Whole Dog Journal unabashedly supports the positive efforts of animal protection workers around the country to reduce the euthanasia of unwanted animal companions, including the proactive approach of shelters to spay and neuter dogs at a relatively early age, before they have had a chance to make more puppies.
However, many holistic veterinary practitioners regard prepubescent spay/neuter surgery as potentially harmful to young pups. We’ll describe their concerns — but we’ll also offer some holistic remedies that can counter the potentially deleterious effects of surgery. It is our opinion that a committed, responsible owner who takes scrupulous care of his or her dog can take either path – to seek out early sterilization or to wait a few months before altering the dog – without adding to the dog’s health problems or the world’s dog problem.
Opposed to early surgery
Sandra Priest, DVM, owner of Four Winds Holistic Animal Services in Knoxville, Tennessee, has had a holistic small animal practice for eight years. And she has serious concerns about surgical sterilization for young puppies. She advises her clients to spay and neuter their dogs between the ages of six to 12 months.
“I’m not arguing that animal overpopulation is not a real problem,” says Dr. Priest, “but I have concerns about early spay/neuter on several levels. First, I worry about exposing a puppy’s extremely immature system to anesthesia protocols and pre-anesthetic medications. As they age, the immune system becomes more competent and mature, more able to withstand the rigors of surgery. Second, I believe that the loss of the trophic (beneficial, nourishing) effects of the sex hormones on maturation and development has a significant impact. There are complex feedback loops in the endocrine system that involve the sex hormones. Not only do I believe that the cosmetic effect – the loss of masculine and feminine appearance – is regrettable, I am convinced that there are important benefits in allowing an animal’s systems – the urinary tract for example – to have some maturity before spaying and neutering. Finally, we don’t know the long term effects of early sterilization on a dog’s health and longevity, and we won’t know that for at least 10 or 15 more years.”
True to her holistic philosophies, Dr. Priest refuses to categorically rule out the possibility that a patient might someday be appropriate for early surgery.
“Holistic medicine emphasizes individual treatment plans,” she reminds us. “People who seek holistic care are, for the most part, those who have gone the extra mile and are very responsible. I can’t think of a situation where I would recommend early spay/neuter, but I try not to get locked in to a position – it limits my ability to be flexible. In my practice I have no reason to recommend early spay/neuter, so I don’t.”
And what about animal shelters, who may deal with a clientele somewhat less responsible than hers? After thoughtful consideration, Dr. Priest holds steadfast to her personal and professional ethics.
“As a veterinarian, I took an oath to improve animals’ health,” she replies. “For me to do something I believe to be deleterious to an animal’s health would be ethically incorrect.”
Dr. Ihor Basko, of All Creatures Great and Small Veterinary Services in Kapaa, Hawaii, shares Dr. Priest’s concerns about the effects of prepubescent sterilization for puppies. “For my clients, I do not believe in this procedure at an early age,” he says. “I love my clients’ animals like my own, and I would never recommend this for their cat or dog, or even a bunny. The animals are still growing, and their hormones have not yet developed because their sexual organs start to develop at a later age.”
Biochemically speaking, Dr. Basko tells us, “hormones work together in the body. Not just in the sexual organs, but also in the brain, adrenal glands and fat cells. Hormones help the body grow and develop, metabolize food, especially fat and protein, stimulate bone growth, support hair and skin integrity, affect body shape and size, behavior, and a lot more.”
He disputes those who quote research that indicates nothing bad happens to animals sterilized at an early age. “I am not the only veterinarian who thinks this way. Most, if not all veterinarians who have been in practice over 20 years, will agree from experience – in the patients we have seen – that dogs spayed early were more prone to obesity, hypothyroidism, incontinence, skin and behavioral problems. Males castrated early were more prone to obesity, hypothyroidism, perianal hernias, early back pain, knee injuries and skin problems. Not only is this detrimental to the animal’s health, but it is also costly to the owner who must pay to treat these ailments.”
Dr. Basko’s observations are shared by other holistic practitioners, however, these negative effects have not been observed in scientific studies. Several studies have failed to find any significant differences in animals sterilized at an early age (such as seven weeks) and animals that were sterilized later (at seven months, for instance). Critics of the pediatric procedure argue that it’s possible that not enough long-term studies have been conducted to prove there are no long-term effects of early surgery.
If and when a practitioner feels that a lack of hormones has caused a health problem in a dog, there are a number of herbal remedies that can help. According to CJ Puotinen, author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care (Keats, 1998), in healthy spayed animals, the adrenal glands and the liver take over the ovaries’ biological function by producing small amounts of estrogen. Puotinen says that a natural diet and the use of herbs and supplements that support the adrenal gland, the liver, and overall hormone balance can be used instead of artificial hormone replacement therapy, with better effects. Tinctures made from fresh hops, for instance, can be used for female hormone regulation. Chasteberry or vitex (Vitex agnus castus) stimulates the pituitary gland, which helps (among other functions) regulates and normalizes hormone production in the female. Powdered dong quai (Angelica sinensis), fed in capsules, also can help regulate hormone production through its action on the liver and endocrine system.
A well-balanced, natural raw diet, says Puotinen, will prevent common problems in your sterilized pet. She suggests feeding a good multiple vitamin and comprehensive mineral and trace element supplement, in addition to a glandular/organ supplement, to provide the building blocks of natural hormones that the dog needs.
Traditional Chinese angle
Dr. Basko also explains how, from the standpoint of traditional Chinese medicine, early spay/neuter causes a disturbance in the chi (also spelled qi), the essential life energy that flows through the body.
“The ‘essence’ – mine, yours, our pets’ – is stored in the Kidney Meridian and connecting meridians, including those that govern the sex organs. The essence is your ‘fire’ for life, and it’s the energy that nourishes the body. This energy is classified as yang, and the yang energy comes from the cosmos, the planets, the stars and the sun. Kidney yang is the energy that is created by the development of the kidneys, the sexual organs and the adrenal glands. This is the driving force that regulates growth, replication, passion or emotion.” Dr. Basko feels that performing surgery and removing parts of the dog’s reproductive system at an early age alters and reduces the normal Kidney yang radically.
Cheryl Schwartz, another veterinarian with years of study and practice of Traditional Chinese medicine on animals, is also strongly opposed to the practice of pediatric sterilization surgery. Dr. Schwartz feels that routine spaying and neutering dogs is a necessity for population control, as well as a procedure that improves the lives of the individuals by reducing aggression between males, and preventing the heavy toll that pregnancy takes on a female. However, she feels that the pediatric surgery is harmful.
“I’m seeing problems with adult dogs in my practice that were sterilized as very young puppies – especially dogs that lack control over their urination and dogs with chronic upper respiratory infections. I’m afraid we might get the population under control, but be left with a population of chronically ill animals.”
Even surgery performed on older animals can take a toll, says Schwartz. In her book Four Paws, Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Dogs and Cats (1996, Celestial Arts), Dr. Schwartz describes home care that can help counter these effects, typically what she would term “stagnation of the circulation” or a disruption in the liver blood stores.
After spay or neuter surgery, she says, if a dog acts fatigued or lethargic after surgery (and a veterinary examination rules out any obvious cause), or becomes disobedient and willful in the weeks after surgery, Dr. Schwartz would suspect that the animal’s liver and his or her “liver qi” is stagnated from the surgery. She suggests that such a dog is treated with a lot of exercise to smooth out the qi flow.
In addition, Dr. Schwartz recommends nourishing the blood and the qi with tonifying and blood-building foods. Proteins such as small amounts of beef, lamb, or chicken liver may be helpful, as well as lean muscle meat from beef, rabbit, or the white meat of chicken. Digestive enzymes can be used to help the liver digest fats. And grains such as wheat, millet, and brown rice, and vegetables such as carrots, celery, broccoli, spinach, and chard can be added to the diet to help build the blood. Finally, Dr. Schwartz says, dry foods should be minimized until the condition improves, since the condition is already what she terms a “dry” condition.
Given the dark picture that Dr. Basko paints of prepubescent sterilization, it’s surprising to find that there are, in fact, times when he would recommend it. Those times coincide with a lot of the circumstances that shelter workers encounter on a daily basis.
“Without any reservations, I would always recommend this early sterilization to any animal owner who is a ‘jerk’ – the ones who keep letting their animals have litter after litter, then drown the puppies in the lake. Or they let their puppies run around in the street, dump them at Safeway – you get the picture. These people are the primary culprits in the overpopulation of cats and dogs.
“The benefits of early spay/neuter are that the ‘unconscious’ or lazy or non-caring animal owners will not have the opportunity to ‘forget’ to spay or neuter, and this will prevent the births of a lot more animals that would be subject to abuse, malnutrition, neglect, pain and torture,” says Basko. “Spaying and neutering animals young is the politically and environmentally correct way to go – there is no doubt about it. Later, when more and more people become more responsible pet owners, then maybe things can change.”
This said, Dr. Basko adds that this rarely comes up among his own clientele. “In general, the people who come to seek my advice and pay for it – the people who are interested in holistic medicine and take care of their pets – are capable of keeping their animals from reproducing” until their animals are old enough to be sterilized. “Most of my clients are well above average in terms of animal care.”
These motivated, educated people are also the sort who might provide the best home for a sterilized young animal from a shelter.
-By Pat Miller and Nancy Kerns