Today, we have a crisis with man’s best friend: overpopulation. Around the world, unwanted dogs are abused, neglected, and left to die without being adopted out to loving families. According to the Oxford-Lafayette Humane Society, there are an estimated seventy million stray cats and dogs in the United States alone. According to the ASPCA, nearly four million dogs end up in shelters annually, and about 1.2 million are euthanized. Since dogs can have up to two litters annually and easily have six or more puppies per litter, their numbers can increase dramatically in little time. Clearly there is a need to limit this overpopulation through neutering and spaying dogs; it appears to be a necessary move to address this crisis.
From a Jewish law and value standpoint, however, the situation is not so simple.
It comes down to the blessing of peru urvu (procreation), which extends not only to humans but animals as well. For this reason, it is forbidden by Jewish law, on a Biblical level (sirus), to render one’s dog without the capability to reproduce (Shabbat 110b, Bava Metzia 90a-b, “ha’aramah, Sefer HaChinuch 291).
As with most aspects of Jewish law, there may be a technical halakhic loophole around this issue. While it is forbidden to give a gentile one’s dog with direct instruction to neuter (issur d’rabbanan of Amira), there is another option. One may give the dog to the surgeon’s assistant, who will then order the procedure with the surgeon (amira d’amira), based upon those rabbinic positions that do not think it forbidden for gentiles to neuter a dog if one has not directly instructed them. The other common halakhic solution is to sell dogs to gentiles (working at the clinic), have them neuter the dog, and then buy the dog back (Terumat HaDeshen; Rema EH 5:17). When it comes to spaying, some are still strict, while others are more lenient. For example, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner allows a Jewish veterinarian to spay female pets (She’elat Shlomo v.6).
In a natural, healthy, unmanaged world, the halakhah of not altering any sentient being’s ability to reproduce should be actualized. The Torah, ideally, wants every being to be free to pursue its own unique destiny. Today, sadly, we are facing a very different reality that we must respond to and the halakhah thankfully has flexibility to address our time. Indeed we must take responsibility.
Some ethicists contend that it is morally wrong to castrate one’s pet by causing it needless pain and limiting its life potential. The majority, however, argue that the overarching societal problem of overpopulation far outweighs this concern, not only for the sake of humans, but for the sake of the unwanted dogs and cats left without care. Every day, thousands of forsaken pets are captured and killed because they are a financial burden for local communities, and even kind-hearted non-profits, to care for. In an ideal world without overpopulation, every creature would be tended to, living freely and happily.
Further, we know that while there are some risks, neutering acts as a deterrent to various forms of cancer including uterine, breast, and prostrate. Additionally, neutered dogs are far less likely to leave home to seek a mate, which can spare the life of the dog from death by automobiles and other hazards. Neutering done for the sake of the animal’s health is permitted and essential.
Those considering bringing a forever-pet home should look to adopt an unwanted pet rather than going to a breeder and support the overpopulation problem. Puppy mills and other large-scale breeding companies, of which there are an estimated ten thousand are not licensed by the USDA. Unfortunately, these mills often prioritize numbers of puppies over their health, so congenital diseases, including heart and kidney disease, endocrine disorders, visual problems and deafness, and respiratory distress proliferate for each successive generation. Moreover, the puppies are likely to have parasites such as fleas and heart-worm. The constantly breeding females are frequently killed once they have become exhausted, and obviously diseased puppies are often killed as well. The problem is exacerbated because there is virtually no way to tell whether an animal comes from an abusive mill.
The overpopulation of dogs and other animals is a serious issue. We must be cognizant that even the fluffiest of puppies may hide a sinister background. By utilizing all legitimate means to mitigate the needless suffering of our beloved pet, we do a service to ourselves and vulnerable animals alike.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”