On Spaying and Neutering

As zoos, we tend to find ourselves frequently up against the concept of consent. “Animals can’t consent” is one of the most common phrases I get from strangers on social media, and I’ve always found that interesting. Consent is a complicated topic, especially when you get to even steeper barriers like informed consent. However, as much as I hate to say it, I have to agree with the anti’s on this one. In our society today, animals can’t consent. We give them absolutely no room to consent. Their opinion is very rarely considered, if ever. In fact, the very beginning of most pets’ lives start with a brutal showcase of this lack of consent. I doubt that breeders are asking the permission of a newborn animal’s parents before taking that child and selling them to a human family. And that’s not even the end of it.

When it comes to people saying “animals can’t consent,” they usually aren’t referring to the kidnapping, nor do they tend to talk about the way animals are treated in factory farming. Instead, that slogan almost exclusively refers to sex. What they’re essentially saying is that animals don’t have the capacity to choose whether or not they want to do the deed with humans. Frequently seen with this line of logic is that animals not only can’t choose to have sex with humans, but that they flat out don’t have the capacity to want to have sex with humans at all. Clearly, this isn’t true. There are tons of examples out there of animals that display interest in humans, from dogs to horses to dolphins, monkeys. Pretty much any animal that deems us compatible. So where does this idea of “animals can’t consent” come from? Well, this is just my opinion, but I think a lot of it comes down to the pets that we have at home, and another decision that we decide to make on our animals’ behalves: spaying and neutering.

When people adopt animals, typically one of the first things you do is get them spayed or neutered. This tends to occur around the age of six or nine months old, generally right before the age where they would reach sexual maturity. In humans, just as a point of comparison, that would be around ten or eleven years old. This procedure is done for a number of reasons. I’ll be talking about larger shelters later, but for now when talking about household pets, there tends to be three major reasons cited. First of all, the claim is that it keeps the animals healthier, and elongates their lifespan. Secondly, it helps with training and can curb any behavioral issues. And finally, in order to stop your animal from breeding with any other members of their species, to avoid any unexpected parents. I wanna touch on all of these points, so let’s just start from the top.

According to the Humane Society, on average dogs that are spayed and neutered are healthier. They say that they’re less likely to get certain cancers, infections, or have other complications. They, as well as many other sources on the internet, say that when you choose (for your pet of course) to undergo this procedure, you’re making the animal have a better chance to live a long and healthy life. And while there have been some studies to back up those claims, it’s important to dig a little deeper into the topic. When it comes to those cancers, infections and complications, there’s one thing that they tend to have in common. They affect the genitals. This makes sense, of course. You can’t get ovarian cancer if you have no ovaries. But is that really a great argument for their removal in that case? We have two kidneys, but you can live with one. Yet I don’t see anyone out there advocating for kidney removal to halve our chances of having kidney complications. What this concept is saying, in the end, is that the genitals of animals are less important than the rest of the animal. We’re choosing to mutilate our animals for some perceived health benefit to them because we’ve decided that they have non-essential parts that we can lop off or hack out instead. And, the worst part of it is, even factoring in the chance of having genital issues, the health detriments may outweigh the benefits. More recently conducted studies have found that dogs who are “fixed” tend to have much higher rates of obesity, as well as developing joint problems earlier.

But it’s not just physical health problems that this procedure creates. There’s another level to it too. Animals, just like humans, go through puberty. Similarly to us, this is the age where the body goes through a ton of different changes in order to prepare for adulthood. Some of these changes are more self apparent than others. Size and weight fluctuation, a development of the genitals in preparation for breeding, and a ton of neurochemical changes. Which brings us to the next frequently touted benefit of spaying and neutering. That it can curb “behavioral issues.” Hopping back to the Humane Society, they list a few of the amazing perks. It can stop your pets (especially cats) from urine marking. It can keep your animals calmer. It alleviates certain “aggressive behaviors.” It decreases their desire to roam. It lowers their desire to vocalize. And, of course, it can stop mounting. So essentially, it can help keep your animal docile and easier to control. In essence, it’s similar to the lobotomies that we used to inflict on people for much of the same reasons. There are lots of ways that owning dogs can be inconvenient for us, the humans, in the relationship, and so it’s much easier to mutilate them so they’re less likely to take those actions. Of course, the earlier that you spay or neuter, the more likely it is that you can nip these problems in the bud before they ever become issues. This is because those actions are all associated with the neurochemicals created during puberty. Urine marking and aggression comes from the innate instinct to set off and claim territory. Roaming occurs because much like most humans, animals don’t tend to live with their parents forever. Vocalization occurs because the animal is trying to learn to communicate. And, as you can probably assume, mounting is because the animals are reaching the age where they become horny, and have a desire to get off.

These are all natural behaviors in pretty much all animals. They’re essential skills learned through generations and generations of evolution in order to perpetuate the species. Or at least, they were essential until we as humans decided that we didn’t need our pets doing that kind of thing anymore. Much like the “health benefits,” this serves no purpose for the animals in question. It’s a mutilation of convenience, because we can’t be bothered to try and help an animal through an awkward teenage phase. Instead, we make eunuchs out of them, so they can stay perpetually as our little fur babies, absolutely denied the ability to ever develop properly into adulthood, denied the ability to create little ones of their own.

There’s something kind of ironic about animal ownership. Baby animals, just like baby humans, are the result of two animals having sex, getting pregnant, going through that whole process, and then popping out some kids. We, however, after getting our hands on these newborn animals, decide that that’s the end of the line. No more family tree for this one, we snip off that branch good and quick. As some kind of substitute, we adopt them into our own families. They become our children. This isn’t a condemnation of the people that own pets necessarily. There are tons of amazing pet owners out there that really do treat that animal like anyone else. They love them, cherish them, and mourn them when they’re gone. And then, that’s it. No family for them. No chance to have their own kids to raise and share that kind of experience with. And, in some ways that makes sense. If your dog has kids with another dog, even assuming you then have to take responsibility for half of the resulting puppers, and then those puppers get old enough to breed on their own, and then they have their own litters, you could be drowning in dogs pretty quickly, and most people aren’t really looking for that level of responsibility when they’re looking to get a new pet. But at the same time, it’s important to realize that once again, that’s a decision that we’re making on our animal’s behalf, for our own convenience. Creating a family is one of the most natural things in the world. Some would go so far as to call reproduction the real “meaning of life.” But the way that we treat animal ownership isn’t natural. It’s one of the farthest things from it. And if we’re talking about whether or not animals are able to consent, then consent should be a pretty big factor in whether or not we’re de-sexing them.

There are, however, some more nuanced conversations. This could be a whole article itself (and may turn into one at some point), but this thought piece would feel incomplete without a mention towards shelters. Animal shelters are extremely controversial, especially kill shelters, but to a world ruled by humans they can also be necessary to some degree. The amount of dogs and cats there are in the wild is incredibly inflated due to the way that we breed them. Not only that, but since we’ve eliminated many of the predators that would naturally hunt them, wild members of the species can live relatively worry free. Because of that, a wild population of dogs or cats can become a big issue fairly quickly. Unfortunately, animals don’t tend to understand the concept of population control, and so without some means of controlling the population for them, escaped pets could turn into a whole hoard of feral animals that could cause a lot of damage to the local ecosystem, and in some cases even pose a threat to humans.

Even for non-kill shelters, the complexity of keeping animals in close proximity together while not allowing them to create more homeless animals is made much easier if those animals just don’t have the ability to breed. In this case, there’s a much stronger argument to be made about the necessity of spaying and neutering. It’s an unfortunate reality that some people that decide to adopt an animal are just going to shove the animal out the front door instead of taking them back to a shelter if they decide they don’t want them anymore, and so by making it standard policy to remove an animal’s ability to breed, they’re cutting off a potential future problem at the source. Animal shelters tend to be underfunded as-is without having to worry that every animal they give away might lead to six more coming back. Unfortunately, there’s no “gotcha” with this paragraph, or some positive spin. Like I said, it’s a very complicated discussion, and any possible solutions come with their own positives and negatives that are worth discussing in further detail. It just would have felt disingenuous to write a whole article about spaying and neutering without talking about shelters. Anyway, moving on.

According to the Washington Post, approximately 70% of dogs are sterilized, with other sources reporting numbers as high as 85%. With cats, the number starts at 85%. While this number is somewhat inflated by shelters and wild animals, that number is still way too high. There’s approximately 90 million dogs in the states, which means the low ball estimate is that vets have snipped about 63,000,000 of the dogs who are currently alive and living in the land of the free. And all because we want dogs to be something that they’re not. We want to just avoid any of the rough edges that can exist when we choose to own another animal, making the experience as stress free for us as possible, regardless of what that means for them.

The idea that animals can’t consent is so hilariously fragile of an idea once you take a second to think about it. Of course they can. Horses in general don’t like being approached from behind. They have trouble seeing in that direction, and so it can be scary for them if they don’t know what’s coming. If you approach a horse from behind and they don’t consent to you being there, you might be getting a hoof in the face. That’s the horse not consenting to you entering their personal space. If you tease a cat, and they end up scratching you, they didn’t consent to being teased. On the other hand, if I’m petting my partner and he rolls onto his back, that’s a good indicator that he’s open and receptive to belly rubs. He’s consenting to that action. This is a pretty easy concept to understand. So, it’s crazy to me that when we take animals, typically while they’re children, sedate them, and then literally remove parts of their body, that’s somehow not more of a consent issue than letting my partner get off every now and then.

There are, thankfully, some newer alternatives that may be better in some regards. Unfortunately, they pretty much only exist for dogs, so if you’re someone that needs to de-sex a cat or other animal, you might be out of luck for now. While these haven’t had nearly as much research done as more “traditional” methods, if you do need to sterilize your dog, here are a few options for you to look into.

For male dogs, you can get chemical castration. This involves injecting a chemical into the testicles of dogs who haven’t reached maturity yet in order to try and curb the creation of sex hormones. Studies claim that it will render the dog unable to breed, but lets them keep their testicles, and still have some hormonal development.

There’s also a vasectomy. This is pretty much exactly the procedure that humans can opt into if they’re trying to remove their ability to produce offspring. A small incision is made in order to disrupt the pathway of sperm so that they can’t reach the eggs even if sex does happen. This is by all general understanding just a superior means of population control in canines. It’s faster, easier, and keeps all the benefits of having the sex hormones produced. Really, the only downside is that it’s not a very common procedure. You may have to do some shopping around to find a vet that’s both knowledgeable and willing enough to do it, and even if you do find them you may have to pay a premium for it. That said, if you can, this is the vastly superior option in nearly every way.

For female dogs, the typical spay process is called an ovariohysterectomy. It involves taking out both the uterus and the ovaries. There is a slightly less invasive process known as an ovariectomy, where only the ovaries are removed. This version is much more common in Europe, where the full removal is more common in North America. While neither is great, if you have the option between the two, opting for the one that only removes one body part is probably the lesser of two evils.

Similarly to the ovariectomy, female dogs can also get a hysterectomy. This process, as you may assume from the name, specifically takes out only the uterus. It’s a good option to avoid any unnecessary removals, as it will assure that pregnancy won’t happen, and it will still allow the generation of gender based hormones through puberty and adulthood. It is still a surgical procedure, which always has risk, but if something’s getting removed, this is a fairly good option.

There’s also tubal ligation. This is another procedure frequently done on humans who no longer want to be able to have children. Much like the vasectomy, this keeps all the sex hormones intact, and will lead to her still having a heat cycle and attracting males. It just means that she won’t be able to actually get pregnant. This is the best option for if you need to sterilize a female. Unfortunately, most vets aren’t trained on how to do it, and you may need to find a specialist, and specialists are always more expensive.

I really hope in the future we can live in a society where mutilating our pets isn’t the cultural standard, but at least if we do have to, hopefully we can do it with a little bit more consideration towards limiting harm and life experience. While there’s no way for an animal to consent to a lesser operation over a major one, at the very least it’s an action we’re trying to take with the animal in mind. And the best way to get there is to have conversations and spread information. If you have friends or family members that are looking at bringing an animal into their lives, talk to them about the issues with spaying and neutering. It doesn’t need to be zoo revealing at all. I’ve listed a ton of reasons why it’s a bad system without ever bringing up human animal sex. Even without the lens of zoosexuality, spaying and neutering is a frankly monstrous solution to a problem that we’re creating with our own desire to own other living creatures for our own pleasure. It’s my dream that we can stop talking about sex like it’s abuse, and start looking at the actual real case of abuse so normalized by society.

This is Tarro, reminding you that controlling the pet population doesn’t require you to spay or neuter your pets.

And yes, I am ending with a Price is Right reference.

Article written by Tarro (November 2022)

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