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.
The local spay/neuter clinic in my area is closed. Unfortunately I don’t think they had a choice. People pack into that clinic in the morning for drop offs and likewise pack in for pick ups. The cat alters are $30 including rabies. I don’t see how the clinic could practice social distancing when the reception area is small. I don’t know how many local vets are doing spays and neuters.
Even if they are, money could be an issue. I doubt if people would pay a substantial price for spay/neuter of feral cats.
A friend of mine has six unspayed cats in her house. Her two males are neutered, and the females are not allowed to go outside. People could separate sexes in their homes.
In addition, few people understand how fast cats recycle. I know of a Persian cat that had a one kitten litter in January. She was in heat and bred when her kitten was six weeks old.
Bryan Kortis says
Some clinics are maintaining social distancing by having clients wait in their cars until it’s their turn to check in. Having forms available online and already filled out when the client arrives is also helpful. Staggering check-in and pickup times is an idea. Reducing capacity, only doing pregnant cats and females, placing carriers and traps by the door and then stepping back when staff comes out to take them in. These are some ways to keep things safe, if the clinic wants to continue to do s/n.
Essie Petrovich says
WOW…Bryan…I am so happy to see you are so active in animal welfare. This goes way back…but you and I worked on a grant for a spay/neuter assistance program several years ago through PetSmart for Lower Paxton Community Cats in PA. Just wanted to say Hi and thank you for all you do for the animal community.
Ellen Schoenfeld says
The vets here are doing drop off and pick ups in the parking lot. People are not even allowed into the reception area. I brought my cat in for an issue and did a phone conference with the vet as she was examining my cat. Then I waited in the car while she finished up and they brought my kitty back out to me. It’s working well here. 😃
Julie Jacobson says
Totally agree with Bryan. For much of rural America (and here in TN), there simply are no foster networks to expand, no shelters to empty, no animal control and often no veterinarians. However, we do have at least three cases of rabies in the state (skunks) this year. The vast majority of our clients who use s/n clinics and assistance programs here are not current on rabies at the time of surgery. This is indeed a public health risk! I remain skeptical about the promise of solutions when “the crisis is over”. We’ve always had a hard time finding vets and how easy is it to do blitz efforts in the USA without considering vet licensing requirements in each state? What about the premise permits (requirements vary widely by state)? One cannot simply set up a mass s/n event anywhere here in TN like they do overseas. My dog had knee surgery last week, deemed essential for her health and well-being. I argue that spay/neuter is equally essential to the health and well-being of cats and dogs, particularly in rural areas where it is our ONLY animal welfare tool.
Susan Taylor says
Very good article. I cannot agree more. As the Executive Director of an organization that has helped fund spay/neuter surgeries for nearly 50 years, we find such surgeries critical and continue to fund during these times as best we can. If you think that life will go back to normal and spay/neuter will catch up and all the people adopting or fostering will get those animals sterilized, you are denying reality.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing to socials with gratitude. I’ve been ranting about this since Day 1. It should be FIRST priority, for all the reasons Mr. Kortis has shared.
G.W. Weedon says
I’m so tired of being criticized for continuing feral cat spay/neuter. Trappers come in solo, minimizing contact. We’re re-autoclaving surgery gloves to conserve PPE. In doing so, we’re preventing the needless birth of kittens. I’m gonna keep doing it for as long as I can. Thank you TLC PetSnip for the foresight to continue!
Bryan Kortis says
Here’s some praise indeed! Dr. Weedon is an accomplished spay/neuter surgeon who retired in 2018 as a Clinical Assistant Professor and Service Head of Shelter Medicine at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, where he trained veterinary students in High Quality, High Volume Spay-Neuter (HQHVSN) techniques. If he believes spay/neuter can be done safely, we should listen and consider carefully.
Marilyn Weaver says
Thank you so much for this article. It is of special importance to me as I work on TNVR in Pinellas Cty. So many kittens born already, we must continue to s/n. Getting lots of feedback from forwarding your article. Hoping 24-7 becomes more well known as a result.
Jodi Aker says
Love this article and completely agree. My group, Meow Mission TNRs a little over 1,000 cats a year. All our spay/neuter resources are shut down. I have 20+ volunteers eager to get out and trap, transport and care for community cats and we are dead in the water. We get calls daily of pregnant cats – that now will give birth outside to homeless kittens, and we can do nothing. The feral cat population explosion is going to be devastating for those of us in animal rescue.
Marion Wagner says
Bryan, your article made me think again. Here in my area the shelters are closed (no intake, no surgeries!), and the local S/N clinic closed as well. Now people call me, reporting feral cats and kittens, and there is NOTHING I can do. I am full to the rim with fosters, I recruited others to foster, and we have to buy vaccines over the counter and pay for all that, because the shelter says: no intake, no vet care provider, no vet care, no support.
S/N clinic is working on a temporary protocol for the use of MegAce. Now after I read your article, I talked to the clinic director again. My suggestion is to at least do feral cats once a month. No contact, just one or two trappers dropping off. No check-in or discharge instruction. Our trappers know the routine and even prepare the surgery sheet for the cats they are bringing.
Bryan Kortis says
Thanks so much for publishing my article. Maybe this will help open up more s/n resources. Nice job with the editing and I especially love your opening collage, Beth. Don’t know if you were aware, but the kitty in the collage was an original member of the very first feral cat colony I worked on, while the photo of me was taken within the last several months. So the collage bridges my feral cat career from the very beginning to where I am now. Plus it looks great!
Sadly, most of the big groups have been de-emphasizing the importance of spay/neuter for awhile now, and now the animals are going to be paying the ultimate price for this lack of foresight.
My local vet clinic remains open, and I was able to pick up my prescription cat food, thankfully. I think only allowing one customer in the lobby at a time would be tremendously helpful. Vet clinics need to have clear signage up in the manner of grocery stores, and also marking off 6ft standing distance for outdoor lines would be easy and helpful. While I was in the office, I was following the social distancing rules but two other customers entered the lobby and did not. Interestingly, one of these people was dropping off a cat for neutering, so that service remains…at least for now.
Liza Morganti says
I agree, OPEN THEM UP!!!! i Have a female that took me 8 months to get only to find the clinic closed when I arrived with her. She has been waiting for a month now!!!
Ruth Steinberger says
Kudos Bryan––excellent piece. The Veterinary Medical Examiners Board in Oklahoma, along with the shelter medicine department of Oklahoma State University (OSU), recognized that safe procedures, not mandatory closure, are critical to preventing the overpopulation crisis and the resulting tragedies described in this outstanding piece.
While check-in is cumbersome, at least three high volume spay/neuter clinics in Oklahoma, along with the OSU Shelter Medicine program, have continued to operate using very strict outdoor check-in procedures that eliminate/minimize contact, but get animals in the door to be “fixed.”
Tragically, the first entities to put the stamp of approval on halting spay/neuter (and releasing intact) were large animal welfare organizations or agencies that could have, and should have, lead the fight to defend the strides made over the last two decades by describing and establishing safe handling protocols. They could have helped animals instead of hurting them. In response to COVID19, safe protocols were quietly put in place by the above noted entities in order to defend our momentum, while ASPCA, NACA and others proclaimed the need to suspend spay/neuter. I don’t get it.
It is past time to recognize that adoptions did not reduce shelter euthanasias to todays national numbers; spay/neuter did. Placing homeless animals into every available space in order to prevent euthanasia, instead of aggressively working to prevent their births, is foolhardy and short-sighted.
If the best that some large organizations can do is to advocate a stoppage of spay/neuter, along with intact release, at a time when an economic downturn will place many animals that are currently housed out onto the streets and into shelters, than it is simply time for new leadership.
Again thank you Bryan for a great piece.
Teri Kidd, DVM says
Finally, commentary from a nationally-known TNVR figure that makes sense. I am appalled by our spay/neuter “leaders and gurus” who are advocating, almost demanding, that spay/neuter come to a screeching halt. Their “solutions” for when (if?) this ever ends are silly. Massive spay/neuter events? Where are they going to get the vets, PPE (much of which is on indefinite backorder), facilities, and person-power to do these events? While they are catching up on all those to whom they denied services over the past several weeks to months, what about the ones who are just coming in for the first time? There is going to be an unconscionable backlog of need, all because they didn’t have the wisdom and foresight to use their voices to promote the safe continuation of services and instead chose to promote nonsense “solutions” that will not work.
Our organization will proudly continue spay/neuter services as long as we possibly can. We are resterilizing surgical and exam gloves. Our whole team, vets and assistants, are working every day. Many of our transports have canceled, and we are filling those spots with the backlog of female dogs on our waiting list. Every female feral we are seeing is pregnant. We had two yesterday who would have had kittens by today if not spayed yesterday. We had a day with nine pregnancies and a total of 39 feti. Stop spay/neuter in the middle of kitten season? Only a crazy person would advocate for that. If any of you with ferals and nowhere to go are in central Illinois, we will make it a priority to get your ferals in. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will put you in touch with our clinic manager.
Teri Kidd, DVM
Adam Lamb says
Thanks so much for writing this! I share alot of the same thoughts and views and have had folks try to shame us into not providing some services we feel are essential.
Karen Waible says
Where did you see spay/neuter in essential animal services for NY State? Initially, veterinary clinics were included, then revised to say veterinary emergencies & livestock, but never saw anything about s/n—–wish there were such a note.
Bryan Kortis says
Here is the link to the Interim Guidance for Animal Care Operations issued by NY State on March 24, 2020: https://agriculture.ny.gov/system/files/documents/2020/04/interimguidanceforanimalcareoperations_0_0.pdf You’ll see under the section Companion Animals that essential veterinary care includes spay/neuter.
Betsy Ballenger says
Thank you for this. I agree. As the president of a small, rapidly growing TNR non-profit in central Virginia, I just posted this on our Facebook page. Hope I don’t take too much heat. But if we don’t TNR, the animals are the victims.
KerryAnn May says
Thank you for voicing what a lot of us are feeling. And about funding…guarantee every jurisdiction hit by closed s/n clinic ain’t gonna see money. There is simply not enough money to help all the smaller communities hit hard by the shutdowns. So while some advocates of shutting down the s/n clinics during covid are trying to justify it by saying there will be grant funds to help catch up, um…no there won’t. There will be some for a small select group of shelters, but not for everyone.
Jamaka Petzak says
Love cats? SPAY/NEUTER. Don’t like cats and don’t want them around? SPAY/NEUTER. It’s one thing we should all be able to agree upon.