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From 10 November 2002 Issue

Early-Age Spay/Neuter and Neuter Before Adoption
By Patricia L. Howard - Anmlsfirst@aol.com

One statistic cites the national compliance rate for sterilization of cats and dogs adopted from public and private shelters and rescue groups to be less than 60 percent. Is it any wonder, then, that shelters are still in the killing business and not in the sheltering business? With seven to 10 million cats and dogs destroyed each year in shelters, it is clear that overpopulation is the greatest killer in the nation of dogs and cats, and a major cause of animal pain and suffering.

The problem of overpopulation can be solved and the number of unwanted cats and dogs substantially reduced if all the tools at the disposal of rescue groups and shelter workers are in place – two of the most critical being early-age spay/neuter (sterilization of puppies and kittens from seven to 16 weeks of age) and neuter before adoption, the policy of sterilizing all adopted animals before they go to their new homes. With more than a decade of research and published veterinary studies to recommend it, the practice of early-age spay/neuter is still not widely practiced by shelters, humane groups, and veterinarians. This is in spite of the success the procedure is shown to have had in reducing numbers of animals brought to shelters each year or abandoned to fend for themselves.

Shelters who have adopted policies of neuter before adoption realize that early-age spay/neuter is the most important aspect of the strategy. The large number of infant animals placed in homes that must otherwise require follow-up scheduling of sterilizations, sometimes months later, increases the risk of these animals falling through the cracks or coming into early reproductive maturity and contributing to the overpopulation problem. Early-age spay/neuter also circumvents the real possibilities of adoptors who are noncompliant with adoption agreements or contracts, those who are financially unable to comply, or those who are simply negligent.

One reason that early-age spay/neuter is not status quo is the fear that it may be disadvantageous, or even dangerous, to the future health of the animal. However, early-age spay/neuter has been endorsed by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). As stated by that organization, "... AVMA supports the concept of early ovariohysterectomies and gonadectomies in dogs and cats, in an effort to stem the overpopulation problem in these species." In his 1987 report published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association (JAVMA), Leo L. Lieberman, DVM, challenged the veterinary profession to take a fresh look at the traditional timing of sterilization. He concluded that kittens and puppies sterilized as early as seven weeks of age suffer no medical or behavioral side effects. He also stated that kittens and puppies sterilized before 12 weeks of age experienced fewer complications from the surgery. A later report by Lieberman addressing the short-term results and complications (or, more specifically, the lack thereof) of prepubertal gonadectomies in cats and dogs appeared in the July 1, 1997 issue of JAVMA. Lieberman received the 1997 Geraldine R. Dodge Humane Ethics in Action Award for his continued work in early-age spay/neuter and neuter before adoption.

Later articles, by Michael G. Arohnson, VMD, and Alicia Fagella, DVM, of the ASPCA's Angell Memorial Hospital in Boston, were published in JAVMA outlining surgical techniques for sterilizing six- to 14-week-old kittens (January 1993), along with techniques for proper anesthesia. "On the basis of our findings in this study and another study," said Arohnson and Flagella, "the anesthetic and surgical risk for neutering pediatric kittens is minimal, providing proper precautions and techniques are used." Peter Theran, VMD, published his study on surgery and anesthesia protocols for both puppies and kittens in the March 1993 issue.

Research by these and other veterinarians points to the safety of early-age sterilization and the lack of evidence to support fears that it may interfere with the animals' development or compromise health in later years. Gloria Binkowski, DVM, in an article for Natural Pet, stated, "While performing sterilization procedures on puppies and kittens does require some adjustment of technique on the part of the surgeon, it seems that performing the surgery on a very young animal is no more difficult, and may even be easier, than on an older animal." She, too, emphasized the effectiveness of the practice in addressing the problem of overpopulation. W. Marvin Mackie, DVM, of Animal Birth Control in San Pedro, California, who has been performing early-age sterilization since 1988, agrees. With four clinics under his supervision, Mackie has been active for more than a decade teaching safe pediatric surgical and anesthetic protocol to veterinarians who wish to make it an integral part of their practices or who wish to assist shelters and humane organizations in their fight against overpopulation.

Mackie demonstrated the technique for early-age sterilization in a video which he makes available to veterinarians, adoption groups, and shelters. The video, showing spays and neuters being performed on cats as young as eight weeks of age, is a convincing testimony to the relative ease of the procedures, both for doctor and patient, compared to the same procedures performed on mature animals (six months of age or older). In a sequence showing a mother cat and her kitten being spayed virtually side by side, the mother's slow recovery contrasted vividly with the extraordinarily quick recovery of her kitten. Mackie stresses that, although the organs are tiny in the juvenile compared to the adult, the procedure is made easier by the lack of bleeding that is a component of mature female cats (who are often coming into heat when the surgery is performed) and by the lack of fatty tissue that in adults must be circumnavigated during abdominal entry and uterine horn retrieval. In a 2002 article for the Pet Savers Foundation, Mackie cites a study conducted at Texas A&M where senior veterinary students performed sterilization surgery on 1,988 cats and dogs which showed that post-surgical complications were the lowest for animals less that 12 weeks of age.

In addition to decreased surgical risk, there is no evidence that the occurrence of FUS (feline urological syndrome), particularly in the male cat, will be increased by pediatric sterilization, according to veterinarians who practice the procedure. Other concerns, such as poor skeletal development and behavior problems, also are unfounded, said Susan Little, DVM, citing studies conducted at the University of Florida, among others. Shelters who have practiced early-age spay/neuter report no increase in physical or behavior problems.

Besides AVMA, early-age sterilization and neuter before adoption has received support from such organizations as the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, the American Animal Hospital Association, the ASPCA, Spay/USA, and the American Humane Association. But with the support of so many veterinarians, university research attesting to its safety, and the obvious positive effect on overpopulation, why have so few shelters adopted early-age spay/neuter as policy, and why are so many veterinarians still reluctant to learn and perform the procedure?

Many of us can recall a time when even spays and neuters of adult animals were not all that common. Over time, demands made for the surgery by educated and responsible guardians of companion animals, as well as shelters and rescue groups, made them so. We also can recall a time such common tests as those for FeLV and FIV were not readily available. These, too, are now standard practice–as are the more holistic and alternative health care options we desired for our animal companions. Consumer education and consumer demand appear to be the keys to obtaining a critical mass of veterinarians who are trained in the techniques (surgical and anesthetic) of early-age sterilization, and are willing to make them part of their practice. It also is crucial that these techniques be taught at veterinary schools, as they now are at Tufts, Washington State University, and Texas A&M, among others.

Representatives of shelters and rescue organizations that practice early-age sterilization and neuter before adoption report that adoptors are happy with the program because they are released from the responsibility of remembering to make the trip to the veterinarian. Moreover, they are able to reach a segment of the working poor who, even with reduced fees cannot always afford visits to the veterinarian. They also say that they are actively addressing their mission to reduce animal suffering and paint a brighter picture for the future of unwanted animals–one that all too often ends in death. Mindful of the success of neuter before adoption, the safety of early-age spay/neuter, and the unbelievable numbers of unwanted cats and dogs that are still being killed or abandoned each year, releasing unsterilized animals to adoptive homes is a risk that shelters and rescue groups should no longer be willing to take.

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