Why Won’t People Neuter?

For some time now I’ve been meaning to write about why, for decades, rescues have been recommending adopting from rescues and neutering, rather than breeding; and why it sometimes seems like we’re making very little headway.

Sinead O’Connor’s facebook announcement that she’s going to breed her cat once before neutering has prompted me to finally do so. Sinead’s announcement reflects one of the ten worst excuses for not neutering – virtually the entire pet overpopulation problem stems from this archaic ‘just one litter’ mentality.

There’s so much to say on this topic it’s going to take me a few articles! I’ll start by reiterating the overarching problem and the obvious solutions, and introduce some of the problems involved in changing this mentality, focussing on the problem of current animal philosophies.

The Problem: Overpopulation

Thousands of healthy cats and dogs are killed every year in Ireland. An average of ten dogs were killed every day in Irish pounds in 2013, and it’s estimated that 180,000 kittens die every year in Ireland – that’s just kittens and doesn’t include adult cats.

Basically, there are too many companions and not enough homes.

The Solutions: Adopt & Neuter

It’s simple! If all the companion animals in Ireland were spayed (female) or neutered (male), in next to no-time there would be no overpopulation problem, unwanted animals could easily find homes and kill rates would drop to next to nothing, if not nothing. In the meantime, if everyone adopted from a rescue or pound, rather than from a breeder, there would be no need for kill-shelters. Once there is no problem, responsible breeding could be reintroduced.

But, sadly, it’s not going to be that simple while we live in the unthinking, capitalist society that is Ireland, where non-human animals (and some human animals!) are seen as disposable products in one way or another.

The Issues

There are so many issues around the recommendation to neuter it’s difficult to know where to start. And the complexity of the issues can make it difficult for the public to understand the whole story.

Overpopulation is the basic problem that rescues are trying to address – too many companion animals, not enough homes. But there are loads of side issues that impact on the arguments to neuter and spay, including: species, breeds and genetic issues, other health issues, ‘irresponsible breeders’, animal welfare & rights stances, legislation, enforcement of legislation, animal cruelty, kill shelters, capitalism, working vs companion animals, and our neutering slogans and messages themselves.

Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights

Let’s start with our individual philosophies – central to how we care for our companions:

Few people think about where they stand on the animal rights/animal welfare spectrum. Animal Rightists see non-human animals as unique individuals with a right-to-life, same as human animals. Animal Welfarists see non-human animals as products, whose use by humans is fine, so long as they are treated and killed humanely. Most of us lie somewhere inbetween. (See here for more information if you’re unsure.) And, of course, many people couldn’t care less about animals’ welfare, some thinking nothing of neglecting them and treating them cruelly.

Where we sit on the welfare/rights spectrum will input to our view of the overpopulation issue. Here’s some examples of the different views:

Issue

Animal Welfare

Middle of the Road

Animal Rights

Overpopulation A necessary evil. Overbreeding and killing is acceptable so long as it is done humanely. Some breeding is okay, as is some killing. Inhumane, not acceptable.
Kill Shelters Absolutely necessary to control the companion animal population. Some killing is okay, but not too much. Killing companion animals for human convenience is unacceptable.
Neuter/Spaying A useful tool for population control. Most companions should be neutered for population control. I may consider my own animal differently because she’s special. A necessary tool for population control. Though note it could be seen as interfering with an animal’s rights.
Companion Guardianship You mean pet ownership? No problems with that! Surely I own my companion? But she’s not just a pet, she’s part of the family, so companion is the right word. Yup! Companions aren’t owned, they’re free individuals, under our guardianship. But we might question human’s use of animals as pets at all.
Puppy Farms Responsible, humane puppy farms are fine. If the five freedoms are not met then those responsible should be fined/punished/shut down. Puppy farms are wrong. Puppy farms are evil.
Responsible Breeding same as Puppy Farms Responsible, humane breeding on a small scale is fine, especially if the animal is particularly cute. There’s no such thing as responsible breeding while overpopulation is a problem. Don’t breed.
Just one litter same as Puppy Farms same as Responsible Breeding same as Responsible Breeding
Adoption Adopting from puppy farms, breeders, friends and rescues are equally valid options. Adopting from ‘responsible’ breeders, friends and rescues are valid options. Adopt a companion from a rescue or the pound. Nothing else is acceptable.

So it’s clear neutering as central to resolving overpopulation is only an issue for people leaning towards the animal rights end of the spectrum. And we’ve no trouble persuading animal rightists to neuter for the most part. However, someone who is concerned simply about animal welfare will be quite happy with the overpopulation problem being dealt with by killing the overflow.

Perhaps it’s only the MoR guardians that can be persuaded further. Many falling into this category won’t even be aware of their contradictory views – they’re a very diverse group. Many of them may agree with the arguments for neutering put forward by rescues. Pure animal welfarites never will.

I don’t know the Irish stats but, if I were to guess I’d say of the entire population, not all of whom are companion guardians: 5% animal rights; 15% MoR; 30% animal welfare; 45% don’t care; 5% actively cruel. Which would suggest that 95% of the population are okay, at least to some extent, with killing as a method of population control. Wow! (If anyone has more accurate stats, I’d love to hear from you!)

However, this percentage will vary depending on the species and breeds we are addressing.

Species

Overpopulation is a bigger problem for some species than others. Horses, cats and dogs are all highlighted in campaigns; smaller animals less so; and the overpopulation and needless death among farm animals and wildlife only really comes up in environmental and animal rights arguments.

People’s preference and feelings about different species will affect their response to pleas for neutering. Some will understand the argument for cats but not dogs, others for dogs but not horses.

Breeds

Similarly, overpopulation and public preference differs amongst breeds within species. Breed Specific Legislation (BSL), archaic laws intended for specific dog breeds, highlights this more than anything else. Where some might be happy to breed their pedigree golden retriever, they may recommend neutering a pit bull. Without awareness of the contradiction, they may also object to an unwanted retriever being killed by the pound, while having no problem with a pit bull in a similar situation.

But, for dogs, without papers their breed is completely open to question – unless you conduct DNA tests on each dog, it’s virtually impossible to correctly identify the breed. So how can people begin to make decisions on breed alone?

Find out more about BSL and breed identification here.

Summary

I’ve given you an introduction to the reasons why companion animal neutering isn’t common practice in Ireland today, despite the decades of pleas from those of us volunteering and working in animal welfare.

Primarily, the message is ignored because most people, at least passively, are okay with killing companions as a way of population control. For those who are not, prejudice about different species and breeds, combined with a lack of understanding the complexity of the issues, contributes to their decision making. The rescuers are the ones making the pleas, because we’re the ones who see the end result – see the Gallery at the end for some examples.

Future articles will look at the different breeding excuses, and other reasons the message doesn’t seem to stick. And I want to look at why the Animal Welfare philosophy is no longer good enough with our modern understanding of how non-human animals think, feel and live in this world. Hopefully, in the process, I can provide understanding, solutions and ways forward. In the meantime, here’s an illustration of attitudes towards neutering from the UK that might hold some of the answers:

FCI Assessing attitudes towards neutering

Related Links

Gallery

I’m including here some of the animals that have passed through my heart while I’ve been volunteering in animal welfare. They illustrate the end result of breeding in a culture that treats animals as disposable. Some survived and thrived. Some did not.

Posted in Animal Welfare Issues, Breeds & Breeding, Responsible Guardianship.

3 Comments

  1. Ignorance surrounding neutering/spaying is, indeed, widespread.
    For instance, I recall being told that “It was cruel to deny a cat one litter” and “You cannot spay a cat until they were six months old”.
    Could you clarify from what age a cat/dog can be de-sexed?
    Many thanks.

    • No probs Joe. Cats can be safely neutered these days from 8 weeks old or as soon as they weigh 1kg so long as they’re healthy. It’s called Early Age or Pediatric spay/neuter. It’s definitely recommended they’re neutered before reaching sexual maturity – which avoids the ‘oops litter’. You can find out more here: http://www.alleycat.org/page.aspx?pid=460 from Alley Cat Allies.

      Unfortunately vets are only recently taking on Early Age Neutering in Ireland and some vets still don’t have the skills, although it’s been around for ages in the States and UK.

      It would be interesting too to have the stats in Ireland similar to the Assessing attitudes to neutering table from the UK!

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