Pop quiz for cat and dog owners. How much did you spend on pet food this month?
You’re not sure? I thought so. You put it in the cart, went to checkout, and pulled out your credit card. If manufacturers were to bump up the price per can by one measly penny, you’d pay it without a second thought—especially if each penny could finally solve the U.S. pet overpopulation problem.
That’s the hope of five local women. They created a nonprofit called PennyFix and are trying to convince pet food manufacturers to add a penny to the price of every can of pet food sold in America. Proceeds would finance free spays and neuters.
Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a deceptively simple solution to a complex problem.
“A penny is probably not going to be noticed by most people,” said Lynn Stitt, PennyFix founder and animal activist for 40 years. “Even if they do notice it, I think some of them would smile because they know they could someday look out their window and not see something starving in their backyard.”
The overpopulation numbers are breathtaking, and not in a good way:
- An estimated 30 to 40 million “community cats”—strays, abandoned and feral—live outside of American homes, according to the U.S. Humane Society.
- Shelters take in 6 million to 8 million cats and dogs a year but adopt out only about 4 million, according to the ASPCA. Many of those not adopted are euthanized.
- Impoverished communities are home to 23 million pets, but 87 percent are not spayed or neutered, according to the Humane Society.
Stitt remembers when building more shelters seemed to resolve the problem of stray cats and dogs. Today, more shelters aren’t the answer because they don’t create more homes, she said from the Grantville-area cat hospice she founded in 1980, The Best Little Cat House in PA.
The creation of no-kill shelters sounds good to the public, but “to the animal world, that’s not so good. It simply means they quit taking when they have a full house.”
So, animal lovers turn into hoarders, overwhelmed by animals they can’t care for. Or the hard-hearted dump their animals on city streets and country roads.
The cost of spaying and neutering is a barrier for many.
“Some vets will charge $300 just to neuter a male cat, and people aren’t doing it,” Stitt said. “Then they let the cats go because they begin to spray.”
The elements converge in a perfect storm of pet overpopulation. In the animal welfare community, said Stitt, “We’re sinking. We have come to a head. Everyone’s clamoring to get that dollar, and the money’s not coming in the way it was.”
Stitt and her fellow animal lovers recognize that all cats and dogs, whether in permanent homes, feral, stray or sheltered, need to be spayed and neutered.
A bit of brainstorming yielded an idea addressing the root of the problem. Add one penny to the cost of every can of pet food, and every dog or cat in the United States could be neutered or spayed for free, with distemper and rabies shots thrown in for good measure.
“It’s not going to cost pet food manufacturers anything,” said Stitt. “Basically, it’s going to be the animal people taking care of the animal problem.”
PennyFix would serve as a passthrough, channeling funds to clinics, veterinarians, shelters, cat colony caretakers and spaymobiles.
It’s hard to say exactly how many procedures a bunch of pennies can buy, because costs vary geographically, and dogs are more complicated than cats.
“In some areas of the country, for $25, they’ll do a cat from soup to nuts,” Stitt said, laughing when she realized her unintended pun.
Stitt sees a cascading effect from PennyFix.
Many clinics have the capacity to conduct additional procedures, but scarce funding means empty time slots. Shelters could make pets more adoptable by offering free spay/neutering. Trappers would trap even more animals, knowing that the fix would not be on their dimes. Colonies of cats could be fixed at the same time, addressing the soft underbelly of trap-neuter-return, or TNR—that cats breed like, well, rabbits, and even a single mating pair can quickly rebuild the local population.
PennyFix is “an ideal idea,” said Steelton Community Cats volunteer Rosemary Loncar of Swatara Township. The kitty spay/neutering organization operates from an old bank in downtown Steelton. With Dr. Diane Ford of Vetting Zoo in Palmyra at the operating table, the organization has spayed and neutered some 8,000 cats over nine years.
“When you talk about a thousand cats being spayed and neutered, the numbers are exponential, when you think that each one of those female ferals would have three litters a year,” said Loncar.
A recent $1,000 grant from PennyFix, raised through donations, has helped Steelton Community Cats fix 30 cats and counting, easing the financial burden for those who couldn’t afford the procedure.
“It’s helping people who want to help and get this done,” Loncar said. “Seventy-five to 80 percent of the people are probably elderly. They’re on a fixed income. They see this animal, and they pity this animal. They want to help it.”
With universal spay/neutering, kindhearted souls could continue to feed their colonies, Loncar said.
“Over a period of time, these cats will die natural deaths,” she said.
Keep It Going
Stitt sees PennyFix as a Mothers Against Drunk Driving moment for the animal welfare community. MADD’s founders saw a problem and had enough.
“They formed something,” she said. “They did something.”
PennyFix is gaining traction. Two board members attended the global 2019 Petfood Forum, making contacts at the industry’s biggest event. Catster magazine is running a story. More organizations are getting $1,000 grants.
If one pet food manufacturer among the big four (Mars, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter and Gamble and Nestlé) joins in, the others will follow. That, at least, is the hope.
PennyFix is about getting ahead of the problem, assuring that animals aren’t born in difficult conditions, not to mention among rampant abuse, said Loncar. PennyFix in full gear would be “an amazing effort to stop overpopulation.”
“Every volunteer organization that is in TNR, we’re all in need of money to continue what we’re doing,” she said. “If something like PennyFix is there, it means we can spay and neuter more cats and make ourselves available to more people.”
At age 67, Stitt sees a problem that has grown worse since she cleaned shelter cages as a teen.
“Every animal we helped along the way was important, but in the scheme of things, we’re not touching what’s out there,” she said.
She admits to her group being “five women who don’t know too much about this.” Then again, she once told her minister, Noah didn’t know how to build an ark.
To which her minister replied, “If Plan A didn’t work, there are 25 more letters. Keep it going.”
To learn more about PennyFix, visit www.pennyfix.org or call 717-469-2540.