayed or neutered unless the owner buys a permit allowing an animal to be kept unaltered. Before an "unaltered animal" permit is issued, the owner must sign a statement promising that the animal will not be allowed to breed until a breeding permit is issued. Violators can be fined $100 for a first offense, and up to $500 for subsequent offenses. The county reports that the law, which went into effect in 1996, resulted in a significant drop in the number of incoming homeless animals. Groups opposed to mandatory spay-neuter laws, however, point out that some cities have experienced a decline in pet licensing after enacting such laws, apparently because owners don't want to pay the higher fee for breeding animals. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals doesn't support the laws, saying that it isn't aware of evidence that the laws have significantly reduced euthanasia rates.