The History Of Spaying And Neutering Pets

A Bulldog with a cone around his neck is held by a veterinarian.

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These days, spaying and neutering your pet is a part of being a responsible pet owner, but it wasn’t always this way. Over a hundred years ago, the procedure would be considered cruel by today’s standards. Drowning and shooting were acceptable ways to dispose of unwanted animals, and anesthesia, when used, was relatively dangerous. 

As veterinary medicine continued to evolve and the human population moved from rural communities to urban and suburban ones, cats and dogs became more popular as household pets. Without reliable, humane ways to control the pet population, the number of unwanted animals exploded. During the Depression era, the ASPCA in New York recorded over 300,000 stray animals per year

Several stray dogs stand on a dirt road.

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While techniques to sterilize livestock had already been established, spaying and neutering cats and dogs were neither widely available nor accessible until the 1930s. Cats, in particular, were culturally considered free-roaming and were only impounded if they became a public nuisance. Prior to the 1970s, the few shelters that existed became overrun by strays, and euthanasia rates peaked at 100 cats and dogs killed per 1,000 people.

In 1969, the opening of the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic in Los Angeles spurred discussions across the country on the benefits of spaying and neutering. Previously, information on cat and dog sterilization was presented as a convenience to the owner instead of as an animal welfare issue. Over the next several decades, shelters and rescue groups aggressively campaigned for more awareness, changing the language on spay/neuter literature and eventually the public’s mindset.

A shelter volunteer pets a Pit Bull mix while other dogs wait in kennels behind her.

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In 1972, the ASPCA required that all adopted animals be sterilized. Shelter intake rates continued to drop, and feral cat trap-neuter-release programs emerged in the 1990s. The No Kill Movement—a movement that would’ve once been labeled absurd—gained momentum. Today, while there are still too many unwanted cats and dogs, the euthanasia rate has decreased to about 12.5 dogs and cats per 1,000 people—an almost 90% drop when compared to numbers recorded fifty years ago! 

Currently, scientists are researching even cheaper and easier ways to spay and neuter pets. Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, an Oregon-based nonprofit, has been promoting the research of non-surgical sterilization methods, and a few are even available today. Last year, the California Institute of Technology scientists reported that a single injection managed to stop egg and sperm production in mice, rendering them infertile after two months. While non-surgical sterilization methods are still not the norm, they eventually will be

Several dogs stand in a fenced-in outdoor area with a sign that reads "Volunteer to help us."

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But despite our achievements, there is still so much to do. Millions of animals are still being euthanized at shelters every year, and while more people are spaying or neutering their pets than ever before, there are still many who don’t. The problem may seem overwhelming, but consider how far we’ve already come. Through the efforts of countless individuals and organizations, we’ve gone from barbaric practices to an international movement seeking to save the lives of all cats and dogs. Our history proves that together, we can make a difference.

Do you think we will one day be able to reduce the pet population to a manageable level? Do you think the No Kill Movement has a chance of success in the coming years? Let us know in the comments below!