The Trouble With Mandatory Spay/Neuter Laws

Mandatory spay/neuter laws started with good intentions, but the execution proves problematic. Read on to learn about the laws’ effects on pets in the U.S.

Mandatory spay/neuter laws are not as effective as lawmakers intended them to be. By: normanack

Nearly 4 million dogs and cats are killed each year by U.S. animal shelters desperate to make room for overwhelming populations of unwanted pets.

The ASPCA reports that 5 to 7 million companion animals enter the approximately 5,000 shelters annually. The numbers are staggering, and it’s evident that more effective control measures are needed.

A majority of states have determined that legislation is the solution to the crisis. In 2007, California introduced AB 1634, the “Responsible Pet Ownership Act.” The law requires that domestic dogs and cats be spayed by the age of 6 months. Owners who fail to comply with the law face fines and penalties.

Mandatory spay/neuter (MSN) laws are currently applicable in nearly every state and the District of Columbia. They range in language and enforcement, but stir controversy in nearly every jurisdiction. What is MSN, and does it really work?

Mandatory Spay/Neuter Laws

A mandatory spay/neuter law is state legislation enacted to:

  • Decrease the number of unwanted animals that suffer and die.
  • Decrease the risk to public health and safety from abandoned animals.
  • Reduce the cost to local and state government for impounding and destroying homeless animals.
  • Provide a platform for stringent animal control.

Under MSN laws, ownership of an “unaltered” cat or dog is illegal.

Just the Facts

To gain a proper perspective of the issue, let’s first look at the numbers:

  • 78.5 million dogs are owned by U.S. households.
  • 86.5 million cats are owned by U.S. households.
  • 5 to 7 million companion animals enter shelters in the U.S. annually.
  • 3 to 4 million shelter animals are euthanized annually.
  • $2.5 billion is spent on shelter animal welfare annually.
  • 35,000 workers are registered as shelter animal welfare staff.

It is understandable that state, city and local jurisdictions are searching for options to control the animal overpopulation crisis. Indeed, it is a source of equal concern among animal welfare organizations, advocates and pet lovers.

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The opinions of how to enable change differ dramatically among the interest groups. In fact, Senate hearings of California’s AB 1634 resulted in the largest number of protesters on the grounds of the State Capitol and generated the most letters and communications from constituents that entire year.

State Legislation

Since the passage of California AB 1634, nearly every state has passed some form of MSN. The language, requirements, penalties and enforcement vary from state to state and are governed as such by local ordinances. Evaluation of national MSN by the Animal Law Coalition verifies, “No state requires ALL pet owners to sterilize their animals.”

There are some common considerations among state mandatory spay/neuter laws:

  • 33 states + District of Columbia require that animals adopted from shelters be spayed/neutered.
  • 34 states + DC subsidize the cost of spay/neuter.
  • 21 states + DC provide a licensing fee differential for spayed/neutered animals.
  • Five states require that pets reclaimed from shelters be spayed/neutered prior to release.
  • One state (RI) requires publicly owned animals to be spayed/neutered.

Nearly every MSN law includes language that makes exceptions for licensed breeders, show dogs, competitive sports dogs, service animals, law enforcement dogs, research dogs or search and rescue dogs. Special permits are available for purchase by application that excludes certain animals from mandatory sterilization.

Spaying and neutering dogs may reduce the occurrence of certain types of cancer. By: Dottie Day

Trouble With the Best-Laid Plans

Although MSN may have started with good intentions, the actual execution proves problematic. Interpretations aside, there are significant problems with the guidance and enforcement of mandatory spay/neuter laws. Research from the dozens of reports and case studies reveals:

  • Limited evidence to support the effectiveness of the laws.
  • Concerns about risks, including health and development problems in some pets.
  • Efforts push responsible breeders out of licensing systems, reducing the availability and increasing the cost of well-bred, healthy puppies and kittens.
  • Encourages importation of puppies and kittens from unregulated sources.
  • Constitutional challenges of laws that force owners to get surgery performed on their pets.
  • Increased costs for enforcement.
  • Increased number of pet surrenders to shelters because of fear or cost concerns.
  • Increased risks of rabies and other communicable diseases preventable by regular vaccinations when owners fear taking unaltered pets to the vet.
  • Mandatory spay/neuter laws are practically unenforceable.

It is the position of many animal welfare groups, pet experts, veterinary associations and kennel and cat clubs that mandatory spay/neuter laws are not the answer to the animal overpopulation crisis. The solution to the problem remains the ability to educate the public and build community support for responsible animal care and control. Every animal counts.

The Difference in One

How much difference can one unaltered animal make? Consider how one unspayed female dog or cat and her unsterilized offspring can produce offspring numbering in the tens of thousands, within just a few short years.

Fortunately, responsible pet owners understand the importance, convenience and health benefits of spaying and neutering. Of the 78 million dogs enjoyed as pets in the U.S., nearly 80% are spayed/neutered. Cat owners have 88% of their pets spayed/neutered.

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Obviously, education works and pet owners appreciate that spaying or neutering an animal costs less than raising one puppy or kitten for one year.


  • Eliminates the stress and discomfort of heat cycles.
  • Eliminates the risk of uterine cancer.
  • Reduces the risk of mammary cancer.


  • Reduces aggression and behavior issues.
  • Prevents testicular cancer.
  • Reduces the risk of prostate cancer.

Many communities offer low-cost spay/neuter clinics. A toll-free nationwide number is available to locate a service in your area: 1-800-248-SPAY(7729).

Although mandatory spay/neuter laws do not prove to be the solution to the explosion of animal overpopulation, spaying/neutering does work! Community education and awareness — not more laws — is the way to make sure every animal has a home.

C.D. Watson

View posts by C.D. Watson
C.D. Watson has been researching and writing about pets for many years. She is a freelance writer and a corporate refugee. C.D. lives on a farm in the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee with her husband, 3 dogs and a variety of other pets.

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