A new Payson Humane Society policy, which requires all dogs and cats to be spayed or neutered before their new owners take them home, is being lauded by some and denounced by others.
Jim Larkin, who manages the facility, said the board's unanimous decision to adopt the new policy was necessary because too many people weren't using the shelter's voucher system, which allowed new owners to spay or neuter adopted pets at their leisure.
"Some 10 to 20 percent never got the procedure done, and it was creating hundreds of new animals for us to deal with," Larkin said.
Under the new policy, the humane society makes an appointment with a local vet to spay or neuter the animals as they are adopted. New pet owners pick the animals up at the vet after surgery.
Animals must be at least two months old before they can undergo the procedure. If an animal is younger when adopted, the humane society will keep it until it reaches the minimum age.
Critics of the new policy, which went into effect last month, worry that it's not as safe for the animals as the previous policy, which allowed pet owners to wait until their animals were older before having them spayed or neutered.
"Waiting until they are six months old allows them to develop physically," said Tammy Jones, a former humane society employee who resigned to protest the new policy. "It allows their immune systems to develop."
Diane Mulvey, who had been a humane society volunteer for 11 years before recently resigning, said she thinks early spaying and neutering can cause urinary problems and other difficulties. "It's a real horror story," Mulvey said.
Gloria Scott, president of the humane society, disagrees.
"Science has come so far that it is now an absolutely safe procedure," Scott said.
The Arizona Humane Society is 100 percent behind an early spaying/neutering policy, spokesperson Kim Noetzel said. "It is absolutely safe for animals as young as 8 weeks who weigh at least 2.5 pounds," she said.
Some private vets still adhere to a six-month policy, Noetzel said, but the "world of sheltering and the world of the private vet are like apples and oranges. Pet overpopulation is such a horrific problem that shelters simply have to have such a policy."
Young animals are carefully examined before undergoing the procedure, she said. "We will hold off if the kitten has an upper respiratory infection or for any other reason that would make the procedure unsafe."
Emily Kane, executive director of the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association, said her organization complies with a position statement adopted in 1999 by its parent organization, the American Veterinary Medical Association. That statement reads:
"The American Veterinary Medical Association supports the concept of early (prepubertal, 8-16 weeks of age) gonadectomies in dogs and cats in an effort to reduce the number of unwanted animals of these species. Just as for other veterinary procedures, veterinarians should use their best medical judgment in deciding at what age gonadectomies should be performed on individual animals."
Most Rim country vets agree, with the lone exception being Dr. Lorenzo Gonzales who refuses to spay or neuter animals younger than six months. Gonzales was unavailable for comment, but a staff member confirmed his position on the issue.
Dr. Sandra Snyder and Dr. Patti Blackmore, both local vets, disagree with Gonzales.
"In a shelter situation, I think it is very appropriate," Snyder said. "It costs shelters a lot of money for spaying and neutering and they need to know that it gets done."
Blackmore pointed out a study on cats recently detailed in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"Compared with traditional-age gonadectomy," the study concluded, "prepubertal gonadectomy did not result in an increased incidence of infectious disease, behavioral problems, or problems associated with any body system, during a median follow-up period of 37 months."
There also are a number of advantages to spaying and neutering animals, Blackmore said, including a decreased risk of mammary cancer, testicular cancer and prostate problems.
"It also reduces the wandering problem," Blackmore said, "and wandering is a huge problem with both cats and dogs."
Snyder pointed out that the old standard of six months is no longer as important because of better anesthesia agents. "The agents available now don't slow their hearts.
She also noted that advances in medicine for animals parallel those for humans.
"You have to remember that we are now performing fetal surgery on humans," she said.
While Snyder and Blackmore said they understand the concerns critics of the program have raised, they think the pros clearly outweigh the cons.
"They see these sweet little kittens facing surgery, and they feel for them," Snyder said. "But they're thinking with their hearts rather than their heads."