For most of us, the unusually warm spring that much of the country is experiencing is a welcome relief from winter. But for people who work in animal shelters, it signals an early start to the most dreaded time of year: kitten and puppy season.
Dogs and cats reproduce year-round, but early spring through late fall is prime breeding time—especially for cats, whose heat cycles are triggered by increased daylight hours. People who thought they could wait “just a bit longer” to have their cat spayed are often surprised to find out their kitten has become a mother herself. Female cats can go into heat every two to three weeks and can become pregnant while they are still nursing kittens—which means that one cat can give birth to multiple litters over the course of a single season.
Where do all these kittens and puppies go? Some end up on the streets, where many die young and in pain after being hit by cars, succumbing to diseases, starving or crossing paths with cruel people. Others pour into animal shelters across the country, leaving them scrambling to accommodate the surge of kittens and puppies. One shelter near Atlanta reported that it typically takes in 400 to 500 stray kittens each month during kitten season.
Baby animals may be cute, but their overabundance leaves shelters in an ugly situation. With 6 to 8 million animals entering U.S. shelters every year, most are constantly filled to capacity. In order to accommodate the deluge of baby animals during kitten and puppy season, open-admission shelters (those that never turn animals away) must euthanize other animals who have been at the shelter for a while to make room for the newcomers.
Playful kittens and puppies tend to steal the show (and people’s hearts), making it even less likely that the gentle, affectionate adult animals who have been waiting in shelters for homes will ever be adopted. But with so many litters flooding shelters, not even adorable kittens and puppies are guaranteed a home. Every day, caring shelter workers are forced to hold animals in their arms and euthanize them—including those whose lives have just begun—simply because there aren’t enough good homes for them all.
This tragedy could end if we all spayed or neutered our animals. Sterilizing even one cat or dog can prevent thousands more from being born only to end up on the streets, in the hands of abusive people or in shelters. Without spaying, one female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 dogs in six years, and one unaltered female cat and her descendants can lead to a staggering 370,000 cats in only seven years. Male animals contribute to the overpopulation crisis even more than females do: Just one unsterilized male animal can impregnate dozens of females, creating hundreds of unwanted offspring.
Sterilization also has many health benefits for animals. Female cats and dogs who are spayed before their first heat cycle have one-seventh the risk of developing mammary cancer. Spaying eliminates female animals’ risk of diseases and cancers of the ovaries and uterus, which are often life-threatening and can require expensive treatments, including surgery. Neutering eliminates male animals’ risk of testicular cancer and reduces unwanted forms of behavior such as biting.
By having our animal companions sterilized and helping our friends, family and everyone we know understand why it’s so important for them to do the same, we can save lives and make spring a season of hope instead of sadness for animals and the people who care about them.