by Bryan Kortis, National Programs Director, Neighborhood Cats
When the shutdowns in our country began due to the rapid spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in early March 2020, the animal welfare field reacted quickly. Shelters were closed to the public, services were curtailed to the bare minimum, and cages were emptied through adoptions and recruitment of new foster homes. At the urging of leading voices and organizations in the field, spay/neuter of cats, dogs and other companion animals came to an abrupt and almost complete halt––right at the start of the annual “puppy and kitten” season.
Because of the spay/neuter lockdown, cats and dogs have been adopted out intact, unaltered animals have been placed in foster homes, and pregnant stray cats and dogs have been left to give birth outdoors. Owners with pets reaching sexual maturity have nowhere to go to address the onset of spraying, yowling and other nuisance behaviors.
Abandonment, overpopulation, & animal suffering
If spay/neuter services continue to be widely inaccessible, abandonment, overpopulation and animal suffering will explode.
Despite these dire consequences, we are told by the powers-that-be that spay/neuter is not “essential” to society as it fights the pandemic, but only has importance within the animal welfare world. We are told we cannot afford to use up scarce personal protection equipment, which might be needed for human hospital workers, and we must maintain social distancing to the greatest extent possible.
“Animals will have to take a back seat”
Until the pandemic is over, we are told, animals will just have to take a back seat unless it is a life-threatening emergency. The not-so-subtle implication is, if you do not stop doing spay/neuter, you are indulging yourself, promoting the spread of COVID-19, and contributing to the possible deaths of health care workers. Basically, you’re a terrible person.
I disagree. I believe it is possible to be socially responsible, care about our health care workers, and continue to perform spay/neuter in a safe, thoughtful and, if necessary, limited manner. Because I think the “shut down all spay/neuter” advocates have it all wrong.
What is “essential”?
Let’s start with the assertion that spay/neuter is not essential except to promote animal welfare. What is “essential” is a value judgment. Here in Maui, the construction industry is considered essential, not because it directly aids in fighting the virus, but because there is a severe lack of housing on the island and it is considered too damaging to the local culture to stop building.
In almost all states with emergency shutdown rules, “animal care” or “veterinary care” is deemed essential. Again, this is not because caring for animals is going to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Rather, it is because we want to preserve as best we can what is valuable in our society, like the health and well-being of animals.
The advocates of “no more spay/neuter” take too narrow a view by assuming that essential veterinary care only refers to critical emergency situations. If my cat hasn’t eaten in a day and has an upper respiratory infection, it is okay to bring her to see the vet and ease her pain, even during a pandemic.
New York––with the most COVID-19 deaths––agrees s/n is essential
Under the emergency rules in some jurisdictions, it is left to the discretion of veterinarians to decide what procedures in their practice are necessary or essential. Some quite reasonably believe spay/neuter qualifies.
In New York state, which has experienced perhaps the worst coronavirus outbreak in the world, spay/neuter is expressly listed in the initial emergency rules as an essential part of veterinary care.
The point is, some national organizations and individuals with prominent platforms may not believe spay/neuter is essential to society as a whole, but that is their opinion. It is not mine and does not have to be yours.
S/N has critical value in protecting public health
Spay/neuter also has critical value as a matter of protecting public health. In parts of the country where rabies is prevalent, dogs and cats, including feral cats, are vaccinated at the time of their spay or neuter surgery. No spay/neuter means not only a lot more stray dogs and feral cats on the landscape, but a lot more unvaccinated stray dogs and feral cats.
This has a tremendous cost to society even if no human deaths result. I recall a case in Burlington County, New Jersey, where a litter of kittens was taken in and then adopted out by a local veterinarian. The kittens turned out to be rabid and over 30 people were exposed and had to be treated at a cost of close to $3,000 each. This and similar cases helped persuade the county to support trap, neuter, and return of feral cats to their habitat, with anti-rabies vaccination central to the procedure.
If spay/neuter of feral and other free-roaming cats continues to be cut off, I predict there will be more rabid cats and a spike in rabies exposures.
Feral dog packs
There are also many communities in this country, usually impoverished, which have severe problems with packs of feral dogs. This is likewise a highly dangerous situation. As puppies sexually mature in these communities, but there is no access to spay/neuter, abandonment is likely to increase. Any neuter/return of the strays will stop and they, too will reproduce. More and larger packs with higher rates of un-neutered animals will make an already bad situation worse.
There will be other adverse impacts to our society caused by the current spay/neuter ban.
In response to cats at large, spay/neuter intervention is key to reducing hostility among locals towards the cats and preventing acts of cruelty.
Cruelty will increase
Here’s another prediction: if there is no spay/neuter for a prolonged period, cruelty incidents will rise. Overpopulation, the most obvious consequence of no spay/neuter, will likely lead at some point, whether now or in the future, to more euthanasia at shelters. Shelter staff directly and regularly involved in euthanizing healthy animals suffer higher rates of mental illness, including suicide, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.
With spay/neuter, we maintain healthy cat, dog and other companion animal populations, avoid rabies exposures, do not subject our shelter workers to undue stress, avoid increasing packs of dogs in poor communities, and prevent abandonment, animal suffering and acts of cruelty. Isn’t that enough to be considered essential?
What about all that personal protection equipment? I think that depends – on what the local hospitals need, how much personal protection equipment is available, and how much is actually being used in the course of doing spay/neuter surgery.
I have observed veterinary surgeons wearing their own scrubs, using one mask a day and only going through a lot of latex gloves.
[Editor’s note: One of the leading spay/neuter surgery specialists in the world, Jeff Young, DVM, of Planned Pethood Plus in Colorado, believes personal protective equipment can be dispensed with entirely in s/n surgery, if sterile surgical instruments and drapes are used and strict asepsis is observed throughout the operating theater.]
Trapping feral cats is “socially distanced”
I know of plenty of clinics in areas hard-hit by the virus which have not been asked to turn over their anesthesia machines. If clinics can minimize use of personal protective equipment, or concoct their own, and the procedures are allowed by law, don’t they have the right to decide for themselves whether to perform spays and neuters?
What about social distancing? When it comes to trapping cats, that activity is usually done by solo trappers. If there are two trappers, it is fairly easy to maintain a safe distance. If you’re on someone’s property, that person can stay inside. If there are too many people involved and the situation if not safe, trappers are adults and can cancel.
At spay/neuter clinics, trapped cats, pets and foster animals can be safely dropped off and picked up, as is done now at most private veterinary clinics.
Inside clinics, it is entirely plausible that vet techs and surgeons can interact in a safe manner. At the least, that too is their call, and they are not being irresponsible if they decide to keep working.
Present conditions could go on a long time
The creators of the spay/neuter ban are telling us it’s going to be okay. They’re busy making plans for when this is all over. We are told there will be a huge spay/neuter blitz with never-before seen levels of funding, despite the dismal economic projections for the next months and even years offered by financial media. We’re going to come back bigger and better, they promise. In the meantime, they tell us, you need to stay home and stay healthy, so we’ll be at full force when this ends, ready to take full advantage of all the resources they will be making available.
Nice picture, but how real is it? I doubt there will be a day when suddenly everything goes back to normal. The present conditions could go on for a long time, as the COVID-19 pandemic peaks, then ebbs and flows for several years.
Until a vaccine or curative treatment is found, we are going to have to learn to navigate a new world, one in which we are constantly balancing what risks we consider acceptable.
“I’m willing to go right now to trap a pregnant cat”
Each of us will have to make our own judgments, and we must learn to respect each other’s choices. I’m willing right now to go trap a pregnant cat, if I believe I can do it safely, and there is a veterinarian open for business. Others I know who are equally passionate about cats won’t step out the front doors of their homes if they don’t have to. Neither of us is wrong.
Besides, if we wait for the “all clear” signal, by the time that comes, if it ever does, the damage may be so great that we will have lost years of progress that will not be easily regained. High volume clinics now on the brink of bankruptcy because of the spay/neuter stoppage won’t be there to accept the generous grants that we are told will eventually be coming.
Funding will not bring back animals who needlessly died
And most important, all of the funding in the world will not bring back the animals who needlessly died, will not erase the hardships and cruelty they endured, nor ease the mourning of those who loved them.
What we are confronting now is a new animal welfare crisis of our field’s own making. The shame of it is, those who pushed the field to the extreme of a spay/neuter lockdown could have used their influence to push for surgeries to continue in a measured way. But they haven’t, at least not yet.
Meanwhile, it is up to the grassroots. If you want to fix animals before you send them out for adoption or foster and can do it safely, I trust and support you. If you want to open your doors to pregnant cats and it’s legal in your jurisdiction, thank you; you are needed more than ever.
If you can manage fixing small colonies, or only females, or two pets at a time, we are so grateful to you. It is during a crisis, especially one of this magnitude, when we must hold onto our values, fight for what we believe in, and not throw away everything we have worked so hard for. We will get through this. Let’s do it in a way we are proud of.
Bryan Kortis serves as the National Programs Director for Neighborhood Cats, a cat advocacy group with hands-on programs in New York City, New Jersey and Maui. He has authored or contributed to many of the leading educational guides on trap-neuter-return, including the Neighborhood Cats TNR Handbook, Community TNR: Tactics and Tools, and most recently, The Return-to-Field Handbook (published by the Humane Society of the United States). An avid trapper, Bryan has also helped design TNR equipment for Tomahawk Live Trap and is a frequent presenter on community cat issues.