ASPCA Statement Concerning Spay and Neuter of Shelter Animals During the COVID-19 Crisis
Response to the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered drastic and unprecedented restrictions of private and government agency activities to perform only “essential services.” Given that many of the services animal shelters provide are critical to ensure animal welfare and the health and safety of communities as a whole, animal sheltering has been deemed “essential” in many of the mandates coming down as the COVID 19 response unfolds.
Pandemic Creates Operational and Legal Challenges for Shelter, Veterinary Services
However, significant operational challenges stemming from the pandemic threaten the capacity of many shelters to provide animal care and veterinary medical services. Staff and volunteer shortages due to illness or quarantine and the need to engage in “social distancing” make providing the full range of critical sheltering services nearly impossible in many locations for the immediate future. Against this backdrop, there are recent requirements and recommendations, including some from the U.S. Surgeon General, to suspend elective or non-essential surgical procedures, which may be interpreted as applying to routine, non-emergency spay/neuter surgeries.
Competition for Protective Gear Raises New Barriers
Even where spay/neuter services are expressly deemed “essential” (such as in New York State), health care workers across the country are being forced to endanger themselves due to the increasing scarcity of personal protective equipment (including facemasks and shields, gowns, and gloves). As a result, there have been calls for the temporary suspension of all but the most urgent medical procedures – for both animals and people – so this crucial protective gear can be used when it is most needed. These restrictions, shortages, and competing interests raise new barriers to adopting or placing animals, particularly in jurisdictions where the law restricts the adoption of dogs or cats who have not been spayed or neutered.
S/N Saves Lives During Normal Operations
This reality has a tremendous impact on the ability of the animal welfare field to accomplish its mission. Spay/neuter has moved the needle exponentially in reducing the population of animals entering shelters and in jeopardy of never leaving. The ASPCA’s deep commitment to high-quality, affordable spay/neuter services is reflected in the more than 90,000 spay/neuter surgeries we perform each year (in NYC, Los Angeles, Miami and Asheville, NC) for our own animals, the pets of owners with financial challenges, homeless dogs and cats being cared for by partner shelters and rescue groups, and community cats. Yet even the ASPCA has been compelled under these circumstances to temporarily suspend most of our spay/neuter operations.
Temporary Suspension of S/N Will Save Lives During the Pandemic
Among the things we have traditionally done so well in this field is to face head on challenges that seem insurmountable. We have done this in the past with a united purpose and a unified voice and there is no doubt that we will do so again as we face the potentially daunting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our commitment to spay/neuter service is unflagging. But we must stretch to meet extenuating circumstances and endeavor to ensure that vulnerable shelter animals leave the shelter alive, even in times of great uncertainty.
To that end, during this crisis, the ASPCA supports animal shelters’ liberal exercise of discretion, where allowed by law, to adopt or place unaltered animals, particularly where placement is necessary to avoid euthanasia or where essential staffing levels are reduced due to COVID-19.
In the vast majority of states, unaltered animals may be adopted pursuant to an agreement that they will be spayed or neutered by a later date. Also, it’s important to note, that in the handful of states where spay/neuter is mandated without exception, emergency surgeries, such as a spay to address a pyometra, may well be subject to different considerations from routine spay or neuter procedures and still be permissible. Even in jurisdictions where the law does not afford shelters the option of placing unaltered animals and requiring spay/neuter at a later time, state and local executive orders being issued across the country in response to COVID-19 may provide another option for getting animals out of the shelter and into adoptive homes. Governors and local government executives typically have authority to temporarily suspend or modify existing laws during a declared disaster if compliance with those laws would hinder or delay action to respond to the disaster or if to do so is necessary to assist in coping with the disaster.
Executive Orders Should Allow for Suspension of S/N
Executive orders issued in response to COVID-19 have, to date, suspended court proceedings, extended the time for renewing driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, and suspended enforcement of eviction orders. Shelters should consider proactively engaging with state and local government to urge that these orders include suspension of spay/neuter law requirements during the COVID-19 crisis, particularly if these services have already been deemed “non-essential” or otherwise cannot reasonably be performed during the pandemic.
It stands to reason that if shelter services are considered “essential,” the intention is for one of the primary focuses of sheltering – adoptions – to continue. Thus, continuing that work in states that mandate spay/neuter requires either that these surgeries are performed or that the requirement for spay/neuter is suspended. It also makes good sense to carefully review executive orders already issued to determine if suspension of laws, rules, or regulations are sufficiently broad to cover spay/neuter requirements even when they are not expressly mentioned. Also keep in mind the innovative thinking of your shelter colleagues around the country who are finding creative ways to move many more animals out of the shelter into foster homes, thereby freeing up precious kennel space and following a course that typically does not implicate shelter spay/neuter requirements.
All of us in the animal welfare community are committed to spay/neuter as a critical priority. The measures we are compelled to take in these dire circumstances are not inconsistent with this commitment as both share the goal of ensuring that adoptable shelter animals get out of the shelter alive. They are temporary, compassionate and necessary measures, undertaken in a time of unparalleled urgency. When we weather the storm that is COVID-19, we will, together, ensure that spay/neuter continues to play its vital life-saving role in communities across the country.