A case for mandatory sterilization

Aug 01, 2007

A California Veterinary Medical Association-backed bill to mandate pet sterilization statewide has garnered significant opposition by local and national breeding organizations who feel they are being punished by having to pay abstention fees.

Advocates suggest a mandate will reduce the number of sheltered, homeless and euthanized animals, as well as related taxpayer costs.

Veterinarians are caught somewhere between. We appear divided by this bill, and discussions with colleagues have been mixed. We don't want to be responsible for enforcing a law (See "Controversy Kills") that might be unpopular with some of our clients. We don't want to alienate breeders. We tend to be autonomous and probably find the term "mandatory" repugnant. Yet, as the professional face of animal protection, we are impacted by the problem of pet overpopulation. For some of us, the consequences of this problem are in our face. For others, it's out-of-sight, out-of-mind.

I have always believed that veterinarians have followed, rather than led, when it comes to most of the critical animal issues our society and profession face. This one is no different. We seem more concerned with the potential consequences of this bill on our livelihoods and client relationships than on the potential to save thousands of animals' lives.

While I tend to be a strong proponent of civil liberties, don't we as a society deem that the consequences of some behaviors are serious enough to warrant Big Brother's oversight? Safety belts, airport screenings and penalties for driving while intoxicated exemplify our willingness to welcome more government to save human life.

Is improving the problem of pet overpopulation not worth some small personal sacrifice as well?

We require those who hunt and drive a car to obtain a license that verifies competency. We even require licenses for dog groomers. Yet when it comes to a lifetime of pet ownership, we grant the privilege to anyone who walks in and shows interest. I appreciate that making ownership requirements more stringent might appear detrimental to pet-adoption numbers. But what message do we impart when we hand over a puppy or kitten to someone with no strings attached?

When I adopted my Pug from a breeder, I was required to provide three references that I would make a responsible pet owner. The breeder knew I was a veterinarian. Rather than be put off, I saw the requirements in a positive light and felt the breeder cared about the homes her puppies went to. If groomers warrant state oversight via licensure, why not install mandates for owners?

I am in favor of AB 1634, even though I suspect its impact will be more symbolic than practical. Breeders can pass on their costs of doing business to their clients, just like veterinarians do. Perhaps the attention this novel, legislative approach has received might do more good than its actual passage.

Philosophy professor Dr. Bernard Rollin was prophetic when he characterized pet overpopulation as a major social problem and called for "strong legislation" to deal with careless pet owners. In his third edition of "Animal Rights and Human Morality," he says the only solution to pet overpopulation is to regulate the acquisition, management and relinquishment of companion animals.

"The cost of animal-control programs are enormous and are borne by all citizens," Rollin writes. "Animal overpopulation is not a birth-control problem ... it is a moral problem, a problem of human behavior and abrogation of responsibility."

Dr. Kipperman is an internist at the Veterinary Emergency and Specialist Care Center in Dublin, Calif. His e-mail address is