An estimated 517,979 West Virginia households (around 70%) report having a pet, according to 2023 statistics gathered by The Federation of Humane Organizations of West Virginia (FOHO), a statewide organization advocating for improving animal welfare throughout the mountain state.
The group estimates approximately 1,073,993 dogs and cats living in West Virginia households with an additional 177,593 community cats, 98% of which are not altered. The human population of West Virginia is around 1.7 million
Over a decade ago, animal welfare advocates knew something needed to be done about the growing number of dogs and cats in the state, some of whom could not find homes and ultimately had to be euthanized.
FOHO took action and proposed a bill to the West Virginia State Legislature that would establish funding for humane societies, rescue groups and other animal welfare advocates to provide low or no cost spay and neuter services for pets statewide.
In 2013, a revised version of the bill passed, establishing a fund for the West Virginia Spay Neuter Assistance Program (WVSNP). The problem: The fund didn’t come with the funding.
FOHO President Theresa “Sis” Bruner said the group spent the next few years working with the ASPCA to establish rules for the fund, which were passed in 2015.
“So here we were with everything we needed but funding,” Bruner said.
Several avenues were considered to find alternative funding, she said, but all were ultimately shot down or not feasible.
Because pet food coming into the state must be licensed and registered with the state Department of Agriculture (WVDA) with a per container fee, it was proposed that an additional fee be tacked on to pet food companies wanting to sell their product in the state.
“We thought it was perfect because they are benefiting from all the animals and no taxpayer money would be used, because we knew in our state, nor did we want to, start battling for money against kids’ programs and crime and all the other kind of things that we knew were really important in the state,” Bruner said.
The fee, which was passed by the legislature in 2017, provides a statewide benefit for residents, nonprofits and animal control in all 55 counties.
Pet food in West Virginia is a nearly $200 million industry and most pet food companies do not mind the fee, Bruner said.
Jenn Dinsmore, who owns a Morgantown pet treat business called Poochie’s Choice, said she has been selling pet treats in the state since 1993 and has always paid some sort of fee, but the fact that she is paying more for each item she sells in the state isn’t a big deal and doesn’t really bother her.
“I have to pay in every state where my product is,” she said. “In New York it’s $100 a product, so five pounds or less is $75 here and that includes what goes to the department [of agriculture].”
Dinsmore, who is also an animal advocate, said she believes the fee is “one of the best things that ever happened in West Virginia” because we have such a problem with stray dogs and cats.
“I’m more than happy to pay the fee because my heart goes out to animals and I know that this is really helping with the overpopulation,” she said. “And it’s not a big amount of money when you think about your return on your product.”
While the legislature passed the pet food bill to fund WVSNP in 2017, only $450,000 of the $900,000 requested was awarded.
Since then, the program has done its best, and been successful, distributing the money throughout the state for clinics to provide spay and neuter services.
Since 2018, WVSNP has provided spay or neuter vouchers for over 11,000 dogs, more than 26,000 owned cats and 12,000 community cats. The total requests for vouchers have exceeded the available funds every year. But last year, things started to look a little brighter for the program.
FOHO was contacted by an organization called the Mug-Z-Moo Foundation, that was interested in making a donation to FOHO and WVSNP.
Nancy Young, FOHO board member and Mountaineer Spay and Neuter Assistance Program (M-SNAP) treasurer, said Mug-Z-Moo is a private foundation that was developed by an anonymous person interested in helping reduce pet overpopulation.
FOHO was brought to the attention of Mug-Z-Moo because of its involvement with WVSNP and the progress the program had made in the state, despite having little funding.
“We were like a dog with a bone,” Young said of the group when it found out it may receive money from the foundation.
In September 2022, Mug-Z-Moo pledged more than $4 million over the next three years that will be distributed two ways.
First, $2.7 million was offered to the six low-cost, high-volume spay and neuter clinics in the state to improve proficiencies, increase surgeries and generally help all 55 counties. Each clinic will receive $150,000 a year for three years.
The remaining $1.35 million will close the $450,000 deficit in the fund for WVSNP by awarding that amount to the fund each year for three years, bringing it to $900,000 a year.
“They wanted to close the gap and help us at least for three years,” Bruner said. “We’ve already gotten $1,300,000 of it.”
So far, Mug-Z-Moo and WVDA have awarded $1,017,883 through WVSNP to 76 animal shelters and animal welfare groups in 53 of 55 counties.
Bruner said she was thrilled to finally have a viable program and for FOHO and WVSNP to be recognized.
“I think when the program was set up, it was set up so that donors could add to it and give grants and things, but I don’t think anybody ever expected anyone to do that,” she said. “And I love it that somebody did.”
Local groups from Monongalia and Preston counties that were awarded funding include Animal Friends of North Central West Virginia, Appalachian Peace Paws Rescue, Homeward Bound WV, Morgantown Feral and Stray Cats, Mountaineers for Mutts, M-SNAP and Preston County Humane Society as well as the low-cost, high-volume clinic in Morgantown, the Spay Neuter Incentive Program of West Virginia (SNIP WV).
Young said Mon County is fortunate to have so many great animal welfare groups that all work together in a network and much of their success can be attributed to the funding they receive from groups like Mug-Z-Moo and the WVSNP fund.
While funds are currently growing, the Mug-Z-Moo money will end in three years and the pet food bill that otherwise funds WVSNP expires in 2027.
Both Bruner and Young mentioned Maryland just renewed a similar bill until 2032 and stressed the importance of West Virginia doing the same before the program expires.
“Let’s face it, unwanted animals lead to increased animal cruelty, disease, wasted tax dollars and heartbreak for shelter workers,” Bruner said.
“If you spend a few years not spaying and neutering, people let their cats run and some are not altered. If you let them out, they are going to breed,” she said. “And most people let their cats in and out.”
The way to control that, she explained, is to continue to spay and neuter as many animals as possible, so when they are let outside, they don’t breed.
Bruner said she wants everyone to understand that this isn’t something that you ever completely solve, it is something that you get under control.
“Our goal is to get to a maintenance level,” she said. The continued funding of WV SNAP will ensure clinics can continue to work toward that future sustainability.