Most animal experts agree that the best way to stop pet overpopulation — and put an end the epidemic of homeless pets — is by spaying and neutering dogs and cats. Currently, only 10 percent of the 7.6 million dogs and cats who enter U.S. shelters each year are sterilized, according to the ASPCA. Only half of those animals find forever homes. Most of the remaining 3.8 million are euthanized.
Among the reasons why people don’t spay or neuter their pets, according to the Humane Society of the United States: the cost involved (although low-cost programs are widely available); they believe it’s healthier for a female to have a litter first (not true); their dog is a purebred (as is one out of every four dogs who end up in U.S. shelters); etc., etc.
David Mooney, a dog dad who’s a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University, has come up with a low-cost, surgery-free alternative to spaying and neutering: a one-time injection of a contraceptive vaccine.
“I’ve had dogs that need to be neutered,” Mooney told the Boston Globe. “Even for house pets, it’s a pretty major surgery; there’s a lot of pain and issues with that, and I thought it would be great if we could do something to help dogs and cats avoid going through the surgery.”
Mooney’s idea could very well become a reality, thanks to a three-year, $700,000 Michelin Grant he received from Found Animals. If Mooney is the first scientist to successfully produce a low-cost, permanent, nonsurgical sterilant for dogs and cats, he will also be awarded the Michelin Prize of $25 million.
Mooney got the idea for the vaccine from a device he developed for people with cancer. The implantable device activates the immune system to start shrinking tumors. Similar to that device, which is still in the testing phase, a contraceptive vaccine could also activate a dog or cat’s immune system, but instead of attacking tumors, it would disrupt the hormone that is crucial to reproduction in mammals.
“We’re taking a target in the body and we’re saying, ‘Can we generate a potent and long-lasting immune response against this particular molecule?’” Mooney told the Boston Globe. “If we can do it here, you can probably do it against many other molecules you might target for other reasons.”
Emerging interest in immunotherapy — preventing diseases with substances that stimulate the immune system — in the human health field “is equally as promising” for veterinary medicine, said Donald Ingber, a Harvard professor and founding director of the university’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, in a press release.
“Using a simple and inexpensive vaccination as a way to sterilize animals could greatly reduce the number of animals ending up in shelters and greatly reduce animal suffering,” he said.
Aimee Gilbreath, executive director of Found Animals, told the Boston Globe a vaccine would be much more convenient than surgery, especially for organizations that spay and neuter stray animals.
“Someone goes out and traps them and transports them to the clinic,” she said, referring to the current procedure. “It would be so much easier if, instead of driving to the clinic and having to [perform] surgery, you could do a quick injection right in the trap and let it go.”
Mooney told the Boston Globe it will take some time to develop an effective contraceptive vaccine. In the meantime, he said the implantable tumor-shrinking device may also be developed for dogs and cats with cancer.