Why would a rescue choose to terminate a pet pregnancy?

When a pregnant dog or cat enters a rescue or shelter, many organizations will choose to spay her ASAP, thus ending the pregnancy. 
Terminating a pet pregnancy is often referred to as "spay abortion," and it  is an extremely common practice in animal welfare, yet rarely discussed for fear of backlash from people who do not understand the level of suffering that it prevents. In this article, we'll look at several components behind the decision to terminate pet pregnancy.

Pet overpopulation and shelter capacity

Most US shelters operate in crisis mode at all times; the sheer number of pets in need is more than the animal welfare system can keep up with. In 2023 alone, about 6,550,000 dogs and cats entered US shelters; 690,000 of them didn't make it out alive. (1) Although some of those pets were too sick/injured to save or displayed behaviors that made them too dangerous to safely place, many of the pets who were euthanized were happy, healthy, behaviorally-sound pets who could have made excellent family companions. They lost their lives because there wasn't enough space for them, wasn't enough resources in our underfunded animal welfare system, and wasn't enough homes willing and able to adopt. (2)

Pets of all ages enter shelters as strays or through owner relinquishment - and this includes newborn and young puppies and kittens. Shelters and private rescues are overwhelmed every spring as "kitten season" begins, as they begin receiving hundreds of pleas for help with both kittens and puppies born outdoors, "accidental litters" born to owned pets, puppies and kittens who are found wandering outdoors after someone leaves them behind, and young pets who have been brought home by someone who is ultimately unable to care for them. This onslaught of puppies and kittens in need lasts through the fall - some would argue that it never really ends at all.
There simply are not enough homes for every pet in need, including young puppies and kittens. When shelters and rescues run out of space, pets lose their lives.

Shelters are not equipped to care for young animals or nursing moms

Giving birth or caring for young babies in a shelter environment can lead to longterm health and behavior consequences for both mom and babies. 

Pregnancy always carries a risk, but especially so for mothers who have not received adequate care through their pregnancy, which is often the case for pets entering a shelter or rescue. Complications at birth can lead to death for both mom and babies.

Even the best shelter is not equipped to care for newborns and nursing moms. Young families are at high risk of contracting deadly viruses and diseases like Parvo and Distemper, which are brought into the shelter by other young animals or adults who are carriers, but not showing symptoms. Even viruses and diseases that are typically considered "mild," like Upper Respiratory Infections, can be deadly for young families. Young families must be housed away from other animals in an area that is less likely to be infected and is safe for mom and babies to move around - something that most shelters are unable to do. 

A mother dog or cat who gives birth in the shelter may be more likely to not properly care for or reject her offspring. In some cases, a mother dog or cat may even kill her offspring due to stress or a perceived lack of resources. There is evidence to suggest that a mother who experiences extreme stress during pregnancy may produce offspring who are more likely to develop anxiety in adulthood. This can lead to offspring displaying undesirable and even dangerous behaviors in adulthood - which can lead to them ending up back in a shelter. (3)
Very young puppies and kittens who come into the shelter without a mother need to be bottle fed, which requires feeding the babies every 2-3 hours and special care to ensure that they stay warm, urinate, and defecate. Most shelters do not have staff who can provide around-the-clock care, and these young puppies and kittens cannot make it through the night alone. Even with proper care, many "bottle babies" do not make it, as the odds are against them by nature of being away from their mother.

Private rescues cannot keep up with demand

Typically, the best case scenario for a young family is a private rescue, which typically has more resources to care for pets in these situations than an open-intake shelter. Even so, rescues only have so many qualified foster homes, caregivers, or space in a facility to care for young families. They simply cannot keep up with the number of young puppies and kittens who need out of the shelter, nor can they accommodate every person who reaches out after finding young pets or having an accidental litter.
Even rescues who are solely dedicated to pregnant moms, young families, and/or bottle babies are unable to keep up with demand. Caring for a young family or bottle babies is incredibly taxing work that most people are unable to commit to, which means that foster homes and qualified caregivers are a limited resource.
Pets who enter the rescue at a young age won't all be adopted quickly, either. Many will grow up in foster care or a shelter environment, which can be detrimental to their development. This also takes up space that could be used to save the lives of other pets in need.

Terminating pet pregnancy prevents suffering

Shelters and rescues are already overwhelmed by the number of pets in need without a dog or cat giving birth in the care of the organization. When a pregnant pet comes into their care, many will choose to terminate the pregnancy.


In doing so, the organization is reserving space for pets who have already been born; pets who desperately need rescue, and who are at risk of suffering in inhumane conditions without it. They are also giving the pregnant pet a much better shot at a happy, healthy life by avoiding the risks and complications that come with pregnancy, and a much shorter path to adoption.
This doesn't mean that shelter staff or rescue volunteers enjoy making these decisions. The decision to terminate a pregnancy or euthanize any animal is never taken lightly. Shelters and rescues can only operate within the confines of the resources at their disposal, which are typically extremely limited.

Preventing pet pregnancy before it happens

There isn't an easy answer to solving pet overpopulation, but decreasing the number of pets born each year would have a drastic effect.
Shelters and rescues have a responsibility to ensure that all animals who pass through their doors are sterilized, but that alone isn't enough. Pet overpopulation is a community issue, and solving it involves taking action within the community.
Making access to free and low-cost spay and neuter services is essential to decreasing the number of accidental litters in our communities. It's vital that this comes with relationship-building, educational resources, and additional outreach opportunities to help the people in our communities care for their pets, which in turn helps prevent adult pets from finding their way into shelters, too.
Finally, action must be taken to stop production breeding through puppy mills and other irresponsible breeding practices. Pets bred for profit often suffer from the health and behavior struggles, with inhumane, high-stress living conditions; many will, in turn, end up in a shelter.

Talk about it!

Terminating pet pregnancy is a difficult topic, but neglecting to talk about it doesn't prevent it from happening. The best way to address pet overpopulation, the factors that cause it, and the consequences of it is to talk about it!
Consider sharing this article or starting a conversation about pet overpopulation to help others better understand the realities of animal welfare.
Check out our 'Talk About The Hard Stuff' collection to join us in our mission to make information about animal welfare more easily accessible. You can also make a one-time donation to support our free educational resources.


(2) Learn more about overpopulation in shelters in 'Why do good dogs die in shelters?'
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