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Spay/Neuter Wars:

Dog Owners Enter the Ring at Local Dog Parks

By Kym Cunningham, Contributing Writer

There is a war going on in Long Beach, a war fought in the most unlikely of places: the dog park. It can be seen in the nervous sizing up of new dogs when they enter the metal gates, as their owners unlatch harnesses from bellies. It is a war often fought only with stickers, flyers and sharpened glares as pets are corralled into opposing corners of a dust-covered park. But on occasion, these hostilities bubble up into angry words that boil in the unrelenting sunlight: “Fix your dog!”

On March 17, 2015, Long Beach passed an ordinance requiring that all dogs over the age of six months be spayed or neutered. The law was slated to go into effect in October of 2015. Now, more than two years after the law was passed, the required de-sexing of the Long Beach dog community remains no less controversial.

Based on the population of Long Beach, General Manager of Long Beach Animal Care Services Ted Stevens estimates that more than 100,000 dogs live within city limits, about 50,000 of which are registered with the city. Half of these registrations are not current. Animal Care Services, also known as ACS, has registrations for 1,400 unaltered dogs within Long Beach, although Stevens estimates that the number of unaltered dogs who actually live in Long Beach is close to 11,000.

Knocking on Doors

The spay/neuter ordinance is largely enforced via door-to-door canvassing by Animal Care Services workers.

“We’ll pick an area, and we’ll generally try to target areas where we have more expired, or what we call temporary, licenses — licenses that are out of compliance,” Stevens said. “We’ll run a report in our system, which will print out all of the animals in that area that we know about…. On those houses, we’ll specifically go up and knock; try to make contact. If they’re not home, we’ll leave a door hanger. We’ll try to work with them to get them in compliance. We can sell them a license on site or we can give them the information to mail it in.”

For houses in which the dog is both unregistered and anatomically whole, ACS workers will issue warnings and vouchers for free or low-cost de-sexing, attempting to educate residents so that they can get in compliance with the Long Beach ordinance. ACS generally allots a two-month window for residents to spay or neuter their dogs, after which they begin to issue fines.

“[Door-to-door canvassing] is one of the ways in which licensing can be enforced, as well as one of the ways in which to help reduce the ongoing problem of over pet population,” said Deborah Kopit, CEO and operations manager of the nonprofit Healthcare & Emergency Animal Rescue Team, or HEART.

HEART provides, among other services, low-cost spay/neuter clinics in Long Beach.

“It also often provides an opportunity to pet owners to become further educated on responsible pet ownership and provides resources for them to obtain vaccinations, microchips and spaying/neutering,” Kopit said. “Unfortunately, the ratio of pet owners in every county far outweighs that of canvassing officers and the manpower available within many of our cities has been reduced or eliminated for licensing canvassing due to lack of funds for these agencies.”

Considering that more than 85 percent of unaltered dogs are unlicensed within Long Beach, the task of door-to-door canvassing seems an insurmountable challenge, the kind that begs the question, Where do you even begin?

An (In)/Effective Ordinance

In this age of fake and Twitter-inspired news, it is only reasonable to begin with the facts. But in America, even these seem up for debate. Part of the controversy concerning Long Beach’s de-sexing laws stems from conflicting evidence in both ACS data and scientific research.

Most organizations, including the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, argue adamantly for the wholesale desexing of American pets. And when faced with the overwhelming and heartbreaking numbers — about 7 million homeless animals enter American shelters every year, less than half of which are adopted — it absolutely makes sense to desex every pet.

However, when these numbers are localized or when these pets are individualized, the validity of the practice becomes much less clear.

While Animal Care Services proclaims its progress with a record year of low dog impounds and euthanasia in 2016, these numbers cannot necessarily be linked to the city’s de-sexing mandate. From 2011 to 2016, dog impounds by the City of Long Beach Animal Care Services steadily decreased, as did the number of dogs euthanized since 2012. Indeed, 2015 itself saw the greatest drop in dog euthanasia — down by 40 percent since 2014. Considering the desexing laws had only been in place since October of that year and that this substantial decrease did not continue but rather returned to its normalized rate, it seems faulty reasoning to directly link this ordinance to a profound decrease in dog impounds and euthanasia.

However, the first six months of 2017 witnessed a substantial decrease in the number of dogs euthanized, although the number of dogs impounded remained at a similarly steady rate of decline. From January to June of 2017, ACS euthanized almost 65 percent fewer dogs than it had in the first six months of 2016; around four percent of the dogs it impounded, which was down from almost 11 percent the previous year. It remains to be seen, however, whether this downward trend in the rate of euthanasia will continue in the latter half of 2017.

While dogs enjoy their playful day at the park, many owners spend their time there feuding about whether dogs should or should not be desexed. Milo and Cooper modeled for this photo. Photo by Raphael Richardson

Stevens said that pit bull (a generic term used for any of the bully breeds) or chihuahua mixes make up almost half of the dogs that are impounded and euthanized.

“The number of pit bulls impounded over the last few years has averaged around 20 percent,” Stevens said. “For chihuahuas, it hovers around 25 to 30 percent.”

Although Stevens said that the majority of the animals that are euthanized or impounded are not fixed, it seems a tenuous claim to link the spay/neuter ordinance to the annual decrease in impounded and euthanized dogs.

“[The ordinance] is just one more tool,” said Stevens. “Our goal is obviously always to work with the people and get them in compliance, not necessarily heavy-handed enforcement. We really reserve that when we need it.”

Taming Wild Urges

Along with the lack of clarity concerning desexing’s relevance to the number of homeless or euthanized dogs, the touted health benefits associated with pet desexing remain unclear.

However, many pet healthcare groups and organizations, HEART and the Humane Society among them, vehemently argue for the overall health benefits attached to pet desexing.

“’Fixing’ pets often ‘fixes’ problems relating to behavioral and health/safety issues,” Kopit said.

Multiple studies corroborate the assertions of both Kopit and the Humane Society that a desexed pet is a healthy pet. In 2013, Banfield Pet Hospital released the State of Pet Health Report which showed that unneutered dogs are more than twice as likely to be hit by a car or bitten by another animal due to their propensity to “roam” to find a mate.

“Neutering male pets will help stop them from reacting to the ‘call of the wild’ when they smell females in heat,” said Kopit. “This in turn will help prevent them from wanting to escape from their own yards or homes to react to that sexual drive and will ultimately help prevent them from being hit by cars, injured or killed in fights with other animals, or simply lost or stolen. Animals can contract sexual diseases, as can humans. So, when pets don’t mate, the risk of such disease is gone. Dogs and cats can contract other diseases through close contact with other un-vaccinated pets. Thus, by reducing the risk of unsupervised contact, you are reducing the risk of the spread of other diseases as well.”

Neutering in particular has also been linked to curbing undesirable behavior, such as urine-marking and aggression.

However, it is also important to note that these are traits usually linked to testosterone, a hormone whose appearance is not limited to the testicles of male dogs.

Studies have shown correlations between neutering and the prevention of testicular cancer as well as between spaying and breast cancer and pyometra — a uterine infection that must be cured via emergency spay. For females, pregnancy itself can often be fatal. In both males and females, de-sexing has been linked to a reduction in the risk of perianal fistula — a painful skin disease in which infected boils surround the dog’s anus.

Scientific Grey Area

For every fact that seems to advocate pet desexing, there is a similar detractor. In females, early spaying can lead to incontinence and an increased risk of urinary tract infections, which is especially important considering organizations like the ASPCA claim that dogs can be desexed as early as eight weeks old.

A study completed by UC Davis in 2013 found that allowing some of the reproductive hormones to flood the dog’s system — most of which are within the dog’s sex — can be beneficial to that animal’s future health. The study found that golden retrievers desexed before one year of age had increased risk of hip dysplasia and torn ligaments due to uneven bone growth, which could be tied to an imbalance or disruption in their reproductive hormones as a result of desexing. These dogs were also found to be four times as likely to develop bone cancer.

Most opponents of pet desexing argue that it leads to obesity and lethargy, which then dramatically increase the likelihood that the pet will develop joint disease, arthritis, heart disease and diabetes. Except in some cases of hypothyroidism, however, desexing is not to blame for weight gain; rather, overeating and lack of exercise are the true culprits. A desexed dog often needs less food and more exercise than its intact counterparts, usually less than it was fed before the surgery. Many pet owners do not realize this, leading to a false correlation between desexing and obesity-related health complications.

All About the Owners

In looking at the varied findings from different studies, it is difficult to say whether desexing is healthier or more harmful for dogs, and in many ways, the health benefits seem to correlate more to the specific breed or individual dog than to vast generalizations. As such, it seems at the very least misguided to force owners to desex their dogs.

But the ordinance might not have ever been put in place to promote the health of dogs. Rather, proponents of this bill, among them Councilwoman Stacy Mungo, stressed its importance in promoting responsibility among Long Beach pet owners. And so, it would seem that the true argument behind this ordinance lies not in the health of the animals but in the doubt of their owners’ relative capacities to care for their pets.

Kym Cunningham
Kym Cunningham
Kym Cunningham received her MFA from San Jose State University with emphases in creative nonfiction and poetry. As well as writing articles for Random Lengths News, she has been published in more than a dozen literary journals and anthologies. Her first poetry chapbook, l’appel du vide, is scheduled for publication in January of 2018.

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