Whole Dog Journal's Blog January 14, 2013

Spay/Neuter: The Third Rail of the Dog World?

Posted at 10:54AM - Comments: (19)

An article that discusses the health effects of spay/neuter surgery appears In the February issue of WDJ. It’s a topic that’s overdue for discussion in WDJ, but one that can get people upset, for different reasons.

From the perspective of those of us involved with shelters or rescue, any discussion of delaying or foregoing sterilization for all but the best individual dogs from impeccable bloodlines is practically verboten. Some of these people verbally attack anyone who questions the wisdom of pediatric spay/neuter, and insult anyone with an intact male dog who is not a conformational and behavioral paragon of his breed standard.

I understand the rancor. When you have years and years of first-person experience with trying to find homes for countless waves of unwanted dogs and puppies – or you’ve seen the barrels full of euthanized pets in a shelter freezer, waiting for pickup by the disposal truck – any dog-keeping practice that could possibly result in “accidental” litters of puppies seems obscene.

From the perspective of people who are dedicated to optimizing the health of their own dogs, though, it’s a compelling topic. There is no question that the sex-related hormones produced in the unaltered adolescent dog has multiple influences on his or her growing body, and some speculate, brain. What is an open question, however, is whether the benefits of allowing a dog to develop into young adulthood, and perhaps beyond, are worth the risks; there are a number of conditions that affect intact dogs but can be entirely prevented by early spay/neuter surgery.

But keeping an intact dog, even just through the first year, is not something that should be undertaken casually. In the article, author Denise Flaim, herself the breeder of multiple generations of holistically raised Rhodesian Ridgebacks, also discusses the challenges of the responsible management of intact males and females. It’s not easy – and people who have never done it before will be surprised at how different it is from living with altered animals.

The article discusses the benefits and risks of early alteration of male and female dogs, later alteration, and foregoing spay/neuter surgery altogether. We’ll be very interested in hearing your responses to the article.

Comments (18)

shibamistress I have personally rescued (as a volunteer) 60 dogs in the last few years, overseeing their medical care and fostering and I have seen more females suffer from pyometra and males with tumors from retained testicles and not one with bone cancer. Your emotional argument is ridiculous in the face of the fifty dogs led to death inside the LA shelters every day. JUST RIDICULOUS. Holistic my backside. I give up on the hair-brained dog fanciers who only consider their one dog in the face of so much death and abuse. To me your thinking is like feeding your kid fillet minion in front of a refugee camp. Enough. If you love your dogs you will do whatever you can to stop the slaughter of them in your shelters. As an Australia living in Los Angeles, what I have seen in this country is like the third world and it makes me sick to my stomach. You should all be ashamed to call yourselves dog lovers if you argue to keep your dogs balls.

Posted by: Bronwyne M | February 23, 2013 3:24 PM    Report this comment

Ok after the fact if a puppy is spayed early what can be added to their diet to give her the best chance to guard against bone cancer if any?

Posted by: sherry p | February 13, 2013 10:13 AM    Report this comment

And I forgot to add in my earlier comment, that I take serious issue with Jennifer Mieuli Jameson quoted in the article, who says "The main thing in our lives is always going to be population control. A dog that's spayed early may have a problem or two down the line, but that is a dog that's not going to have puppies, and that is what we rescuers are charged with. For good or bad, right or wrong, I'm ok with that."

I am not. As someone that saw their rescued dog--who had a pediatric neuter--die of bone cancer, I'm really not ok wit the casualness of that comment. Bone cancer is a horrible way to die. Rescuing is not just about the dog right then. It's not just about population control. It's also about the life of the dog. And someone, someday, may be left wondering if their companion died horribly, because of a decision that was taken out of their hands before they even had the dog.

Posted by: shibamistress | February 4, 2013 2:44 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for this article, which I found very useful. I'm active with purebred dogs as an enthusiast and in canine sports, not as a breeder, but I am very concerned about my dog's health overall, and considering when is the right time for spaying and neutering is part of my overall concerns about my dogs' health.

I understand the impetus for early spay/neuter, and I support spay/neuter in general. I do not agree with pediatric spay/neuters though. While I think it is idea to wait til the dog is at least a year old, esp. in breeds not prone to cancer, it is probably ok to spay/neuter at around 6 months. In large breeds, however, I would not spay/neuter before a year old.

I lost a GSD to bone cancer at 11 years old. It was agonizing to lose him that way, and more agonizing to know that the pediatric spay he had before I rescued him may have contributed to the bone cancer. Once I knew more, I knew I would never spay/neuter a large breed before a year old.

But I'm a responsible owner. I read WDJ . I feed my dogs a raw diet. I am careful about not over vaccinating. I have a big fence, and I keep my dogs secure. It's not hard to keep my dogs intact til they are adults. And I will add, though it is just anecdotal, that my intact male is much easier to manage and less reactive than my spayed/neutered dogs. And it's what I've heard from many other people too--in fact, intact males are not that hard to manage (as long as there is not a female in season around).

I understand many people are NOT responsible owners. I understand the push to spay/neuter early, to keep more unwanted dogs out of shelters. In general, when I talk with others about altering dogs, I just say, yes, do it, and do it between 6 months and a year. But for me, the risks of pediatric spay/neuter are not worth it, and I wish public policy would be more in line with what is known of canine health.

Still, I'm glad to see this article in WDJ, and also glad to get the perspective of a responsible breeder (Flaim).

Posted by: shibamistress | February 4, 2013 2:36 PM    Report this comment

I got my little boy westy "fixed" because everyone said it would stop him from running off. Well now he has started biteing certain people and I feel terrible that I even did that to him!

Posted by: dogbootlady | January 18, 2013 2:57 PM    Report this comment

I remember letting my dog(s) be measured by Dr.Zink and an assistant some years ago where they were checking bone measurements in altered and unaltered dogs. Mine are never neutered as young pups; yet in my breed I can almost bet on which ones were pediatric neuters with the disproportionate conformation and iffy temperaments. I've kept mine as intact males/females and haven't had a problem, but that may be the particular line I have. I also train all mine for many activities and socialize them heavily. Fortunately for us we're a rare breed so there's less irresponsible breeding, but we have our share of pediatric neutering. I'm looking forward to reading Dr. Zink's article.

Posted by: SandyM | January 16, 2013 8:15 AM    Report this comment

Read the review of Dr. Zinc, a vet Ph.D., and well known researcher and scientist, who summarized the existing research (18 studies) of the consequences of early spaying/neutering. Neutering and spaying, have long term affects on a dog's physique if it is done before dogs have a chance to become fully grown. Unfortunately a typical local vet perspective doesn't take into consideration the available scientific research. I am a breeder of miniature poodles. My contract states that pets should be spayed/neutered between 15 & 20 months. Here are just brief conclusions:
Early Spay-Neuter Considerations
for the Canine Athlete
One Veterinarian's Opinion
(c) 2005 Chris Zink DVM, PhD, DACVP
This article is available for download in Adobe Acrobat PDF format Early Spay Considerations (pdf)
Those of us with responsibility for the health of canine athletes need to continually read and evaluate new scientific studies to ensure that we are taking the most appropriate care of our performance dogs. This article provides evidence through a number of recent studies to suggest that veterinarians and owners working with canine athletes should revisit the standard protocol in which all dogs that are not intended for breeding are spayed and neutered at or before 6 months of age.
Orthopedic Considerations
...abnormal growth frequently results in significant alterations in body proportions and particularly the lengths (and therefore weights) of certain bones relative to others.
...the stifle likely becomes heavier (because it is longer), and may cause increased stresses on the cranial cruciate ligament. In addition, sex hormones are critical for achieving peak bone density
... spayed and neutered dogs had a higher incidence of CCL rupture
... dogs spayed or neutered before 5 1/2 months had a significantly higher incidence of hip dysplasia than those spayed or neutered after 5 1/2 months of age

Cancer Considerations:
A retrospective study of cardiac tumors in dogs showed that there was a 5 times greater risk of hemangiosarcoma, one of the three most common cancers in dogs, in spayed bitches than intact bitches and a 2.4 times greater risk of hemangiosarcoma in neutered dogs as compared to intact males.

A study of 3218 dogs demonstrated that dogs that were neutered before a year of age had a significantly increased chance of developing bone cancer. A separate study showed that neutered dogs had a two-fold higher risk of developing bone cancer.

Despite the common belief that neutering dogs helps prevent prostate cancer, at least one study suggests that neutering provides no benefit.

Behavioral Considerations:
...an increased incidence of sexual behaviors in males and females that were neutered early.

...early age gonadectomy was associated with an increased incidence of noise phobias and undesirable sexual behaviors.

...significantly more behavioral problems in spayed and neutered bitches and dogs. The most commonly observed behavioral problem in spayed females was fearful behavior and the most common problem in males was aggression.

Other Health Considerations:
... an increase in the incidence of female urinary incontinence in dogs spayed early
...Certainly there is evidence that ovarian hormones are critical for maintenance of genital tissue structure and contractility

Neutering also has been associated with an increased likelihood of urethral sphincter incontinence in males

...spayed or neutered dogs were more likely to develop hypothyroidism.

...neutering and spaying was determined to be the most significant gender-associated risk factor for development of hypothyroidism.

Infectious diseases were more common in dogs that were spayed or neutered at 24 weeks or less as opposed to those undergoing gonadectomy at more than 24 weeks.

...the AKC-CHF report demonstrated a higher incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines in neutered dogs as compared to intact

Posted by: Olga | January 15, 2013 9:28 PM    Report this comment

What about tubal ligation and vasectomy? Are any mainstream vets doing it, or just the upper-crust Aspen ones? Seems like that option would solve the dilemma, especially if vets could develop a way to do it quickly and easily and leave evidence that it had been done.

Posted by: MEK | January 15, 2013 8:23 PM    Report this comment

As a long time owner and VERY occasional breeder of purebred show dogs I do want to jump in on this topic from 2 directions. I originally started with Dalmatians and my mentor (a veterinarian) insisted that every puppy be over a year old before spaying or neutering. He felt strongly that the urinary tract needed to be as mature as possible in a breed that could be predisposed to stones. So, all of our puppies had a chance to grow up a bit and take advantage of steroid hormones in their system for a little while longer. I think because of that, and because his line had very good genetics, we had very few health issues and very long lived dogs.
Secondly, I want to refer to one of the previous comments about breeding dogs only being purebred and conformation being a determining factor. For all of the years that I have been "in dogs" and all of the many, many dedicated breeders I have met, there is an overriding principle that the guardians of whatever breed they have try very hard to live by. For the betterment of any breed you need to consider 4 aspects of every breeding equally: conformation, health, temperament, and type. With my dogs I have competed in conformation, obedience, rally, agility and hunt tests and I can promise you that any dog, no matter how it is built can do all of these activities. However, the dogs that have been bred with sound conformation in mind, can and do have much longer careers and many fewer acute or chronic injuries throughout their lives. We humans have created many breeds to perform specific and very often physically demanding jobs, and good conformation helps them in those jobs.
I currently work in the canine service industry and believe me, there are so many all-americans that I meet on a daily basis that I would happily put in my pocket and bring them home, so do not imagine for a minute that I am a "breed snob"! I look forward reading the article in full.

Posted by: Ginger S | January 15, 2013 5:59 PM    Report this comment

I too am looking forward to reading this article, particularly how it relates to various cancers. We had our female Rottie spayed at 6 months, as was recommended. One of the reasons to suggest the spaying was to all but eliminate the risk of breast cancer if it was done before the first heat. Unfortunately, now at 7 years old, she has bone cancer. From what I'm reading, the incidence of bone cancer is significantly increased for dogs who do not remain intact. I hope to see comments on these statistics in this or subsequent articles.

Posted by: Cheryl B | January 15, 2013 4:44 PM    Report this comment

Almost 4 years ago we purchased an Australian Labradoodle from the breeder. According to the breed registry all pet puppies had to be spayed/neutered at 6 weeks. I went to great lengths to provide all unbiased (university based/peer reviewed) literature on the ESN topic and was able to pursuade the breeder to allow us to wait until 6 months to neuter our puppy. We gave her a $1000 deposit, which she returned to us upon delivery of the certificate. I was very grateful that she was flexible. I agree that there has to be a better way to control unwanted pets. I'm looking forward to reading the article once my copy of the february issue comes in.

Posted by: Remysmom | January 15, 2013 1:32 PM    Report this comment

I am old-fashioned, and when this early/pediatric whatever you want to call it spaying started I felt very concerned, and went with my canine maternalistic feelings of it just didn't seem right to be subjecting so little a baby to surgical and anesthesia risks...let alone the hormonal implications. One love in my life was adopted as an adult and they attempted to spay her only to find she ALREADY had been. My little one who is with me now came from a rescue group who had you sign off on a certificate that you would spay at a very early age (I'm not recalling how soon, but something like 3 months) and then if you sent the paperwork in, they would return $50 of the adoption fee. I asked/begged to be allowed, due to my old fashioned nature, to wait until she was 6 months old, which they initialed and agreed to, though now you've got me wondering if older wouldn't have been still better. In any case I was grateful to find a vet who did laproscopic spay, which resulted in a shorter and less painful recovery, and who also allows family to hang out until the surgery, and be with them during the recovery. It made it a far less stressful experience for both of us and I will be forever grateful.

Posted by: robin r | January 15, 2013 1:02 PM    Report this comment

This is an interesting trade off debate. There is research (and common sense) to suggest sex hormones play a serious and important role in normal development. Like the editor, however, as a shelter volunteer I saw too many animals killed for lack of suitable homes (although my province now has an unthinkable: a shortage of dogs). For many years animals were sent out with a discount certificate for spay/neuter and the contract that said you must... And many of these animals came back pregnant or having given birth. IF the humans were responsible and could be trusted to fix the animal or prevent unregulated breeding, yes, waiting is a better option. But there's the trade-off: too many humans cannot be trusted, and is it better to have a life, with the possible consequences or no life at all? Having had to participate in too many euthanasias in my time, I understand the preference for pediatric spay/neuter until we build a better human.

Posted by: Annie | January 15, 2013 11:46 AM    Report this comment

One other issue -- dare I mention -- there are some "mutts" that have the most excellent health and disposition and intelligence. In fact, designer mixed breeds are all the range. If we're going to allow some dogs to breed, why the "racism" (if I may be so bold) that the breeders must be a purebreed, with conformation as a determining factor?

I suppose I was lucky in not having to know about the other factors here. We're still blessed with our first dog. We believe he was about two when we adopted him and he was intact until the day before we brought him home. He has a wonderful disposition.

Posted by: Elaine K | January 15, 2013 11:02 AM    Report this comment

After more than 30 years of having dogs, we have our first non-rescue. Our Golden Retriever female is now 10 months old. She has not had a heat yet. Her breeder strongly urges no spay/neuter until after a year. I had the expected push back from our conventional vet, but the natural vet we see as well is 100% behind the decision to delay spaying. This vet does injury rehab and sees a lot of cranial cruciate ligament ruptures in Goldens that have been neutered early.
I did a lot of research online to try to find information that could back up our decision to delay spaying. I finally found a summary of a study currently being conducted at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine on the effects of spay/neuter on goldens and labs specifically. I emailed the vet in charge of the study with some questions, and he was nice enough to respond. He corroborates the opinion of the breeder and the natural vet and suggested that we wait until after 15 months to spay. And this we will do, even though we are aware of the difficulties of having a female in season. We feel strongly that we will be giving her the best chance for the healthiest life.

Posted by: MEvans1945 | January 15, 2013 10:46 AM    Report this comment

I think in the head-long RUSH, to decrease shelter dogs, there is an absolute insistence on doing a very early spay/neuter. Too few of the shelter people have any interest in studies as to whether it has any long-term negatives, as long as the dog cannot possibly reproduce. PETA feeds heavily on the over-population idea, and most people don't look at or want to know that in reality, PETA's founder's main goal is to END all ownership of animals (pets + livestock).
In many areas, PETA members have infiltrated or taken over many shelters.

No one seems to look at how many shelter dogs are already fixed upon entering the system, instead they only look (conveniently) at total intake numbers. Nor (as in the case of Calif) whether the dogs continue to pour in, due to bordering states and the ability to buy over state lines and/or from Mexico or from the internet. Higher fees for intact dogs, might be a good plan- which can give people the ability to keep dogs intact, if they choose. If they prove the dogs are better quality animals (by titles and health clearances) I wish they could then get, lowered fees rather than constant penalties for intact animals.

(It seems it is more important to take the decision away from people than to encourage or insist on them being resposible pet owners.) In some breeds the genetic breeding populations are already very tight. In Germany, you cannot breed dogs that have not earned titles AND passed health clearances. If that was required here, think how much better off the general dog population might BE. Under those criteria, owners might still get to make the decision they and their vet thought was best for the individual dog, instead of BIG BROTHER & the government.

Unfortunately, we also have to question, whether vets always give the best advice in these matters. While many/most pets ought to be spayed/neutered at some point, the cost of fixing them by private vets, is high profit/low risk - so the profit motivation (when the advice is given) needs to be examined. Vet don't see pet owners as often as they once did, now that most required vaccinations are only given every 3 years and due to the very bad, ongoing economy plus the ability to order many pet medications, online.

E.H. Amos

Posted by: Betsy | January 15, 2013 10:42 AM    Report this comment

We adopted a Ridgeback from rescue and I cannot wait to read this article! It was wonderful that the rescue group did not alter the male as he still needs another testosterone kick to help with confidence.

The local vet we took him to said that he didn't see any benefit in waiting to alter our boy, and actually gave us information about the increase in testicular cancer as a persuasive element to alter him before 1 year. When asked about increase rates in other cancer, the vet said there's no proof, although we have read studies to the opposite that focus on large breeds. We are going to another vet now as I felt that the vet's lack of wanting to engage in discussion was a red flag.

Our girl was altered before we adopted her and she is very agressive in play, lacks bite inhibition (poor boy has some teeny battle marks), and doesn't exhibit many nuturing traits. I wonder if we had her intact through puberty if that would have made a difference, so I'm eager to read this article.

Posted by: JennO | January 15, 2013 10:11 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for doing a thoughtful treatment of this topic.

One of my dogs was a pediatric neuter at 4 months old (non-negotiable policy of the shelter I adopted him from: all dogs had to be fixed before leaving). He has all the hallmarks I've since come to associate with pediatric neuters: disproportionately long legs, a nervous disposition, reactivity to other dogs, and so on. He's almost 3 now and has just started lifting his leg to urinate, which he only does about 10% of the time; the other nine out of ten times he squats like a puppy.

My other dog was neutered at (best guess) a year of age. He urine marks like an intact male -- which earned him an instant NQ for marking a sign in the Rally ring once! -- but otherwise seems to have gotten all of the benefits and none of the drawbacks of alteration.

I've come around to the belief that post-puberty neutering is best for the mental and physical health of the dogs, at least where males are concerned. I don't see it as much in females but I've definitely noticed a higher incidence of pediatric male neuters in client dogs who come to me for reactivity issues. Of course, that could be all due to having a skewed sample -- people who don't see any need to change their dogs' behavior seldom go to trainers -- but still, it strikes me as noteworthy.

Posted by: Jennifer A | January 14, 2013 10:03 PM    Report this comment

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