This article is going to discuss a controversial topic in the dog owner community. We are going to address the negative effects of spaying and neutering dogs before they reach maturity.
We know that this is a sensitive topic and that there are arguments to be made for early spays and neuters that are worth hearing out, as well as arguments against spaying and neutering entirely, but we want to present a perspective on the spay and neuter debate that takes the whole dog into account and discusses the risk factors associated with each choice.
If you are new to the dog world and unfamiliar with the terms spay and neuter, this section is for you. We’ll explain the basic concepts and why owners have long chosen to spay and neuter their pets.
Both spaying and neutering refer to medical procedures done to dogs to remove their reproductive organs and functionality, thus sterilizing them and preventing them from producing a litter or impregnating a mate.
Neutering can be used to apply to both male and female dogs, whereas a spay refers to removing the ovaries of a female dog.
Generally speaking, these procedures themselves are safe for pets when done under the supervision of a licensed veterinary professional.
If you are wondering why there’s been a long-standing convention around spaying and neutering pets, the core reason is due to the massive pet overpopulation we experience here in the United States. This population explosion began post-WWII coinciding with the human population boom also known as the “Baby Boom.”
Americans were starting families and pets were increasingly a part of the household. However, pet populations grew at a much faster rate than humans, leading to overpopulation and the rise of shelters and mass euthanization of unwanted dogs and cats.
Most stray dogs who wind up on the streets or in kill shelters today still come from litters of “backyard breeders” and not professionals. Too often these dogs are not able to find suitable homes and are unfortunately released into unsafe environments.
In order to control this population, prominent dog organizations, rescues, and vets have suggested for many years that spaying and neutering your dogs is a smart idea and helps to keep this population under control.
In recent years, medical professionals have been able to run numerous studies on dog health and diseases. Some of these studies have pointed to a correlation in certain types of cancers and ailments that occur more frequently in neutered dogs versus intact dogs.
To complicate matters, there are also cancers and diseases that occur in lower rates in dogs that have been spayed and neutered. For instance, cancers related to sexual organs like ovarian and testicular cancers, which cannot occur at all in spayed and neutered pets because these organs have been removed.
According to a piece in Psychology Today by Stanley Coren PhD., DSc, FRSC, it is very often stated by veterinarians and North American literature that spaying and neutering your dogs will result in better behavior, such as reduced aggression, fear, and excitability while also minimizing common sexual behaviors and territory marking.
However, Dr. Coren mentions that according to the Duffel and Serpel study and the Farhoody study, which provided cumulative data on 15,984 dogs, spaying and neutering did almost the complete opposite.
Across all the dogs studied across 101 metrics using the C-BARQ (Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire), developed by Serpell and his associates, aggression in spayed/neutered dogs increased 20-100%, fearfulness increased about 31%, excitability increased 8%, and touch sensitivity increased 33%. In fact, the only apparent positive behavior change was a reduction in urine marking by 68%.
With regard to aggression, it was found that the age in which a male was neutered did not affect the increase in aggression; the increase in aggression was consistent no matter what age the dog was neutered. In females, however, early spays (before 1 year of age) caused a significantly larger increase in aggression when compared to later spaying.
Since spaying and neutering dogs has become the norm, there has been an increasing push to perform the operation on pets very early on in their growth cycles; well before they begin showing signs of maturity, reaching their full growth, or developing secondary sex characteristics which typically happens around six months of age.
One of these outcomes is a failure for growth plates to close properly giving dogs a more elongated look with longer and lighter legs, as well as narrower chests and heads. When dogs are allowed to reach sexual maturity and full growth these growth plates naturally close up, usually between six and twelve months of age.
Dog’s with open growth plates have been found to contract higher degrees of some cancers later in life, specifically osteosarcoma (bone) and hemangiosarcoma (blood) cancers.
When male dogs are neutered early, before one year of age, the risk of osteosarcoma and hemangiosarcoma increase considerably, especially in medium/large breeds.
Additionally, studies have shown a risk of hypothyroidism increases as well as dementia, orthopedic disorders like hip dysplasia, and bad reactions to vaccinations.
Obesity becomes three times as likely, which can be a trigger condition for other health issues. While the risk is small, prostate cancers and urinary tract cancers do become more likely in dogs that receive an early neuter.
While those are the negative effects, in the spirit of full disclosure we’ll go through what positives come from the early neuter procedure:
Like in male dogs, early spays come with their own risk profiles as well. There is an increased risk of osteosarcoma as well as splenic and cardiac hemangiosarcomas. For some breeds, these cancers are a major cause of death.
The risk of hypothyroidism increases by three times and obesity increases by a factor of 1.6 to 2, which can cause additional health problems.
For female dogs, spay related incontinence occurs in 4-20% of dogs given an early spay according to Dog’s Naturally Magazine.
They listed an increased risk of persistent or recurring urinary tract infections and an increased risk of recessed vulva, vaginal dermatitis, and vaginitis as possible health factors for dogs spayed before reaching puberty.
Female dogs are also at risk for orthopedic disorders and increased risk of adverse reactions to vaccines.
Again, we will also give you the positives so you can make your decisions with the most information possible:
After reading the previous section, you may be wondering why even spay or neuter your dogs at all? It is a question worth considering and we want to present the topic in a frank and matter-of-fact manner. We don’t want to impose a one-way-fits-all philosophy on any dog owner because it is a deeply personal matter.
A big reason rescue organizations and shelters require their dogs to be spayed and neutered is because the assumption is that many dog owners will not actually be responsible enough to prevent unwanted litters. It is up to you to be responsible for supervising your dog, and if you don’t plan for your dog to be interacting with many other canines, like if you live in a rural area for example, then the opportunities for them to create an unintentional litter are not as high as if you live in a populated suburb.
However, there are social implications to leaving your dog intact and you may decide that it’s not worth it to go against the grain here. For example, many dog parks won’t allow intact dogs, and if you live in a city, that’s an excellent place for your dog to socialize and meet some other pups.
The issue becomes about more than just your pet’s health as socio-economics, cultural attitudes, and lifestyles play a large role in this decision. No decision is “better” than another, but they do come with different risks, and it’s important to consider the options before choosing what’s right for your pets.
There is also a third option, the delayed spay and neuter. This means waiting until your dog has reached a more mature age before conducting any sterilization procedures. The average age of maturity is around six months, but it will vary per breed.
In this scenario, you and your vet would work together to monitor your dog’s maturation and health and spay/neuter them when the timing is appropriate. This allows your dog’s body to produce some testosterone or estrogen and reduces the risk associated with an early spay and neuter.
Not all veterinarians have come around to this approach, so it may be worth your time to find a doctor who shares your values when it comes to pet health.
When performing a delayed spay many vets recommend waiting until after your dog’s second heat cycle. When females are in heat their hormonal levels have raised and it allows estrogen receptors to mature and function properly. A dog’s first heat is often irregular since her body is undergoing a new change, so waiting until her second heat is ideal. According to a 1991 study in the American Journal of Epidemiology the risk of mammary cancer was significantly reduced in females who were spayed at or before two and a half years old and who had been thin at nine to twelve months of age.
Be sure to read up on how best to care for your dog while she’s in heat as they can be a handful if you’re not prepared.
For male dogs, delaying neutering does not have to be monitored as closely as for female dogs since their health risks are not high when they are young. You will want to examine your dog’s testicles regularly, watching for signs of tumors or other growths. If your dog has retained testicles then the risks are somewhat higher for tumors, but they are often benign. In this scenario, you may want to delay neutering until your dog is three or four years old and then remove any retained testicles and vasectomize.
Some pet owners have begun opting for sterilization surgeries that disable their dog’s sex organs rather than removing them. For female dogs, this means only removing the uterus but leaving the ovaries intact, and performing vasectomies on male dogs, and not removing their testes.
With female dogs removing the uterus achieves the goal of sterilization but also eliminates the risk of pyometra assuming the entire uterus is removed properly. If not, it’s still possible that “stump pyometra” may develop. In this arrangement, your dog will still have her ovaries and can produce hormones from them, but will no longer go into heat and attract males. Eventually, the ovaries will atrophy and shrink.
Since this is a newer procedure, there is not enough data available on if there are any other risk factors that have not yet been accounted for, but it is an option you can discuss with your vet. Not all vets may be comfortable with it and you may have to interview several before landing on a good fit.
This is also a less commonly seen option and some vets may have reservations about performing dog vasectomies, but they satisfy the middle ground of sterilizing your pet while also leaving them physically intact. Talk to your canine physicians and see where they stand on the issue.
Most pet owners may still opt for a traditional spay/neuter, but educating yourself about the options, weighing the pros and cons of each, and determining a timeline that makes sense for you and your pets is important and will have a long term impact on their health. As a responsible dog owner, you owe it to them to do your homework.
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