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The Pet Overpopulation and Overflowing Shelter Problem

For years it has been debated what the best approach would be to successfully control the companion pet overpopulation problem and the concomitant overflowing shelter population that inexorably follows. Early age spay and neuter has been touted as a potential cure to the overflowing population housed at the shelters but has failed (miserably, in my opinion) to stem the tide of relinquishment of pets to shelter facilities. It has diminished the number of un-spayed and un-neutered pets relinquished to the shelters but has failed to alleviate the shear numbers relinquished to any appreciable degree. This is because having too many pets is the number six or seven reason in the top ten listed by people leaving their pets at the shelter in the first place. There are five or six more pressing reasons why animals are relinquished and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that attacking reason #6 or #7 isn’t going to have an appreciable effect on reducing the shelter population. Don’t get me wrong. Spaying and neutering a pet is absolutely warranted, especially when it is performed at an appropriate age. In my opinion, early age spay and neuter isn’t having a tremendous effect because the overwhelming number of pet owners are responsible, intelligent people and are in compliance in the first place. They are already spaying and neutering their pets and up to the day that they have the procedure performed they are not allowing their pets to breed indiscriminately and dumping the resulting offspring at the shelter. Considering that multiple studies have indicated that early age spay and neuter is responsible for numerous developmental abnormalities and an overall increase in the cancer rate observed in the pet population, it is ludicrous to me to subject the pets of the already compliant pet owners to increased cancer rates and developmental problems by early age spay and neuter when they are not the reason why the shelters are overflowing. A long time ago, men were neutered in Greece at an early age (eunuch, anyone?). They didn’t exactly grow up and develop normally. The reason why the shelters are full to capacity and/or overflowing is basically because a segment of the pet owning population should never be allowed to own pets in the first place. Until this segment of the population is prevented from pet ownership the likelihood of eliminating the overcrowding at shelters will never be achieved.

There are a number of regulations that can be successfully introduced to discourage the inappropriate ownership of pets by the portion of the population that considers pets disposable. Spaying and neutering at an age appropriate time is important but must be incorporated as part of a much more comprehensive master plan. One of the first things I would propose is to prohibit the transport of dogs and cats into the state of California for sale as pets. In one fell swoop we would then have stopped the interstate transport of puppy mill puppies for sale in the state; pet stores would then be forced to buy pets for resale from in-state breeders. These breeders should be registered with the state and pay a licensing fee in order to operate. Their licensing fee should be based on the number of animals they plan on selling in a calendar year. Pet stores sell puppies and kittens because they are able to buy them for approximately $100-150 (from out-of-state puppy mill operations) and turn around and sell them for over $2000. If they were restricted to buying their inventory of pets from licensed regulated breeders their initial outlay would increase to such an extent that it would no longer be profitable to sell them and therefore the sale of dogs and cats as an “impulse” purchase would theoretically decrease. Those breeders that continued to operate without registration and regulation should be subjected to significant fines and penalties. They should not be able to get off with a slap on the wrists. Listen, I don’t like to pay the City of LA $30k a year to hang out my shingle to practice but that’s the cost of doing business here in California. In the current climate, these breeders are effectively operating as businesses floating under the radar; they pay no business tax and probably don’t report any of their income as taxable. Rational, intelligent breeders should embrace this process as it raises their profile as reputable breeders; those that ignore these regulations obviously have something to hide. After an appropriate amnesty period, fines should be assessed. A significant fine should be assessed. Nobody is going to take this seriously if the penalty is not harsh. Considering the state of California is paying tens of millions of dollars a year to maintain its shelter system, I cannot imagine why any legislator would hesitate to levy significant penalties for failure to comply. If this approach is going to be successful, any state law that targets unlicensed breeders, puppy mills and those that buy pets from them will need to be enforced. A lesson may be learned, however, from the backlash generated by the attempt to legislate a bill which was recently passed by the voters in Missouri.

Earlier this year, Missouri voters thought they scored a big win against some of the nation’s most notorious puppy mills when they approved strict new dog breeding regulations. Proposition B was expected to mend the problems in Missouri, which accounts for about a third of the 10,000 U.S. puppy mills. Now state lawmakers are changing the rules and are now looking at ways to change or repeal it.This state law aimed at cracking down on disreputable breeders and improving animal care, but recently has been overhauled by lawmakers who say the voter-approved version is too costly, and punished legitimate dog-breeders who generate an estimated $1 billion annually in the state. Animal advocates complain elected officials are overruling the will of the people and some are prepared to put the issue on the ballot again next year. The law passed last November on the strength of residents from heavily populated Kansas City and St. Louis but failed in rural areas where many dog breeders operate. But swayed by “legitimate breeders” who argued the law would close them down, a bipartisan group of mostly rural lawmakers voted to change most of the law’s provisions, warning lawmakers the voter-approved law could shutter the industry by limiting the number of the breeding dogs they can own and forcing costly housing upgrades. Critics of the law contend the industry’s worst has tainted public perception and blame many problems on unlicensed breeders.

These breeders contend that the voter-approved measure is just going to put the law-abiding, licensed, legitimate, conscientious, caring breeders out of business, and the only ones remaining will be the illegal people already flying under the radar. These new regulations would price even the responsible breeders out of the industry?  Really? Sounds to me that these lawmakers believe that it’s more important to continue to generate a billion dollars for the state of Missouri than it is to bring the animal welfare standards up to snuff. Considering that Missouri is responsible for at least 1/3 of all cheap puppy mill dogs circulating throughout the United States, enforcing Prop B is important.

The problem with this assertion is that Prop B didn’t make insane demands on breeders. It called for providing food and constant access to clean water, vet care, protection from the elements, exercise, “constant and unfettered access” to the outdoors, room to move around and stretch and rest between breeding cycles. It would apply to breeders with more than 10 dogs and limit the number of breeding dogs to 50 per facility. Violations would result in up to 15 days in jail and a fine of $300, which in my interpretation is still a slap on the wrists. These “legitimate breeders” bemoan the fact that they would actually have to clean up their act, and it would be too expensive to provide animals under their care with appropriate veterinary oversight, expanded living quarters and (heaven forbid) heat and air conditioning to comply with the new regulations. The rural lawmakers (i.e. the neighbor, brother-in-law, etc of these scumbags) proposed Prop SB 113, which removes the limit on the amount of breeding dogs per facility, removes mandatory annual vet exams, substituting a bi-annual “visual” exam, removes restrictions on how often dogs can be bred and removes unfettered access to the outdoors. It also removes a provision stating that dogs should have access to water at all times that is free of “debris, feces, algae and other contaminants” and requires breeders to give water every eight hours instead, which can apparently be clean or dirty. It also removes added space to move, which would have done away with stacked cages. I think it goes without saying that if a responsible breeder cannot meet these basic standards because of cost, perhaps it is an indication that profit-driven facilities shouldn’t traffic in living beings in the first place. Hopefully, more intelligent lawmakers in California will not try to undo the will of the people when it comes to shutting down inappropriate or unlicensed breeding operations which are responsible for flooding the market and eventually the shelter system with numerous animals.

Once it becomes impractical/illegal to buy a pet inexpensively from an unlicensed backyard breeder, potential pet owners would have to ante up to experience the privilege of owning a pet. Now it should be mentioned that if a person purchased a pet from an unlicensed breeder they should be penalized as well. There is no reason to allow the continued sale of cheap, inexpensive pets as this only continues the cycle of purchase and disposal. By raising the entry price of pet ownership, the portion of our society that cannot afford to treat companion animals with respect, kindness and medical care will be priced out of the market. Until the mindset changes that companion animals are nothing more than cheap, easily purchasable pieces of property the same cycle of exploitation and abandonment will continue. Before one lambasts me for wanting to raise the price of animal ownership to justify higher veterinary fees, it should be pointed out that this problem portion of the pet owning public never takes their pets to a veterinarian in the first place. If and when they do, it is rare for an appropriate standard of care to be administered because of the expense. It is cheaper and easier to bring the dog or cat to the shelter and relinquish it, have it euthanized for free and walk down the aisle to the next available receptionist and adopt a new dog or cat for less than the price of a reasonably priced veterinary office call. This is why the next change which needs to be implemented to alleviate shelter overcrowding is to raise the price of purchasing a pet from the shelter system.

Once it becomes impossible to purchase a pet from a puppy mill or unlicensed breeder, the only other available way to purchase a pet cheaply would be from the shelter. If the minimum going rate for purchasing a dog or cat was $800-1000, there is no reason to allow the shelters to give away animals to just anybody for $50-60. It is absurd to continue to enable the portion of the pet owning public that cannot afford to care for their pets the opportunity to purchase one for next to nothing. It re-emphasizes to them that these animals are practically worthless entities instead of sentient beings deserving of respect. Shelter advocates would cry out that an immediate dilemma that would arise is that the number of animals adopted out by the shelter would initially decrease, perhaps dramatically, as they would be unable to find enough homes for animals with responsible intelligent people. The euthanasia rate would rise. This is a bunch of garbage because they are already killing these animals; they kill them when they are returned by this segment of the population because it’s cheaper to return them for a free, convenient euthanasia than to seek appropriate veterinary care. They then allow these people to adopt another one for $50-60 and start the cycle all over again. This is one way that the shelters inflate their own adoption rate; they don’t report to any agency the percentage of dog and cats that are adopted out and eventually returned for euthanasia. It’s a dirty little secret they don’t like to talk about. In order to avoid this potential scenario, however, the shelters should be allowed to adopt out these animals to bona fide, recognized, non-profit rescue groups for $50-60 and allow them to be the gatekeepers for adoption to rational, educated people who are more inclined to treat animals humanely and be responsible pet owners. Once again, because the going rate to purchase a pet would have been raised substantially, it gives these groups the opportunity to adopt out these pets for larger sums of money; this would allow them to generate the funds they need to care for abandoned and uncared for animals more easily, instead of having to consistently beg for donations and operate on a skeleton budget.

While the indigent portion of the population would inevitably complain that they have an inherent right to own animals, I would argue that they do not. Society as a whole should not be forced to shoulder the burden of both the emotional and financial expense of putting unwanted animals to sleep just because these people undervalue the human-animal bond. Their inability to recognize the fact that animals today are to be considered more than just disposable property should be reason enough to stop enabling them to continue this cycle in perpetuity. Their inability to care for animals appropriately is costing the state tens of millions of dollars a year, to say nothing of the abuse and neglect these pets are forced to endure. Before you call me elitist, I will admit that animal abuse and neglect occurs across all levels of socioeconomic strata.  I fully realize the presence of economic stability does not preclude relinquishing a pet to the shelter system. As a veterinarian with approximately 30 years of private practice experience in what would be considered an affluent area of Los Angeles, I have certainly witnessed “affluent” pet owners opt for convenience euthanasia rather than paying for appropriate veterinary care; veterinary care which would not have come close to putting a dent in their standard of living. These are cases in which appropriate care (at reasonable and affordable prices) would have resulted in an excellent recovery and return to a quality of life equal to if not better than what the pets experienced immediately prior to presentation. They didn’t want to spend the money on their pet because they felt that their disposable income would be better spent on other luxuries. They were not emotionally attached or invested in their pet. They considered their pet as nothing more than one more accessory for their lifestyle. While despicable in its own right, these cases are thankfully few and far between and do not contribute significantly to the shelter population. It is, however, undeniable that the overwhelming majority of the pet overpopulation and shelter overcrowding problem is a result of a small portion of the pet owning public that refuses to recognize the value of the human-animal bond.

It is my hope that through spreading awareness and by employing innovative policies to decrease birthrates, increase responsible adoptions and to keep animals with emotionally and financially responsible owners, that many of these defenseless animals can be saved from abuse, neglect and an unwarranted death.

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