Full Title Name:  Brief Summary of State Spay and Neuter Laws

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Cynthia F. Hodges Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2010 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal and Historical Center

A majority of states have enacted laws requiring releasing agencies to sterilize cats and dogs they adopt out in an effort to reduce the number of unwanted animals. Exceptions to the mandatory sterilization laws are often made for owners and for medically unfit animals. Violations are punishable both civilly and criminally.

 A majority of states have implemented mandatory spay and neuter laws to address the overpopulation of homeless animals. The goal is to decrease the number of unwanted animals that suffer and die on the streets, decrease the risk to public health and safety, and reduce the cost to local governments for impounding and destroying animals. Exceptions to the mandatory sterilization laws are often made for owners who are reclaiming their animals and for animals that are medically unfit. Violations are punishable both civilly and criminally, with fines being the most common penalty for not complying with the sterilization requirement.

Releasing agencies (animal shelters, control agencies, etc.) are required in approximately 32 states to provide for the sterilization of all dogs or cats they transfer or adopt out. Generally, releasing agencies are required to have a sexually mature dog or cat (usually six months of age or older) sterilized by a licensed veterinarian prior to releasing it to a new owner. 

Animals may be released prior to sterilization in certain instances. In most cases, a person who would like to adopt an unsterilized dog or cat must sign a sterilization agreement, agreeing in writing to have the animal sterilized by a licensed veterinarian, usually within 30 days of the date of adoption or of becoming sexually mature. 
The sterilization agreement must contain certain information. such as the following:

  • the date of the agreement or adoption; 
  • the date by which the dog or cat must be sterilized;
  • the dog or cat's age, sex, and general description; 
  • the dollar amount of the deposit remitted; 
  • the name, address, phone number, and signature of the adopting party;
  • the name, address, phone number, and signature of the releasing agency; and
  • a statement, printed in conspicuous bold print, that sterilization of the animal is required.

Normally, the person acquiring the animal must pay for the sterilization procedure. If a person is adopting an unsterilized animal, then a deposit is required that is enough to ensure the sterilization of the animal. The deposit can range from $10 ( Oklahoma ) to $35 ( New York ).

The deposit will normally be refunded when the releasing agency receives proof of sterilization. This often entails the presentation of a written statement signed by a licensed veterinarian that the adopted animal has been sterilized. If the animal is not sterilized, the deposit will not be refunded. Deposits that are not refunded may be used to fund sterilization programs ( Arizona and California ).

There are some exceptions to the mandatory sterilization requirements, such as animals used for breeding ( Michigan , Louisiana ), hunting, and livestock production ( Missouri ). Dogs and cats that are sold or released to the United States armed forces, police or other law enforcement agencies, licensed veterinary and medical facilities ( Louisiana ), or to institutions of higher education for use in biomedical research, testing, or teaching ( Texas ) do not have to be sterilized.

Exceptions are also made for small counties ( Texas , California , Arkansas ) and for a lack of veterinary facilities in the area ( Arizona ).
 A number of states do not apply the sterilization requirements to dogs and cats that are claimed by their owners. The owner may have to pay a fee to recover the animal. Arizona requires that the animal shelter make reasonable efforts to locate an animal’s owner before sterilizing it.

Animals that are medically unfit are often exempted from the sterilization requirement. Dogs and cats that have a serious medical or health problem, are sexually immature, or are of advanced age, are not required to be sterilized if it would make the procedure unsafe or endanger the life of the animal. If a licensed veterinarian states in writing that sterilization would jeopardize the animal's health. and that the animal may die as a result of the procedure, then the sterilization procedure may be delayed. If an extension is granted, the animal may be released to the new owner after he or she pays a deposit that is enough to ensure that the animal will be sterilized. Deposits range from $10 ( Massachusetts ) to $150 ( Maine ).

Absent an exception, failure to comply with the sterilization requirements may be punishable civilly or criminally. In Oklahoma , failing to have an animal sterilized is considered to be either a public or a private nuisance. Approximately seven states consider the failure to have a dog or cat sterilized to be a misdemeanor. A fine is the usual penalty, but Louisiana may impose a sentence of up to 30 days imprisonment. The fines vary widely, ranging from $25 ( Louisiana ) to $500 ( Alabama , Arkansas , Maine ), and may include the cost of prosecution, enforcement and court costs. Some states, such as Rhode Island and New Jersey , increase the fine for each subsequent violation. In addition to or instead of a fine, the new owner may also forfeit ownership of the animal, the sterilization deposit, and any claim to expenses incurred in caring for the animal. The adopting party may also have to pay legal fees and court costs ( Florida ). The fines for agencies and organizations range from $50 ( Maine ) to $500 per violation ( Delaware ). Upon conviction of three or more offenses, the releasing agency’s license to operate may be temporarily or permanently revoked in Rhode Island .

The overpopulation of unwanted pets not only results in millions of animals being euthanized each year, but puts pressure on limited public resources to care for and find homes for these animals. States have responded by adopting laws that make it mandatory for releasing agencies to have dogs and cats spayed or neutered. The majority of these laws are directed at new owners adopting pets from dog pounds, animal shelters, or their local humane societies. Several states even use the threat of criminal penalties to enforce such laws. While there are exceptions to these laws, it is clear that states have begun to take problems created by pet over-breeding seriously.



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