A new study from University of Florida researchers estimates providers performed 2.7 million fewer spay and neuter procedures in 2020 and 2021.
dog at vet; neutering fall behind survey
Credit: Sebastian Condrea / Getty

Millions of pets going unneutered and unspayed since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to severely overcrowded animal shelters and increased euthanasia rates, trends that could worsen if we're unable to reverse them.  

According to University of Florida researchers' new study, U.S. veterinarians performed 2.7 million fewer spay and neuter surgeries in 2020 and 2021. With that many animals still able to reproduce, American cities in coming years could see more dogs and cats on the street and in shelters, throwing the animal welfare system further into crisis.  

One of the study's co-authors, Julie Levy, DVM, PhD, says the increase in unaltered pets has already contributed to rising euthanasia rates since the second half of last year. In the pre-pandemic decades, spay and neuter surgeries had been the primary force in drastically reducing the number of animals euthanized.   

"We should all be very, very worried about this," Levy tells Daily Paws. "So this is not the time to be complacent."

The good news is, you can help. Your local animal shelter can almost certainly use the assistance. 

A 'Vicious Cycle'

According to Levy and her colleagues, spay and neuter surgeries helped reduce the number of euthanized shelter pets from 13.5 million in 1973 to 1.5 million in 2009. (Thanks, Bob Barker.)  

The year 2020 arrived and so did COVID-19. When the nation went through its brief shutdown period in the spring that year, veterinarians and clinics focused their efforts on lifesaving and critical care. Routine spay and neuter surgeries were suspended, according to the study, which was published in Frontiers of Veterinary Science on Tuesday.

COVID-19 also arrived as the veterinary field began experiencing a now-critical workforce shortage, Levy says. It compounded the problem, leaving fewer veterinarians with too much catch-up work.    

Researchers analyzed data from 212 spay and neuter clinics from 2019 to 2021. Those clinics performed 1,217,240 surgeries in 2019. The next year saw massive decreases in March and April, but the clinics still performed 1,059,388 surgeries, a 13-percent decrease. Compared to 2019, the clinics performed 3 percent fewer surgeries in 2021 (1,184,274). Better, but still not back to pre-pandemic levels. 

In all, the clinics performed 190,818 fewer surgeries in 2020 and 2021 than they did in 2019. If that pattern held for other clinics and providers across the country, 2.7 million dogs and cats went without the surgeries over those two years, the study found.

And that's not just 2.7 million dogs and cats. It's safe to assume some of those intact animals eventually produced litters of their own, so the total number of unspayed and unneutered dogs and cats is likely even higher.

"We have this compounding vicious cycle, and we don't know how bad that is," Levy says. 

Effects of Fewer Spay and Neuter Procedures

A lack of spay and neuter procedures has already prompted a butterfly effect that will likely stress sections of the animal welfare community even further. 

Levy has already attributed rising euthanasia rates, in part, to the spay and neuter deficit. According to Shelter Animals Count—which tracks outcomes for shelter pets—the euthanasia rate for cats was 7.1 percent in the first half of 2022, the same rate of 2021. Dogs, however, saw their rate jump from 5.2 to 7.4 percent in the first half of the year. (It's still below the 2019 euthanasia rate of 8 percent.)

"It's not a theoretical concern we have," Levy says. "We are seeing it happen."

Accidental litters or strays rarely have anywhere else to go but a shelter, so some are beginning to see overcrowding. The overcrowding isn't good for the pets—many of whom have a hard time living in a loud, stressful environment—and it can sometimes lead to euthanasia in shelters that aren't no-kill organizations

The overcrowding can also harm the humans working there, Levy says. If medical providers can't make up the spay and neuter deficit, dedicated animal welfare workers might have no choice but to leave the field. 

"We [could] see more burnout and people leaving the animal welfare field and having this higher turnover so that the shelters are always in crisis," Levy says. 

If the shelters remain too busy and staffing levels can't keep up, more stray pets will be left out in the community, at risk of injury or death.

How You Can Help

First thing's first: If your pet isn't spayed or neutered, talk with your veterinarian to see when you can schedule the procedure. There might be some cases that your pet dog shouldn't undergo the procedure, Levy says, but you should at least check. 

Pets in heat will do just about anything to mate, so you should strongly consider the procedures for both dogs and cats, no matter how well enclosed they are. Besides removing the risk of a surprise pregnancy, they can also prevent other health problems, including some cancers. Next, you can ask your local shelter how you can help out. That can be donating money, volunteering, fostering, or evening adopting a pet. It can save your pet's life while opening up shelter space for another animal who needs it.