Chapter 2: How Neutering Became the Norm
The vast majority of dogs in the U.S. are de-sexed, but this is a recent phenomenon.
This is the second installment in a series. Read Chapter One here.
At one-and-a-half feet tall, Suzie was stout, speckled, and loved nothing more than getting her butt scratched.
I met Suzie, a 2-year-old white and tan bulldog whose legs splayed out like a duck, at the sandy, fenced-in dog park that had become my primary source of human contact since the pandemic. Moose, my year-old Goldendoodle, had mixed feelings about it: Sweet but shy, he would edge up to groups of dogs chasing each in circles or wrestling like four-legged gladiators, but if anyone snapped or growled or tried to sniff his butt—which, I learned from Google, dogs do to glean vital information, like whether they’ve met before, and, I imagine, what they had for lunch—he would run back and hide behind my legs before slowly venturing out for more.
As a puppy, Moose was less hesitant around strange dogs, but when he was about six months old, he was attacked by a snappy little mutt at the dog park. He was fine, protected by his mop of curly hair—and I was probably the more traumatized of the two of us, haunted by the fact that I’d failed to kick the aggressor off Moose—but ever since then, Moose had seemed slightly nervous around big crowds of dogs. Still, I kept taking him to dog parks in the hopes of socializing him around other animals.
As Suzie and Moose circled each other, I chatted with her owner, a woman in her mid-60s with grown-out roots and a Seahawks mask around her neck. She told me that Suzie was her son’s dog, that he’d moved back in after he lost his job during the pandemic, but she ended up doing most of the work. “It’s just like when he was a kid,” she told me. “Mom cleans up all the shit.” I laughed, and then she asked the question I’d come to dread. “When are you getting him fixed?,” she said, pointing her Chuckit at Moose, who was, at that moment, squirming around on his back as Suzie inspected his genitals.
“Soon,” I lied. “Waiting until he’s a bit older.”
Moose’s balls came up a lot at the dog park. While his butt fur usually covered the offending organs, when he ran they flapped in the wind like a flag and were nearly impossible to miss. Because testicles are a rarity, especially at dog parks, where intact animals are often banned, people had questions. Or, at least, they had a question: When was Moose getting fixed?
The first time this happened, I was honest. I said I hadn’t decided yet and launched into a monologue about bodily autonomy, but I quickly learned it was better just to lie. No one wanted my musings ethics and consent; what they wanted to hear was that Moose was going to get snipped. When I told one guy that I was thinking of keeping Moose intact, he picked up his Shih Tzu as though Moose was going to mount his precious Tiffany at any second. “As if,” I thought to myself. “Moose is gay.”
Clearly, there was one acceptable narrative at the dog park, and that narrative was that responsible owners fix their dogs. But why? How did we get to a place where, despite the known risks to dogs (and we’ll get to that in a later chapter), all dog owners are expected to spay or neuter their pets?
To answer that question, we need to take a short trip to India.
The de-sexing of animals has a long history in agriculture, but the de-sexing of pets is a relatively recent phenomenon, and the idea originated in Madras, India, with a man named S. Chinny Krishna.
In the 1960s, Madras (now known as Chennai) had a major dog problem. Mangy, emaciated street dogs would congregate by sources of food—usually garbage dumps—and there were tens of thousands of human deaths from rabies across India each year. (In fact, rabies is still a problem today.)
For over a century, the local government had run a catch-and-kill program, in which unlicensed dogs were shot in the street, but it wasn’t working. Every year, thousands of dogs were being executed, but there would be just as many street dogs the next year. In fact, culling may have exacerbated the problem: by temporarily reducing the population of street dogs, the remaining dogs’ chances of surviving—and reproducing—only went up. By the 1970s, so many dogs were being culled that a research institute specializing in leather reportedly designed neckties and wallets from dog skins.
Krishna, an animal lover and one of the founders of the Blue Cross of India, had an idea. If a dog was picked up, it could be examined, treated, vaccinated, de-sexed, and released back where it had been found. In addition, he proposed, dog owners should be encouraged to have their pets spayed/neutered and vaccinated—all free of charge. He called the program Animal Birth Control, or ABC for short, and, he told me in an email, the name was meant “to show the municipalities that control of the street dog population was as simple as ABC.” It would have been the first city-run spay and neuter program for street dogs in the world.
Unfortunately, the local government didn’t listen. The municipality rejected the proposal, and although the Blue Cross continued to spay and neuter dogs on its own, for the next 35 years, the stray dog population grew. By 1995, the municipality was killing 135 dogs per day. That year, they finally adopted Krishna’s ABC plan.
Meanwhile, across the world, U.S. cities were having dog problems of their own—and had been for decades. Streets were littered with shit and piss, and people regularly had negative encounters with stray dogs. And so, like in India, cities killed them—often brutally.
In the late 19th century, dogs in New York were picked up by dog-catchers, imprisoned in a cage called the “canine bathtub,” and drowned in the East River. They could kill 750 dogs before early afternoon. Hal Herzog, a scholar of human-animal interactions (and my father), described it this way: “Forty-eight dogs at a time were jammed into the heavy cage. It was then lifted up by a crane, swung over the East River and submerged. Ten minutes later, the cage was hauled to the surface, the carcasses removed, and the cage reloaded with another batch of strays.” Quite a way to treat man’s best friend.
By the time Chinny was developing his program in Madras, drowning was out, and the dog management business in the U.S. had largely been outsourced to municipal pounds and humane societies, many of which at least tried to adopt dogs out before they killed them. And a lot of dogs were being killed: In the early 1970s, an estimated 7 million dogs were euthanized each year, out of a nationwide dog population of about 35 million. Eighty percent of dogs that ended up at pounds and shelters were put down.
In an effort to reduce the death and address the homeless dog population, the first low-cost spay/neuter clinic opened in North Hollywood in 1971, and from there, the idea started to spread to veterinary medicine, partly as a defense mechanism. “These tax-exempt, low-cost clinics were viewed as a threat to the economic well-being of private veterinary practices, and they started sterilizing animals too,” says Andrew Rowan, the current President of WellBeing International and former CEO of Humane Society International.
Spaying and neutering quickly became a type of orthodoxy. Animal protection groups and humane societies urged people to de-sex their animals and vets started advising de-sexing as part of basic wellness. In 1970, less than 10 percent of licensed dogs were spay or neutered. Today, about 80 percent are. In some places, it’s even the law, and at least 30 states require shelters to de-sex dogs before adopting them out.
This isn’t true everywhere in the world: Until recently, de-sexing dogs was illegal in Norway, where it’s generally considered cruel if performed for non-medical reasons, and it’s rare in Sweden and Switzerland too. And yet, these places are not overrun with feral dog populations. (The difference between Scandinavia and the U.S., at least according to some Scandanavians, is that they’re more responsible with their pets.)
In the U.S., de-sexing went from nowhere to everywhere in just a few decades, and, as I learned at the dog park, opting out—or even thinking of opting out—is enough to get one branded the dreaded “irresponsible owner.”
If you look at just the big, population-level picture, the current spay/neuter paradigm has been one of the most successful animal welfare efforts in human history. At one point, 20 percent of American dogs were euthanized each year. Now, it’s under 2 percent, and as more and more shelters adopt no-kill policies, that number continues to drop.
That success, however, has led to problems. Rather than a dog surplus, what we have is a shortage of pups. To fill the demand, dogs are being imported from places with a surfeit of dogs to places that don’t have enough of them. Domestically, this means packing dogs in vans and trucks and moving dogs from the South and Southwest to states in the North, and it explains why, if you’re looking to adopt, you’ll frequently find dogs from far away… sometimes really far away.
“The number of imports has gone from 400,000 a year in 2005 to just over a million today,” says Rowan. You can find dogs from Puerto Rico, South Korea, Mexico, Central America, and Eastern Europe, usually imported by international rescue groups. These dogs are often strays who lived (sometimes quite successfully) on their own before being scooped up or puppies who’ve been bred in countries with fewer regulations than the U.S.
There’s some irony to this: The American appetite for store-bought and commercially bred puppies has declined, in no small part thanks to campaigns to “adopt don’t shop” as well as protests against pet stores and laws against commercial breeding. But because there are not enough puppies in the U.S., some rescue groups are importing them from puppy farms with even fewer regulations. In other words, buyers who may never support commercial breeders at home may very well be getting “rescues” from the international equivalent—and you can imagine the conditions at some of these farms.
The domestic dog market is booming as well—and rescues are a part of it. Kim Kavin, the author of The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores, and Rescuers, attended dog auctions in Missouri, where she saw rescuers bidding on dogs from large-scale commercial breeders, or what are commonly called “puppy mills.” (While the term evokes images of sad-eyed puppies languishing in cages, commercial breeders vary from the clean, safe, and well-regulated to the inhumane.)
Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 90 dog rescues, advocacy groups, and shelters spent $2.6 million at dog auctions, Kavin reported in the Washington Post. That’s 5,761 dogs and puppies, some purchased from “the same breeders who face activist protests, including some on the Humane Society of the United States’ ‘Horrible Hundred’ list or the ‘No Pet Store Puppies’ database of breeders to avoid.”
The puppies Kavin saw being auctioned may very well have come from puppy mills, but because we call them “rescues” like they are being freed in the night and not simply bought from their breeders, the consumer can feel good about it. It’s almost a sort of moral laundering.
Of course, being adopted into a loving home can be the best thing that’s ever happened to an animal. Many shelters and rescues do good, necessary work, and there are networks of volunteers all over the U.S. fostering dogs or schlepping them from state to state because they genuinely love them. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say these people are heroes. But these stories don’t always pass the sniff test.
In October, ABC News published an article about nearly 200 dogs that were supposedly rescued from a meat farm in Korea and shipped to D.C. to get adopted out to families across America. According to the story, the rescues included “golden retrievers, a poodle, Korean jindos and mastiffs, Pomeranians, terriers and a Labrador.” But what kind of meat farm is selling Pomeranians? There’s no flesh on them. They’d barely make a light snack. I suppose it’s not impossible, but the dogs found on Korean meat farms are typically a type of large, yellow, mixed-breed, not pure breeds that are more valuable as pets than as lunch.
The ABC News story didn’t mention this, but bringing in dogs from abroad comes with risks. Loading dogs onto planes and into trucks and hauling them across the world or U.S. can be traumatizing for an animal. Plus, dogs bring whatever diseases or parasites they have with them. One flesh-eating parasite has been found for the first time in dogs in the U.S. and Canada, and experts think it was imported with dogs from abroad.
A vet clinic in Delmar, New York, is so concerned about the spread of foreign disease and they urge clients to investigate a dog’s background before adopting from abroad. “My worry, as a veterinarian, is that there will be both an individual and local/regional price to pay for this generosity of heart,” reads at a notice on their website. “These diseases are often not only costly to treat, many cannot be cured, and if transmitted to other animals and people may result in outbreaks of diseases we have not had to manage before.”
And then there the horror stories about what happens en route to new homes. In August, 16 dogs from Jordan were rescued from a warehouse at O’Hare Airport after being left for three days with no food and water. One French Bulldog puppy died, and the shipping company was cited for animal abuse and neglect. In Canada, where there’s also a shortage of puppies, at least 38 French Bulldog puppies were found dead on a flight from Ukraine in June. There were 500 dogs on the plane.
So while spay/neuter programs have greatly reduced the number of dogs being euthanized each year, as well as the number of dogs living on the streets, they’ve also decreased the number of available puppies, and which fuels a market that doesn’t just help dogs; it harms them.
In light of all this, Andrew Rowan thinks it’s time to re-evaluate mass sterilization. “The humane movement has actively pushed sterilization, and this has become a litmus test for everybody,” Rowan told me. “You have to support it. But how do we generate a supply of puppies from humane breeding?” That’s the question, and it’s one that some in the rescue movement, as well as professional breeders, are beginning to consider.
Of course, population control isn’t the only reason we spay and neuter our dogs. It’s also for our convenience, and this thing that we do, that we accept as normal and expect everyone else at the dog park to do too, can have major effects on the very dogs we’re trying to protect.
So what, exactly, does spaying and neutering do to our furry friends? That’s next time on Moose Nuggets.
Moose Nuggets is free and available for all, but if you do feel like contributing to Moose’s college fund, I will gladly accept it on his behalf. If you have thoughts about dog de-sexing, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kittypurrzog.