For years, spay and neuter programs have played a pivotal role in keeping stray animal populations at bay, especially in Mesa County.
However, as the coronavirus pandemic raged throughout 2020, spay and neuter procedures ceased entirely, sometimes for upward of a month at a time since they’re considered an “elective surgery.”
During the height of the pandemic, veterinarian clinics across the state were only performing surgical procedures where the animal’s life was at stake.
As a result, concern has since risen about an influx in feral cat and dog populations within the valley.
“The cause of (feral cat populations growing during the pandemic) was that the government shut down all their veterinarian clinics so that they would have their PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) available (…) that made it very difficult because there was no way to spay female cats nor neuter male cats, and therefore there was an explosion in the feral cat population,” said Marie Ramstetter, manager of the Loma Cat House.
The Loma Cat House is a Grand Junction-based group whose aim is feline rescue. It emphasizes TNR, a practice often used with feral cat colonies to curtail population growth within the county. Feral cats are trapped, then neutered or spayed.
During the time spay and neuter programs were put on pause in response to the pandemic, such practices also temporarily ceased.
“There are so many wonderful people in Mesa County that on their own they go out and TNR. There are a tremendous amount of people doing that, and without a veterinarian, you can’t do that,” Ramstetter said.
Every animal adopted from a shelter in Colorado is required to be spayed or neutered per state law.
While veterinarian clinics have since reopened, they’ve been playing catchup, as their priority is to spay and neuter domesticated pets rather than feral animals at the moment.
According to Ramstetter, vets tended to give the Loma Cat House a discount because of the sheer volume of animals they bring in to be spayed and neutered, something that has become difficult given that veterinarian clinics have had their own share of financial struggles throughout the course of the pandemic.
Mesa County Animal Services runs the PUPs program (Prevent Unwanted Pregnancies in pets), in which they aid residents in getting dogs, cats, rabbits, and potbelly pigs spayed or neutered to reduce the amount of homeless animals within the municipality.
According to Doug Frye, manager of Mesa County Animal Services, PUPS is a publicly funded program. During the pandemic, financial donations were down significantly, meaning he could only issue a limited amount of spay and neuter certificates. In March, he issued 75.
For both feral cats and dogs, keeping the amount of strays to a minimum is beneficial from a health standpoint. As feral populations rise, so do the frequencies of diseases like distemper and rabies.
“As long as we can keep the colonies down to very little or no reproduction, they stay pretty healthy, but when colonies get too big, that’s when the diseases start to happen,” Ramstetter said.
Another byproduct of having fewer animals spayed and neutered is an uptick in euthanizations.
For the Mesa County Animal Services, Frye always has to have space available for strays. If there is not space available, he has to euthanize animals.
The county has not euthanized a healthy adoptable animal since 2010, which Frye attributes, in part, to the spay and neuter programs.
“Years ago, when I started (at Mesa County Animal Services), we were taking in 6,000-plus animals a year. Last year we took in a little over 1,500. A large reason for those reductions is the spay and neuter programs. But if we let up on those at all, we’ll be right back to where we were,” Frye said.
Frye also says that by spaying and neutering, the amount of animals coming into his shelter is reduced, meaning that euthanization becomes a less probable option.
“Typically, the large majority of the animals coming into the shelter are dogs between 1 and 3 years old that have not been spayed or neutered. They’re out looking for love in all the wrong places, and we pick them up as strays,” Frye said.
Through a focused effort to neuter, spay, and rehabilitate stray animals, feral cat and dog populations have mostly decreased in the past decade. So has the rate of euthanizations.
With that being said, there is still a major concern from animal rescue groups and organizations throughout the county that some of that work will unravel as a result of the pandemic.
Given the newfound financial burdens placed upon groups like the Loma Cat House, Mesa County Animal Services’ PUPs program and others, donations, especially in the form of financial support, go a long way.
“I think that anybody in the public who doesn’t like the feral cat population needs to step up and contribute to organizations that go out and do this kind of work, so that there will be fewer feral cats (and dogs) to bother them. I would like for them to put their money where their mouth is,” Ramstetter said.
For information or to donate to the Loma Cat House, go to cathousegj.org.