Rural reality: More pets and fewer resources means some communities need more help

Julie Jacobson, Program Manager, Spay Tennessee

By Julie Jacobson, Program Manager, Spay Tennessee

It’s a fallacy to assume we can rescue or adopt our way out of the pet homelessness crisis. Most of us in animal welfare know that the best way to reduce pet euthanasia is to reduce intake at the animal shelter. And, the best way to reduce shelter intake is through spay-neuter.

But providing such services in rural communities can be problematic. In rural areas, there are generally no animal control facilities or animal shelters to serve the community. In fact, here in Tennessee, fewer than half of our 95 counties have animal shelter or animal control options. Even more confusing, “certified animal control” here only means that someone in the organization is certified to do euthanasia.  There is no assumption of a law enforcement component, which is typically what “animal control” means.  Some areas equate a rabies tag with licensing.   In fact, many counties don’t even have a microchip reader. I doubt Tennessee is alone in these issues.

Even more troubling is most of the shelters in Tennessee do not alter before adoption. They often say they do, but some don’t fix puppies and kittens until they are older, or they liberally make exceptions. We don’t recommend fixing all pets upon intake; we simply recommend pet owners not take possession of the pet until it has been fixed.

Local veterinarians and spay/neuter clinics have been supportive of our efforts.  Many clinics set aside appointments so dogs and cats adopted from local shelters are sterilized the next day and go home. But in our rural areas, the public is used to a steady availability of “free to good home” pets and are often reluctant to pay an adoption fee that covers the costs of vaccinations and surgery. Municipal funding, if available for shelters,  falls well short of the need.

That said, our network of about 100 spay/neuter clinics, mobiles, and assistance programs have made lots of progress here, especially in counties without animal control or animal shelters. Having no shelter option can be an incentive for pet owners to spay/neuter, as long as there is an assistance program to make it affordable.  We recommend no flat rates and a discussion with the client to find the affordable price point for each household to fix all the pets in the home.  While we may never reach all the households in a community, we can ensure that the households we help will no longer be part of the pet reproductive cycle.

It is also possible to significantly reduce the numbers of strays and abandoned pets by setting a goal to fix at least 500 pets annually for five years in these rural communities of populations of 25K or less.  There are numerous examples of where this has worked.  Being aggressive in the short-term means less need for assistance in the long-term. As a result, the public will notice a significant decrease in the numbers of strays and abandoned pets in their neighborhoods and take better care of the pets they do have.

Another rural reality is that our pet ownership statistics are significantly higher than the national averages. We used to double whatever the national data suggested.  While we are grateful there is a realization that not one formula fits all, many organizations in rural areas wonder how to more accurately estimate their pet population. What we have found through estimates and informal surveys is that the pet population is more likely 90% of the human population. In rural areas, more households have pets and keep more pets than average.  Sadly, most of these pets are free-roaming and only about 30% were fixed before spay/neuter assistance was available.

What many national funders don’t realize is that much of the country is rural and about 20 years or so behind other parts of the country as far as public attitudes towards pets and municipal support for animal welfare in general.  The vast majority of the pets helped by spay/neuter assistance clinics and programs in our state have never been to the vet before. We still struggle to provide spay/neuter in these rural areas and need more help to get it done.    Wellness here starts with more spay/neuter.

That is our rural reality.