A spay and neuter message that works

A spay and neuter message that works

For a long time we have blamed the public for not spaying and neutering their pets. We cried out that they didn’t care, they were irresponsible or uncaring and it was their fault that animals were dying in shelters.

What we’ve learned is that’s not the whole story, shelter workers and administrators do bear a responsibility for what happens to the animals that come in their doors.  Likewise though, it is still clear that the public can and will participate in not only the saving of animal lives but in the prevention of animals entering the shelters in the first place through spaying and neutering. 

Today HSUS published the results and materials of an intensive spay/neuter research and marketing initiative currently being conducted as a pilot project in three southern, gulf coast communities: Shreveport, Louisiana; Jackson, Mississippi and Gulfport, Mississippi. In Shreveport the campaign is helping the Caddo Parish Shelter, a shelter assisted by Nathan Winograd and featured recently in a No Kill Nation victory post

So what did HSUS learn that was so different from the traditional thinking? They learned that people really do want to take care of their animals and when we talk to them with respect, and with the right message, they do hear what we are saying. They took a research approach to the problem asking: 

  • What is the status of dogs and cats in Louisiana and Mississippi?
  • Why don’t people spay and neuter? What will it take to motivate them?
  • Will proposed communications work?

Importantly the studies recognized that cost - not unwillingness - was a significant barrier to spay/neuter: 

Ensure Enough Low Cost Spay / Neuter, Cost is a significant barrier to increasing the prevalence of spaying and neutering.

..cost represents the leading reason why cat owners do not spay and neuter and ranks fairly high among dog owners as well. Asked more directly, 42 percent agree (27 percent strongly agree) with the statement, “spaying and neutering simply costs too much for me.” - Greenberg, Quinlan Rosner Research; October 2007

Another stumbling block they discovered is trust. This might account for some programs seeing limited success with simply promoting the “low-cost” of the surgeries and neglecting to promote the “quality” at the same time. Interestingly mobile clinics rated very low on the amount of trust that people felt about the services:

Unfortunately, owners may not equate low cost with high quality.

  • To overcome the trust barrier, staff, facilities & communications need to demonstrate the professionalism that owners seek in order to commit to a medical procedure for their pets.

So if cost isn’t the major incentive, what could cause people to consider spaying and neutering a high priority? We’ve often tried to make the case with health and behavior but it rings false if people have had intact animals life-long without any particular health or behavior problems. If it’s not broke, why fix it? 

It turns out the most convincing message was the most personal: what happened to your dog’s puppies?

Make the Message Personal

Although many owners are concerned about euthanasia, they may feel they are not part of the problem.

  • Most pet owners who do not spay/neuter believe they are “responsible” pet owners who keep their pets in controlled environments and, therefore, are not contributing to the problem.
  • People connect emotionally to the problem, but do not think they are contributing to the problem.

-Focus Group Report, GQRR, August 2007

In response to the very personal question, what happened to your dog’s puppies, the answers proved that the message had hit home in a big way:


“It probably makes you think should I have my dog neutered or spayed? Is my dog under control? What does my dog do when I’m not watching him?”

“…so you think well my dog had puppies, so I gave them away, I wonder where they went, did they have to go to a home to get euthanized. It makes you think.”

“This is a good question. I really don’t know.”

An extraordinarily important point confirmed by this research is that we need to respect pet owners. We can no longer stereotype them, label them or classify them as uncaring and irresponsible. This is a major sea change in thinking and this report marks an important milestone in animal welfare by confirming what many of us have known from our work in the streets. 

From the report: 

Respect the Owners
People with unaltered animals love their pets and feel they are responsible owners.

Messaging needs to tap pet owners’ caring for their pets and for animals in general, rather than creating guilt or finger wagging.

“You are never home alone. There is always somebody to talk to.”
Shreveport, Caucasian, does not spay/neuter

“They are a lot of company. I mean they are loving and love you unconditionally.”
New Orleans, African American, does not spay/neuter

“Just because I don’t have my pet spayed or neutered does that mean I don’t love him?”
Jackson, Caucasian, does not spay/neuter

Where else have we gone wrong? Cute doesn’t cut it. Literally. The cute factor was a major red flag that caused people not to take the message seriously. 


“I know the point is they’re trying to say, look, this dog is going to father a whole bunch of babies that aren’t wanted. But that’s not what I see. I see, you are just as cute as you can be.”

From 2007 focus groups
Shreveport, Caucasian, does not spay/neuter


At no time is mandatory spay/neuter a part of the conversation or viewed as an option in this research. The evidence is clear that communication is the key.

As in Caddo Parish, by recognizing both that 1) shelter workers and administrators have a responsibility to save the lives of shelter animals and 2) the public is overwhelmingly our ally and not our enemy - together we can end the killing of  savable animals in shelters.

We recommend you read the full report. Visit the campaign home page here

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7 Responses to “A spay and neuter message that works”

  1. ChristieHope says:

    Respect has proved to be reason #1 for our success with mobile clinic clients in low-income neighborhoods in Philadelhpia. Many of our clients come in on the defensive, expecting to be treated poorly because we provide low-priced services for pets. When they are treated well, by trained admin staff and professional veterinary technicians, when we don’t discriminate based on income, color, faith, gender, etc., when we use respect as our basic premise for operation, we gain their trust and they spread the word to their friends and family. We no longer need to do heavy advertising for our clinics; they fill up fast, sometimes simply through word of mouth from previous clients who were treated with respect.

  2. Cate mato says:

    Worth a mention:

    The New York ASPCA has recently increased their Spay/Neuter Van fees from $25 to 75 DOLLARS for the majority of their clients.

    The pet owners who receive public assistance will still receive service for free, as long as they can provide proof; but as a cat-rescuer and long-time user of their services, the majority of the people of line up at dawn are ‘blue collar’. They used the ASPCA service because they could not afford the outrageous NYC vet fees.

    Now it’s a ‘package’ - for $75, a pet receives the spay/neuter, shots, microchipping, and nail clipping.

    Don’t get me wrong - it’s still much cheaper than any local vet - but there’s no *choice*. If my cats already have their shots and nails clipped - I still have to pay the full price.

    I understand the economy is down the toilet, but I also know that the ASPCA had their best year ever in 2008 because of the Sarah McLachlan ad. They’ve chosen the worst time to raise their fees!

    It’s REALLY hurting the animal rescue and TNR people in NYC. We can no longer afford to pay for our rescues! What we’re they thinking!

    • sue_cosby says:

      This is interesting. Didn’t know this. While our base prices are on the higher end of low-cost we create targeted programs such as discounted feral cat packages and discounted rescue rates. Looks like they might have been following the same model but left out an important segment of their clients that really need the help.
      Thanks for taking the time to share the info!

  3. Julie says:

    Sorry, but I don’t know where else to ask - haven’t been on this site in a bit and am wondering what happened to the forum??

  4. Shannon says:

    I highly disagree. My city (San Antonio) offers free spay/neuter and no one ever shows up… and we kill over 30,000 animals per year. Ignorance, not cost, is the reason most people do not “fix” their pets.

    • sue_cosby says:

      Shannon if you read the report they say pretty clearly that just advertising PRICE as in FREE does not encourage people to s/n. So you are actually proving the point that they were able to measure with some pretty thorough study. Thanks.

      Maybe the people running the s/n clinics in San Antonio should take a look at the study and use some of the now proven techniques for getting people to show up for the free s/n.

      Please read the report and look at the data.

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