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A Survey of Changes in HSSCV Shelter Population from 1994 to 1996:
Do free spay/neuter vouchers work?

By Karen Johnson
April, 1997

In October of 1994, the City of San Jose implemented a program to distribute unlimited free cat spay/neuter vouchers to any resident requesting one. In an effort to determine whether or not the program had any effect on the shelter population subgroups, shelter intake records were gathered and analyzed for a three year time period. The resulting analysis shows significant changes within several groups.


San Jose is the largest city in Santa Clara County, with a current population of 846,000. Since 1985, the population has increased by over 142,000 people. The county population stands at 1,629,840 for all 15 cities and towns. The county spreads over a wide area, from the densely populated northern half to the rural southern end, and is roughly 70 miles from north to south. A mountain range runs along the west side, and rolling hills to the east, forming the valley where San Jose is situated.

The Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley (HSSCV) is the largest shelter on the west coast, and the third largest in the country. They have historically handled close to 40,000 dogs and cats per year from 1982, until Fiscal Year (FY) 1993, when incoming dogs and cats plunged to 22,659. For the fiscal year ending in June of 1996, incoming dogs and cats, without owner requested euthanasias, numbered 29,100.

Santa Clara County Animal Control performed county-wide animal control until September, 1992, with the exception of Palo Alto, on the extreme northern end, which has its own shelter. The animals picked up by Animal Control were taken to HSSCV for sheltering, with the exception of animals picked up in the rural South County area. Those animals were sheltered at the small South County Shelter in San Martin.

In 9/92 Animal Control refused to perform field services for cats in a dispute over state funds and cut off cat service. Approximately 60% of incoming animals were brought in through field services. For 14 months there were no field services for cats until HSSCV received the contract and started services in 11/93 for the cities of San Jose, Milpitas and Santa Clara.

Sunnyvale started its own shelter in 7/93. Campbell, Cupertino, Saratoga, Monte Sereno and Los Gatos banded together and started their own small shelter, however, it was not widely known, and some 50% of their strays still ended up at HSSCV. In 10/96 those 5 cities closed their shelter and turned over animal control to HSSCV.

Incoming stray cats plunged 21% from FY '92 to '93 as a result of the cut off in services from Animal Control, and only increased 1% the following year.

At the end of FY '96, the stray cat intakes had increased to 13,512 from the '93 low of 12,303, and the peak of 17,625 in FY 1990.

In 1993, National Pet Alliance did a survey of 1031 random households to determine the pet demographics in Santa Clara County. The survey found 41% of the known cat population were unowned/feral/free roaming/or loosely owned neighborhood cats being fed by someone, but not claimed to be owned. 86.4% of households feeding the stray cats were feeding between 1 and 5 cats. Additionally, we found 32.5% of owned cats were obtained as strays.

Voucher Program

The City of San Jose enacted a spay/neuter voucher program beginning in October, 1994. After a slow start, the program took off in about February, 1995 after the local newspaper ran two articles on the program. A similar program for dogs was begun on May 1, 1995.

The program was very simple and had a "no strings attached" approach. The vouchers were issued by volunteers in the City Manager's office. The only requirement was that participants must be residents of the City of San Jose. People requested vouchers, either in person or by mail, and they took these to one of the 15 participating veterinarians. There was no limit to the number of cat vouchers a resident could obtain. The cat was "fixed" for free. Dog vouchers were limited to two per household, and did not seem to be in high demand except by rescue groups.

The city reimbursed the veterinarians at a set fee of $25/female, $15/male. If the female was pregnant the veterinarian reimbursement adjusted upwards to a maximum of $50 for a full-term pregnancy. Other female problems also adjusted the price--in heat, infections, etc. For males with anatomical abnormalities, the fee could be increased up to $150 depending upon the degree of surgery necessary to completely neuter the male. Dogs were altered at a higher rate, depending on weight and sex. The costs for altering averaged $23.77 per cat, and $41.46 per dog.

As of April, 1996, female cats accounted for 60.4% of the surgeries, and males 39.6%. 4.4% of the females were reported pregnant at the time of surgery, 4% were in heat. Not all veterinarians charge extra for spaying a female in heat, which would make the 4% a low number. The vouchers had a box which the veterinarian's office was to check off as to whether the cat was feral or not. Only 37% of the vouchers had the boxes checked. Feral cats totaled 19.5% of those surgeries. The total cost to do the cat altering from the beginning of the program in November, 1994 to April, 1996 was $134,735.

Dog vouchers were made available in May, 1995. 647 dogs were altered with the vouchers, 54.3% were female. Over 100 of the dog vouchers were used by one rescue group who then placed the dogs for adoption. The cost to alter the 647 dogs totaled $26,980.

The veterinarians had control over whether or not they altered the animal. Several of the clinics do not handle feral cats. If an animal was too sick, or had other problems, the veterinarian could decline to do the surgery. Attached to the voucher was a short, anonymous questionnaire for the owner to fill out at the veterinarian's. This questionnaire asked ownership questions useful to monitoring the program's success and to determine who was using the program and whether or not they had any further suggestions for the program. The questionnaires were sent back to the City Manager's office for tabulation.

In the first 16 months of the program, over 5600 cats were altered. As of 2/6/96 the general funds allocated to the program for the 1995-96 fiscal year were used or committed. A record 2000 vouchers were handed out in December, 1995 and January, 1996. As a result, the program temporarily suspended issuance of new vouchers until they expired or were used. As of April 1, l996, it was determined the program could continue with modifications.

The modifications, which went into effect on 4/12/96 include eliminating the dog vouchers, which were less in demand and less evidently effective in lowering animal control intakes, except for 50 dog vouchers which were to be made available to extreme low income households, and requiring a co-payment of $5. per cat for the surgery, plus requiring owned cat owners to obtain a $5 license and rabies inoculation for cats. Unowned cats, and cats which were not to be kept were not required to be licensed. An application form to obtain a voucher was required, along with proof of residence, and proof of licensing on owned cats. These requirements created a chilling effect on the program, as voucher requests from April, 1996 to April, 1997 numbered only 2800. Funds for the fiscal year were again depleted, and the program temporarily halted until a large donation was received which will allow the vouchers to be issued for a few more weeks.

Survey Results

2733 voucher surveys were tabulated for the 1995-1996 fiscal year, beginning 7/1/95. 32% of the surveys were not completed. Of the 1845 respondents to the survey, the following answers were obtained:

Was cost a factor? Yes-70% No-24% Not sure-5.7%.
Was the cat a stray? Yes-48.6% No-51.4%
Will you keep the cat? Yes-72.9% No-12% Unsure-15.1%
Age Less than 6 months-22.4% 6-12 months-52% over 1 year-25.6%
Has this cat had a litter?* 20.6% of females had a litter
How many litters? 1 litter-45% 2+ litters-40.3% Don't know-14.7%
How many cats owned?** None-2.7% 1-29% 2-36.6% 3+-31.7%
Do you feed strays? Yes-33.4% No-66.6%
How many strays fed? 1/5-70% 6/10-17.5% 10+-12.3%
*We noted several questionnaires, where the respondent claimed their MALE cat had had a litter. We appreciated the humor in attempting to pin the blame for a litter, and changed the yes answers to no for those questionnaires.
**168 respondents refused to answer this question. If this was because they were over limit in San Jose, and they were added to the 3+ category, then the distribution of ownership would change to: None-2.4%, 1-26.4%,2-33.3%,3+-37.9%.

The version of the voucher survey prior to the one listed above had an open-ended question asking for comments and suggestions. Other than numerous thank-yous scrawled across the bottom of the vouchers, the most common suggestion or comment for the program was a request for vaccinations and/or FELV/FIV testing for stray cats.

The question as to where the cats were obtained was added into the survey in the fall. There were 710 responses to this question. The table below shows the differences between where the cats were obtained from those using the voucher program, and where cats were obtained as reported during the 1993 random survey of households in Santa Clara County:

Santa Clara
County Survey
Voucher Survey
Found 32.5% 46.3%
Born at home 5.8% 9.0%
Given by friend or relative 33.1% 29.7%
Pet Store 6.0% 2.4%
Breeder 3.7% .6%
Rescue 1.4% 3.7%
Animal Control/Humane Society 11.3% 3.5%
Ad in newspaper 1.4% 1.6%
Front of store .6% .8%
Other 4.3%
Other 1.3%
Vets .4%
Flea Market .7%

The vouchers were primarily being used by those households who have rescued stray cats.

Shelter Data

Calendar year (CY)1994 is the base year for our shelter study, as vouchers could have had no effect on cat population for any portion of the year. The following were the intake numbers for HSSCV for the past three years.

CY94 CY95 CY96
Surrendered Dogs 3811 3108 3437
Surrendered Cats 5784 5508 4772
Total Surrender 9595 8616 8209
Stray Dogs 6141 7000 6766
Stray Cats 11952 13380 13120
Total Stray 18093 20380 19866

Surrendered dogs have decreased 9.2% and surrendered cats have decreased 17.5%, while stray cats have increased, but are still 17% below the level they were prior to cessation of County Animal Control services.

We also looked at the total number of kittens and puppies entering the shelter, which were not broken down by stray or surrender, and include DOA's.

These animals were defined as those 6 months of age or younger, including newborns.

CY94 CY95 CY96
Newborn kittens 515 221 289
Newborn puppies 29 18 38
Kittens 7258 8295 7458
Puppies 1665 1653 1909
Total cats handled including PTSOR 31004 31962 30869

Newborn kittens entering the shelter have decreased 43.9% from CY94 to CY96, while kittens in general have decreased 10.1% from CY95 to 96. Puppies, which would have had minimal impact by the voucher program, increased 14% over the same time period. Kittens make up 39% of total shelter cat intakes for CY96, while puppies constitute 11.9% of dog intakes.

The number of total cats handled has dropped slightly, even though the service area has been increasing, and the population has been increasing.

For CY94 HSSCV took in 8410 stray cats from San Jose residents, compared to CY96 when 8975 stray cats from San Jose entered the shelter. This gives us 9.4 stray impounded cats per 1000 residents.

Comparison with MSPCA

The Massachusetts SPCA is one of the few shelters in the country who also keep data on puppy and kitten intakes. They do not perform animal control services for their area, however they do receive animals from Animal Control. They have used a cutoff of 6 months for the definition of a puppy or kitten, and do not track newborns.

1994 1995 1996
Puppies 0-6mos 1488 1771 1795
Dogs Total 9034 9834 9703
Kittens 0-6mos 10437 10373 10101
Cats Total 23153 22511 23104

Puppies are 18.5% of dog intakes, and kittens are 43.7% of the total cat intakes in 1996.

Reasons for Surrender

Given the large drop in surrendered cats, we examined the individual categories of reasons given for surrender of cats at the time of relinquishment to the shelter, and for comparison, looked at the MSPCA reasons for surrender, to determine if their were any significant changes.

Reasons For Surrender
1/1-11/30/94 % 1996 % 1994 % 1996 %
No Reason recorded 1680*
Too many cats 1458 51.4% 1343 34.8%
Moving/Landlord 636 22.4% 815 21.1% 1677 18.4% 1883 21.2%
Allergy 154 5.4% 174 4.5% 769 8.4% 774 8.7
Behavior 150 5.3% 230 6.0% 1918 21.0% 1604 18.1%
Other 93 3.3% 187 4.9% 840 9.2% 782 8.8%
Health of Cat 66 2.3% 515 13.4%
Don't Want 58 2.0% 38 1.0%
? 55 1.9%
Can't Keep 45 1.6% 41 1.1%
No Room 39 1.4% 10 .3%
Can't afford 37 1.3% 34 .9% 1383 15.2% 1477 16.6%
Owner's Health 24 .8% 18 .5%
No time 23 .8% 32 .8% 607 6.7% 645 7.3%
Litter 1928 21.1% 1721 19.4%
Change in life-style 1 .0%
Divorce 1 .0%
DOA 366 9.5%
Feral 2 .1%
New baby 16 .4%
Owner deceased 17 .4%
Personal 2 .1%
Quarantine 10 .3%
Special Hold 2 .1%
Totals 2838* 99.9% 3854 100.2% 9122 100.0 % 8886 100.0%

In a follow up study of the records in which no reason was given for the surrender, the City of San Jose hired several college students to call a sampling of surrendering owners to determine the reason for surrender. The only category which changed significantly was health of animal (which increased), otherwise, the rank order of reasons for surrender remained basically the same. *Therefore, for purposes here, we will exclude the records for no reason given, and calculate reasons for surrender based only on those who gave a reason for surrender at the time of surrender.

By 1996 the list of reasons for surrender had expanded by 9 more categories. The big change was in the percent of cats surrendered because there were already too many cats in the household, from 51.4% of the 1994 surrendered cats, to 34.8% of the surrendered 1996 cats.

Are there too many puppies and kittens entering the shelter?

In the shelter community it is well known that the kitten season starts in April, with a huge influx of spring litters, continuing through the summer, and dropping off in October. Puppies at HSSCV, however, did not have a "season." They appeared year round at the shelter, averaging 160 per month. Owned cats have an average life span of 7 years. With an estimated owned cat population of 246,571 in the county, over 35,000 replacement kittens are needed annually. It would seem that the 7458 shelter kittens should all have homes to go to. Unfortunately, an 11 month survey in 1994 of reasons for euthanasia determined 2,222 cat euthanasias were performed because the kitten was too young to be adopted out. Additionally, the 1993 NPA survey found only 12% of cats were acquired from a shelter, which would give a maximum potential of 4200 cats being adopted from HSSCV along with the other smaller shelters in the area in a given year.

With an estimated dog population of 194,636 in Santa Clara County, and an average life span of 9.6 years, over 20,000 replacement puppies are needed on an annual basis for replacement. 31 puppies were euthanized for being too young out of the 1665 received in 1994. Only 256 dogs were euthanized for lack of time/cage space at the shelter during the 11 month 1994 study. Excess puppies are not a problem at the shelter when one considers the total number of dogs adopted are twice the number of puppies received.

Will Vouchers Work?

Santa Clara County has an estimated stray cat population of 168,000. Roughly 40% are female, and an unknown number are capable of reproduction. 86% of the owned cat population have already been altered, and 6% are too young to be altered. Alternatives to not altering the strays include only two alternatives: trap and kill, or ignore. The three day cost to the shelter to handle one stray, euthanize and dispose of, is $70. The average cost to alter a cat under the free voucher program was $23.40. Altering one female cat saves the cost of handling 3 kittens (or $210.) with just her first litter. Trapping and killing is morally and ethically repugnant to those who cherish life and believe that life, even if not of first quality, is better than death. Ignoring the cats, only leaves the burdens of stray kittens to the citizens to adopt or turn into the shelter.

In a 1994 random study of San Diego County dog and cat populations, of the households feeding stray cats, only 7% of the households had altered any stray cats they fed. Additionally, of the kittens known to have been born to these stray cats, 53% had unknown dispositions.

To reduce the number of stray cats and their offspring from entering the shelter, some method must be found to alter as many of the stray cats as possible. The voucher program as first implemented was widely used. When changes to tighten up the system began, the voucher requests dropped dramatically.

Vouchers have made a substantial impact on surrendered cats and kittens, while over the same time period, puppy and dog intakes have increased. We believe the vouchers are two steps in the right direction, and that a higher funding level will be necessary to continue shelter cat intake reductions, coupled with more public awareness of the program.

1997 Update: Do Spay/Neuter Vouchers Work? NEW!

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