The most heated debate in Sacramento during the past two years hasn’t been budget cuts depriving poor children of health care or awarding billion-dollar tax breaks to corporations. It hasn’t even been California’s massive multi-billion dollar budget shortfalls.
Generating far more public outcry is the mandatory spaying and neutering of cats and dogs.
In 2008, unsuccessful spay/neuter legislation logged some 32,000 letters and e-mails either in support or opposition -- many thousands more than generated by the contents of the state budget, the most significant public policy action taken each year by the Legislature and the governor.
The almost rabid interest in the issue stems in part from the fact that many state policy issues, like the budget or foster care, are abstract. But altering a family pet – or a prize breeder – is very personal. “People care desperately about their pets. They view them as family members,” said Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University Sacramento. “Unlike the budget, this is tangible, it's real, it's part of people’s inner circle. So mandating that you spay or neuter a family member gores people’s ox. And they really hate government anyway so this is just another outrage in their minds.”
Were the current spay and neuter bill pending in the state Assembly to pass – and be signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – California would be the first state in the nation with such a requirement. Several cities and counties including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Riverside and Santa Cruz already require sterilization, however.
Spaying and neutering reduces the number of animals that must be euthanized. Advocates of mandatory sterilization say it would reduce even further the number of unplanned, unwanted cats and dogs. Doing so would reduce the strain on overcrowded shelters allowing them to keep animals longer instead of killing them for lack of space.
Sen. Dean Florez, a Shafter Democrat, says he introduced his spay and neuter bill, SB 250, in part to address pet overpopulation but also to reduce government spending. “State and local governments spend and have spent millions of precious taxpayer dollars on the care and feeding of unwanted animals – and, unfortunately, ultimately the destruction of too many animals,” Florez said.
Opponents, which include breeders, offer a number of arguments against mandatory sterilization, starting with violation of the 14th Amendment prohibition on states depriving any person of “life, liberty or property without due process of law.” Other opposing arguments include difficulty of enforcement and the added animal control costs of trying to enforce the law. Others contend fewer pets will be licensed or vaccinated out of fear it will be discovered the animal isn’t sterilized and the owner will be fined.
Previous spay and neuter legislation in California hasn’t been successful for various reasons. A measure introduced in 2008 began as a blanket requirement for sterilization but then so many exemptions were added to mollify opposition, it became, as one lawmaker said, “Swiss Cheese,” and ultimately failed passage.
Florez’s legislation requires cats and dogs be spayed or neutered before they are six months old. But he took a different tack than previous legislation. “I don't believe in a blanket spay or neutering requirement. But I do believe there is a problem that needs to be addressed. I told the spay and neutering advocates I was interested in a different approach and if they had one that made sense, a successful model, then I would be willing to work on this issue,” Florez.
They brought him the spay and neuter ordinance from Santa Cruz County. Passed in 1995, it was the first such ordinance in the state. Lake and Stanislaus counties followed suit, as did Los Angeles County, which passed a similar law in February 2008.
Like Florez’s bill, the Santa Cruz ordinance requires dogs and cats be fixed by six months of age. But there are exemptions: guide dogs, police dogs, herding dogs, search and rescue. Breeding these types of dogs is allowed. Old animals or ones with health issues are also exempted.
The Santa Cruz ordinance allows for the sale of an “unaltered certificate” which permits one litter per year for a single dog or cat. The certificate imposes various conditions on the owner such as veterinary care and a minimum age when the animals can be sold. Supporters say the ordinance has succeeded.
Before 1995, Santa Cruz’s shelter held 14,000 animals a year, down to 5,500 12 years later, according to a June 9, 2007 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Euthanasia dropped from 30 percent to 17 percent of sheltered dogs and from 60 to 50 percent of sheltered cats, the article reported.
Critics say the euthanasia rates in the county are the same as those around the state, that fewer owners license their dogs and animal control costs have doubled.
“All along I've tried to keep the focus on the issue of licensing and roaming dogs,” Florez said. “In a nutshell, if your dog is unlicensed and unaltered and is impounded, then you must have it fixed as a condition of return.” Florez likens that to existing state law – freeing an impounded animal is akin to adopting a new one, which requires sterilization.
“Let’s put it this way, if you have an unaltered, unlicensed animal in your yard, not causing trouble and not roaming – this bill will not affect you. If you have a unaltered but licensed animal roaming around or causing other problems –- then, yes, this bill will affect you.”
No state in the country has a mandatory spay or neuter law, although measures have been introduced in Alabama and Massachusetts. Both are still pending. The closest to one is Rhode Island which requires all cats be sterilized unless the owner has a breeding permit or the owner has agreed to spay and neuter the cat after adopting it from a shelter or animal welfare agency.
Thirty states, however, require sterilization or a promise to sterilize a pet adopted from a shelter, pound or pet rescue organization. Among them are California, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Nevada, New York, Kansas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Colorado, Texas, Utah and West Virginia.
Las Vegas adopted an ordinance in November requiring most pet owners to sterilize their cats or dogs by four months of age. Dallas’ ordinance requires spaying and neutering but not until the animals are six months of age. Service dogs and purebred cats and dogs are among the exemptions.
In Lawton Oklahoma, owners of pet stores are fined if they sell an unaltered pet. Like Florez’s measure, in Tacoma Washington, an animal running loose must be spayed or neutered.
Other states have created funds to subsidize the costs of spaying and neutering. Legislation is pending in West Virginia to place a $75 registration fee on bulk pet food with $25 deposited into a Spay Neuter Assistance Fund. A $50 registration fee would be levied against commercial feed of which $10 would go into the fund.
Legislation in New York, introduced in 2009 but lying dormant in the Legislature, would grant a tax credit capped at $200 for the costs of spaying or neutering pets.
As for Florez’s legislation, he’s not sure when he will bring it to a vote in the 80-member Assembly, which narrowly passed the last sterilization bill on a 41-37 vote. “I’m prepared to work with all parties to win enough votes to get this measure to the governor's desk.”
For more information see Model Spay and Neuter Ordinances.