The Chicago Veterinary Medical Association reaches out to Chicago Aldermen to halt the rush toward Mandatory Spay Neuter. On March 12, 2009, the City of Chicago may progress toward a new era of unprecedented oversight of pet health care in Chicago. What lies at the heart of the issue is whether or not the City of Chicago will take the determination of medical need for spaying and neutering pets out of the hands of pet owners and their veterinarians and place that decision in their own hands. The Mandatory Spay Neuter Proposal or as proponents call it the “Pet Overpopulation and Safety Act” would require all dogs and cats over the age of 6 months in Chicago to be spayed or neutered. The proposal then offers several specific exemptions. The bottom line is that spaying or neutering a pet is a medical procedure and decisions about medical procedures belong to pet owners in consultation with medical professionals.

The Chicago Veterinary Medical Association stands in firm opposition to the current Mandatory Spay Neuter proposal and the concept of compulsory sterilization in general. We believe that the decision of whether to spay or neuter a pet is a decision that is best determined between a pet owner and their veterinarian. Proponents claim that the measure still allows veterinarians to decide, but all the measure really allows is the veterinarian to opt patients out of the procedure by granting them authority to submit letters of exemption to the City.

The proposal lists a number of unproven statistics to support the case for mandatory spay neuter. These random statistics create the illusion that there is a great need for governmental intervention. The proposal lists everything from bite prevention through behavioral modification to decreased euthanasia and animal control costs. However, a review of outcomes in other communities where mandatory spay neuter has been passed most often reveals the opposite outcomes with increasing costs and rising euthanasia rates. Proponents also rely upon the success of a spay neuter program in New Hampshire, but fail to reveal that the New Hampshire spay neuter program is voluntary not mandatory.

As with most things in life, there are risks and benefits associated with spaying or neutering a pet. The health benefits of spaying and neutering pets have been long touted by veterinarians. Reduced incidences of certain cancers and undesirable behaviors, along with an elimination of unexpected litters, are the top reasons to neuter our pets.

However, some studies also show potential health risks associated with spaying and neutering. Though the risk of prostatic disease may be reduced by neutering a dog, the risk of prostatic cancer actually increases with neutering. An increased risk of bone cancer in large-breed dogs can be associated with neutering done before maturity. Other risks associated with spaying and neutering may include: obesity, diabetes, urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence, hypothyroidism and hip dysplasia.

Because there are significant health risks and benefits to consider, the choice of spaying and neutering pets should remain firmly in the hands of the pet owner and under the advisement of their veterinarian.

To address the issue of unwanted pets, many municipalities have had success in reducing euthanasia and animal control costs with programs of: (1) public education, (2) leash laws, (3) free or low cost spay/neuter opportunities for low income families, (4) moderate price differentials for licensing of intact and altered male and female dogs and cats, (5) vigorous marketing of shelter dogs and cats for adoption by the public, (6) foster care, (7) off site adoptions and (8) working with rescue groups. Chicago is already one of the success stories in reducing the population of unwanted pets. Mandatory spay neuter stands to jeopardize the progress that has been made by taking medical decisions out of the hands of pet owners and medical professionals, dividing the local animal welfare community and overburdening animal control.

A key governmental function is safeguarding the public health, and veterinarians play a vital role through oversight of diseases that can be spread from animals to people. Rabies, for instance, is a fatal disease in people and animals, and is a real and imminent threat in our area. Rabies is carried by wildlife and can easily pass from infected wildlife to dogs, cats and other mammals. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports a dramatic rise in reported rabies cases in wildlife in Cook County between 2004 and present. Mandating spay neuter laws can increase the risk of this deadly disease by creating a situation where fewer domestic pets are presented for veterinary care because people will try to avoid detection of their unaltered pets. The best example of this is Fort Worth, Texas, where that city ended its mandatory spay-or-pay program after a reduction in rabies vaccinations led to an increase in reported rabies cases in that city. Another threat to humans comes from animal parasites. And, children are most susceptible to the spread of parasites from the family pet. Regular visits to your family veterinarian can help prevent such exposure. Once again, this ordinance threatens to reduce visits to the veterinarian, resulting in fewer pets that are protected and an increased threat to public health.

The Chicago veterinary community’s concerns are backed by a review of outcomes in other communities that have enacted and in many cases repealed their mandatory spay neuter laws. The potential for negative outcomes associated with mandatory spay neuter laws is far too great, and the focus of City policy makers should be on initiatives that eliminate rather than exacerbate public health concerns.

Mandatory spay neuter is not only bad medicine, it is bad policy. At a time when the City is struggling to fund basic services, it is not fiscally prudent to pass a controversial ordinance that will require increased funding for enforcement. Rather than instituting “blanket” mandatory spay/neuter laws; we, the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association, believe that the residents of the City of Chicago would be best served by an aggressive public education campaign to promote responsible pet ownership, and the enactment and enforcement of strict penalties for irresponsible animal owners.

The veterinary community in Chicago applauds the Aldermen for keeping animal welfare and public safety in the forefront of their concerns, but we respectfully request that the Aldermen heed the advice of their veterinary professionals before moving headlong into mandating the spaying and neutering of all dogs and cats. The City of Chicago has a Task Force on Animal Welfare and Public Safety on which the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association has an advisory position. Unfortunately, the task force has not been involved in the consideration of this proposed ordinance. We recommend that the City Council refer this proposal to the Animal Welfare Task Force for further discussion and to develop animal welfare recommendations that unite the animal welfare advocates in the City rather than divide them.

The Chicago Veterinary Medical Association is one of the largest regional veterinary medical associations in the nation, and has been serving the needs of animals in the Chicagoland community since 1896. For further information, contact 630-325-1231, attn: Drs. Yuval Nir or Shannon Greeley.