Risks and Benefits to Spaying and Neutering Your Dog
The growing debate over when or even if it is always best to spay or neuter.
When we talk about dogs, invariably we talk about dog people. The human desire to group things that interest us and build commonality among kindred spirits is hardwired– as is our tendency to segregate and highlight differences. As a result, dog people may identify as belonging to as many different canine communities as there are breeds. And within those “tribes,” we have mores, and values, and politics – and not all of them are compatible.
I belong to a tribe that is somewhat beleaguered these days: I breed and show purebred dogs. I screen my homes carefully. I have long legal contracts that require any dog of my breeding to be returned to me if he or she is no longer wanted, regardless of reason or age or health condition. And, of course, I require that all puppies that I sell as companions be spayed and neutered.
But in recent years, my attitude on that last score has begun to change, in large part due to new information about the potential for adverse effects of spay and neuter surgeries. My contracts still require those lovely and loved companions to be altered, and in more than a decade I have never had any reproduce (at least as far as I know!). But the details regarding when I want spay/neuter surgery done on my puppies have changed, and likely will continue to evolve.
Broaching the subject of delayed spay/neuter – and in the case of some males, perhaps not neutering at all – is the doggie equivalent of discussing Obama versus Romney at the Christmas dinner table, which gives me pause, because I let that happen last month, with predictably disastrous results. It has the potential of making people angry, threatened, bewildered, regretful – maybe even a combination of all those. That’s not my intent.
What I want to do, though, is open up dialogue on a subject that for a long time has been presented as black and white.
While no one questions the importance of spay/neuter as a tool to stem animal overpopulation, the questions on the table are: Does one size fit all? Should committed, responsible people review the facts and scientific literature to make an individualized decision for their particular dog? Is it always necessary to remove testes in a male dog and ovaries in a female dog in order to render them sterile, or are there other options? What are the real risks of keeping a dog intact for some period of time, balanced against a growing body of evidence showing that early spay/neuter might be implicated in a number of orthopedic, oncological, and even behavioral problems?
So many questions, and unfortunately, no clear-cut answers.
The American embrace of spay/neuter evolved in concert with human population trends. The post-World War II “baby boom” and economic expansion saw families increasingly bringing dogs and cats into their households – and the animals reproduced even more prolifically than the families themselves.
As cities (and later, rural communities) began to employ and then depend on animal shelters to deal with stray and unwanted pets, the population of animals concentrated in those facilities, leading to routine killing of excess dogs and cats. Spay/neuter was embraced enthusiastically by shelter workers and rescue volunteers alike as an effective tool for helping control the population of unwanted animals and reducing euthanasia. By the 1970s, the veterinary culture had also embraced surgical sterilization for population control.
This is in contrast to attitudes elsewhere in the world, particularly in many parts of Europe, where unaltered dogs are common. In Norway, it is illegal to spay or neuter a dog without a valid medical reason. The rationale is that it is morally wrong to surgically alter a dog for human whim or convenience, which puts spay/neuter on a par with ear cropping and tail docking.
Over the decades, as animal sheltering has increased in visibility and animal rescue has become more popular, spay/neuter has hardened into an almost militant social policy. Today, it’s widely a cultural norm for dogs to lack any physical signs of sexual maturation. I’ve had puppy buyers balk at the idea of a female’s silhouette being made “unsightly” by visible nipples, and I had a co-worker who almost threw up at the idea of testicles on a male dog. “Rubbing on my couch – ugh!” she proclaimed.
And, oftentimes, what we don’t know, we fear. “The average person has never seen a dog in heat, never seen dogs mating, never watched a female give birth, never watched her raise her puppies,” one veterinarian reminded me.
Next: THE MEDICAL PICTURE