Considering Early Spay Neuter

Early spay neuter.  It has become a common practice in the United States, but at what cost?  Rescue groups maintain that altering intact animals is the only way to curb the pet population problem.  The AVMA believes that altering animals is best done early – before maturity in males (6-9 months as per the AVMA), and before the first heat cycle in females (~6 months as per the AVMA).  The AVMA, as well as many rescue groups, believes an altered animal to be healthier and better behaved than their intact counterparts – especially when neutered at a relatively young age.  While early spay neuter has been done for years and continues to be done in every growing numbers, is there another

Puppies as young as this are often spayed and neutered.  Is it the best thing for them?

Puppies as young as this are often spayed and neutered. Is it the best thing for them?

side to the equation?

Spaying and neutering requires the removal of the sex organs of a dog (or cat).  In females this means that the ovaries, fallopian tubes and uterus are removed.  In males, the testicles are removed.  Is it possible that the early removal of those sex organs and the hormones that they produce could cause a detrimental effect on the health of our pets?  While it isn’t in dispute that spaying and neutering can have positive results and that the surgery itself is relatively routine, what are people who are encouraged to alter their pets at an early age (or at all) not told?

Laura J. Sanborn M.S of Rutgers University summarized the health considerations in a 2012 article “Long Term Health Risks and Benefits Associated with Spay/Neuter”.  There are particular health issues that can be mitigated or avoided by altering dogs.  Some of the benefits for male dogs include:  reduction of the risk of some non-cancerous prostate disorders, a reduced risk of perianal fistulas (and at times a cure for reoccurring fistulas), and possibly a reduction in the incidence of diabetes though research is somewhat inconclusive on this point.  In bitches benefits include: a reduction in the risk of mammary tumors when performed prior to age 2 1/2, nearly eliminates the risk of pyometra, reduction in the risk of perianal fistulas and removes the small risk of other reproductive cancers.

Where there are positives, always will lurk the negatives, and in the spay and neuter world, these negatives are rarely discussed.  In both males and females, altering a dog before one year of age significantly increases their risk of osteosarcoma (bone cancer).  Altering increases the chance of cardiac hemangiosarcoma in both males and females and splenic hemangiosarcoma in females.  It triples the risk of hypothyroidism in both sexes and increases the incidence of Canine Cognitive Disorder in males.

One of the most obvious occurrences in dogs altered prior to one year of age is the fact that they grow significantly taller than their counterparts left intact until after one year of age.  It is thought that this abnormal growth is a direct result of the removal of estrogen producing organs in the growing dog (Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2000).  This can cause abnormal growth patters and structure.  According to Dr. Chris Zink, DVM, sex hormones promote the closure of growth plates.  When these hormones are removed, growth continues but not evenly.  This can result in longer limbs, narrower chests and heads and lighter overall bone.  It also can cause structural problems that increase the chances of ligament and tendon injuries.  It is a complete domino effect.  Other studies have shown a higher incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs spayed or neutered prior to 5.5 months of age as opposed to those done after 5.5 months of age.

Behavior is another reason often cited for having your pets altered at an early age.  It is believed by some that if you

Allowing your dog to mature prior to neutering them can help to keep them structurally sound for life.

Allowing your dog to mature prior to neutering them can help to keep them structurally sound for life.

spay and neuter before a particular age, certain undesirable behaviors will not manifest.  While it is not to say that some behaviors can be attributed to an intact state, it is far less common or far reaching than many would have you believe.  Intact females do go into season with a regularity that depends upon the individual dog.  While dealing with the mess and possibly amorous overtures of your other dogs (neutered or not), can be annoying, the idea of spaying prior to the first season should be carefully weighed against the health benefits involved in allowing full growth.

With male dogs, all sorts of behaviors are blamed on an intact state.  Aggression, roaming, marking, sexual behaviors like humping – you name it.  Neutering is often touted as the cure all for any and every behavioral ill.  How surprised some people are when their ill-behaved intact boy remains an ill-behaved neutered boy.  There is no magic.  Training is, as always, the key to having a well behaved dog in your home.  Intact dogs, if properly house trained, do not mark in the house.  They are not ‘more aggressive’ that neutered dogs.  They do not hump other dogs randomly any more than do neutered males or bitches spayed or not.  Intact dogs can indeed be macho.  It can depend on breed and upbringing.  Indeed, intact males will react to a bitch in season, but so to will most neutered males.  In fact, neutered males often will mount and tie with a girl in heat.  While no puppies will result, it is very common.  Chained dogs aren’t aggressive because they are intact – they are aggressive because they have spent their entire lives on chains.  Some dogs hate other dogs – either because they just do or because their owner’s never properly socialized them.  This has little to do with whether or not the dog is intact and everything to do with life experience and training.

It is true that if your dogs are intact, they are capable of producing puppies.  If you are any sort of responsible pet owner, you should be able to prevent your dog from randomly mating with other dogs and producing puppies.  If you allow your dog freedom to run where he or she will without a fence or supervision, than you are not a responsible pet owner.  It is that easy.  People who have both intact males and females in one household avoid unwanted litters every single day.

The decision as to when to alter any dog is one that must be made taking all of the above factors into consideration.

Be proactive for your dog - you are the only voice that they have!

Be proactive for your dog – you are the only voice that they have!

Chief among them are the health considerations, but also, your ability as a pet owner to responsibly handle, train and control your pet. Take your time, speak to your vet, and weigh the pros and cons.  Waiting until your dog is full to mostly grown (at least a year for most dogs, 18-24 months for extra large breeds) benefits your dog greatly and can mean the difference between a long happy life and heartbreak down the road.  Questions what you are told, research everything and make informed decisions.  Just because one vet says its absolutely so, doesn’t mean that another vet won’t have a second opinion.  If you are unsure or feeling pressured, get a second opinion.  It is your right to be proactive on behalf of your dog.

For animal shelters and rescue groups, early spay/neuter is a necessity in most cases.  They have no way of knowing how responsible any given potential home is going to be.  Handing out animals that are unaltered is simply unacceptable.  If you adopt a puppy from a rescue group who was spayed at an early age, familiarize yourself with conditions like spay incontinence, hypothyroidism joint issues and the like.  Be prepared and educate yourself on the issues that could possibly arise.

Waiting to alter your pet isn’t for everyone but it should at least be given some thought.  Some vets will still tell their clients that they must neuter prior to 6 months and some clients will blindly listen.  Allowing your dog to mature and grow as fully as possible before neutering  is by far your best option for your dog’s health, growth and well being.