SpayAware Week aims to stop pet over-population
Rosie, a cheeky looking Saluki-lurcher cross, just loved the lens when she joined Claire Byrne at a recent photo shoot.
Rosie is a lucky dog who was only recently rescued, restored to health and given a new home thanks to the efforts of the ISPCA. She could so easily have been just another statistic, adding to the number of unwanted dogs that don't have such happy endings.
The photo shoot had been organised to promote SpayAware Week, which runs from 24th to 31st May. It's a time when vets and animal welfare groups across the country join forces to promote spaying and neutering pets, and it has been held annually since 2002. The main motivating factor for everyone involved when starting SpayAware was the depressingly high number of unwanted dogs and cats languishing in pounds, roaming the streets and being euthanased. At that time, over 20,000 dogs were put to sleep in Ireland's dog pounds, and there was an uncountable number of unowned cats living an existence of quiet, hungry desperation. During the 13 years that the campaign has run, the situation has significantly improved. The headline stray dog destruction rate, which is the most objective way we have of measuring "unwanted dogs", has reduced dramatically from 21,357 in 2002 to around 4000 in 2014, a reduction of over 75%. This is still far too many: SpayAware organisers have said that they won't see the job as "done" until less than 1,000 dogs are euthanased every year. It's harder to measure the situation with unwanted cats, but the fact that it can be difficult to find a pet kitten for much of the year has to be a sign that reckless cat breeding is gradually coming under control.
Of course, there have been many factors involved in the reduction of the "kill" rate of dogs. As well as SpayAware promoting the concept of controlling a pet's reproductive capacity, there have been a number of subsidised neutering schemes to help financially disadvantaged owners cover the costs of the operation. The Dogs Trust scheme, which has been the largest, has helped almost 100,000 dogs to be spayed or neutered. Additionally, there has been improved co-operation between dog pounds and local animal rescue groups, so far more dogs than previously are taken out of pounds and rehomed.
SpayAware has always stressed the health benefits for pets of being neutered or spayed, including the dramatic reduction in the incidence of mammary tumours (female dogs spayed before their first season enjoy over 90% reduction in the risk of this nasty cancer), the reduction in male-related conditions (such as tumours under the tail, and certain types of hernias), and the fact that, on average, dogs and cats that are spayed/neutered live longer lives than animals that are left "entire".
In recent years, one of the exciting developments in veterinary medicine has been the ability to use computerised data collection to carry out exhaustive population studies of pets. Most vets now store their patient records on computers, and researchers have developed privacy-protected ways of tapping into vets' computer systems to extract useful information about health and disease. This is a new branch of veterinary science, and we are learning more about important aspects such as the long term effects of the timing of spaying and castration.
Thirty years ago, many vets recommended that a female dog should be allowed to have her first season before spaying. Some even suggested that she ought to have a litter of pups. In fact, these recommendations were merely based on "opinion" rather than "hard data", and around twenty years ago, vets began to recommend that the operation should be done before the first season, when a young dog was five or six months of age. This is still the most common recommendation, although it's always worth discussing with your own vet who may take a different view.
The latest studies are coming up with some facts that may change this recommendation again: in large or giant breed dogs, experts are suggesting that it is wiser to wait until they are skeletally mature, at around 18 months of age. The latest SpayAware recommendations reflect this new information, stressing the fact that the decision on timing should be done on an individual basis, after talking to your vet. Advice will continue to change in coming years as we learn more about the complex effect of removing a pet's reproductive hormones.
There are interesting international comparisons on spaying and neutering: in Norway, it is illegal for vets to do the operations. They are seen as "mutilations", in the same way as we see tail docking as unethical. Despite the absence of spaying, there is no stray dog problem in Norway because they have a more ordered, organised society in general. One interesting result of the ban on spay/neuter is that Norwegian vets are kept very busy doing another type of surgery: removal of mammary tumours. Here in Ireland, it is now rare for vets to need to operate on mammary tumours, since early spaying is so effective at preventing them.
Do you want to know more about spaying/neutering dogs and cats? Visit www.spayaware.ie to find out more.