For many of us, our pet is a member of our family. Therefore it is only natural to provide a safe, healthy and nurturing environment for the animal.

To keep them safe and healthy it is important to stay current with vaccines, deworming, and flea and tick control. You should also provide your pet with a healthy diet, plenty of water, and a safe place to sleep and exercise. And, one of the most important health decisions you’ll make for your pet is to spay or neuter them.

It's no myth that there is an overpopulation of unwanted pets. The surplus of companion animals in the United States is in the millions. In 2013, Independence Animal Service employees responded to calls for 1,522 unrestrained animals, some of which were strays. There were also 908 owner or stray animal surrenders adding to the number of animals needing a loving home in Independence.

Companion and stray animals do not need our help to expand their numbers; they need our help to reduce their numbers. Spaying and neutering helps to accomplish this by preventing animals from being born accidentally, and is the most effective and humane way to control the animal population. In addition, a smaller pet population makes it easier to find good homes for them all.

In addition to reducing the number of unwanted animals, spaying or neutering has many other benefits for your pet and your community.

Top reasons to spay and neuter:

• Eliminates heat cycles and reduces risk of spraying, wailing, marking territory, or making inappropriate sexual approaches toward people or objects.

• Leads to better behavior because it decreases aggressive behavior, such as dog bites.

• Reduces and sometimes eliminates risk of mammary gland tumors/cancer, prostate cancer, perianal tumors, pyometria; and uterine, ovarian and testicular cancers.

• Makes your cat or dog a better pet, reducing his/her urge to roam and decreasing the risk of contracting diseases or getting hurt as they roam. Surveys indicate that as many as 85 percent of dogs hit by cars have not been spayed or neutered. Feline Immunodeficiency Syndrome is spread by bites and cats that have not been spayed or neutered. Animals who have not been neutered fight a great deal more than those who have.

• It is highly cost-effective. The cost of your pet's spay/neuter surgery is a lot less expensive than the cost of having and caring for a litter. It also beats the cost of treatment when your pet that has not been neutered escapes and gets into fights with the neighborhood stray.

• Increases the animal’s chance of a longer and healthier life. Spaying or neutering your canine friend will increase their life an average of one to three years, and felines three to five years.

Currently, Independence Animal Services has a grant from the Truman Heartland Community Foundation to increase the number of animals that are spayed and neutered in Independence. Through “Operation Litter Less,” Independence Animal Services is offering free and low-cost spay and neuter vouchers to qualifying, low-income residents.

Independence Animal Services is partnering with local vets to complete these services. The goal is to reach citizens who need help with spaying or neutering their pets and decrease the population of unwanted pets.

If you are an Independence resident and receive TANF, SNAP, Medicaid, WIC, Social Security Income, or have an income equal to or less than the 100 percent category of the 2014 Federal Poverty Level Chart, you would qualify for free spay/neuter services. If you are an Independence or Jackson County resident and have an income equal to or less than the 250 percent category of the 2014 Federal Poverty Level Chart you qualify for a reduced cost for spay/neuter services.

The vouchers can be picked up at the Independence Health Department. A driver’s license or picture ID, proof of address (such as a utility bill), and proof of government assistance or documents are required to show that income guidelines are met. This could be an EBT card, Social Security Income letter, 2013 tax return, or recent paycheck stubs.

For more information call 816-325-7205.

Larry Jones, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.