Everything you ever wanted to know about spaying and neutering (and certainly weren’t afraid to ask)

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I’ve talked about this so much over my veterinary years, I feel like I could have written a book on the subject.

neuter better

All kidding aside, let’s get the usual disclaimer out of the way: I am not a veterinarian and nothing I say in this blog should ever substitute for advice from a real medical professional. 

Okay, so here we go…the decision to surgically alter your dog is a big deal. It’s done under general anesthesia and, for females especially, it’s a major surgery – a total hysterectomy, in fact, just like us human females may have to get someday, which is another reason to baby our sore girls post-op! (I got your backs, bitches.)

If you adopt a dog, odds are he or she will be handed over freshly spayed or neutered. So owners of rescues rarely ever have to face this issue.

But if you get a puppy from a breeder, or a rescue from a group who didn’t have the funds to spay/neuter, it’s a whole different ball game. Should you spay/neuter right away? Does your breeder stipulate something about it in your contract? (I’ve found you won’t find more opinionated people about when to spay and neuter than breeders, who have a financial stake in turning out dogs without health issues that could even vaguely be linked to an early spay/neuter. Way more opinionated than even veterinarians, in my experience, which always struck me as odd. But that’s another blog.)

Further, should you spay and neuter at all?

Some people don’t think about this issue at all and some people think about it A WHOLE LOT. And have lots of questions. And I’ve heard the questions. So here are my best answers.

Following are all the things I’ve come to learn, from doctors, books and just plain old experience –  and I’d like to share. For all you spay/neuter aficionados out there, the doubters, the naysayers, the worrywarts, the staunch proponents and opponents, the ones who wonder if their male dog will ever forgive them – this one’s for you.

Why should I spay or neuter my dog?

I believe the decision about whether to spay or neuter really comes down to lifestyle. With a dash of health intervention. Why do I bring up lifestyle first? Because – to keep it perfectly real and one hundred, as the kids say – I don’t think health is really the main reason to spay and neuter (although there are a lot health benefits I’ll go into later). The way you want your dog’s life to be is the real tipping point here. Let me explain.

The fact is, if your dog is going to come into contact with other dogs, for everyone’s safety (including yours) he or she really should be altered. And by “contact” I mean dog parks, daycares, kennels, walking down the sidewalk, even your neighbor’s backyard – if you want your dog to be social with other dogs, minimizing the sexual part of their natures is key. Why? 

group fancyt

For social dogs, you’d be wise to spay and neuter:

– so they don’t reproduce and you have an unwanted litter on your hands (if you think you want puppies, I think unless you are a serious breeder dedicated to upholding the standard of a beloved breed, this may be a short-sighted decision. For every friend you find to take one of your dog’s puppies, that’s another potential home taken away from a shelter dog who already exists. Add to that the time and money it takes to raise a litter – it’s not something that should be entered into lightly. It’s not something that would be “cute” or “show your kids the miracle of life.” Don’t breed if you don’t know what you’re getting into! Because if you do, your puppies may be the ones who end up at the shelter.)

– so they don’t fight. Whether it’s an intact male being too aggressive, to other dogs targeting an intact male because they feel threatened by him, to dogs competing over an eligible female, intact dogs end up fighting in one way or another. Trust me, they do. I’ve seen it. (My boss Jacque has a good analogy for this: imagine your intact male dog entering a group of other dogs sticking up his middle finger to everyone. Flipping the old bird – of course, you’d have to imagine he could anatomically do that, which is dubious. But that’s really how an intact dog comes off to the other male dogs. And no good play session ever started with, “Hey, smell that? I’m bigger and badder than you. So… f*&k you. Want to play?”)

So the first question I would ask yourself when debating the spay/neuter issue is: what do I want my dog’s life to be like? Is he going to be with just humans all the time or do I want the opportunity and ability to take him to the dog park, walk him safely down the sidewalk or drop him off at daycare? If you do, spaying and neutering is really the only way to ensure he can enjoy these activities safely.

There are other behavioral benefits to spaying/neutering that also make your dog have a safer lifestyle and – well – more fun to be around.

behavioral benefits fancy

– neutered males do less leg-lifting and marking.

– neutered males have reduced dominance.

– neutered males exhibit reduced humping (imagine how maddening it would be to have all these sexual urges and no real outlet – another reason, I think, it’s more humane just to go ahead and lessen that urge for them).

– neutered males are less likely to escape and roam (did you know the majority of dogs who are found dead along highways are unneutered males, wandering and looking to mate?)

– neutered males elicit less attacks from other dogs.

– spayed females don’t get their periods (when I was a kid I had to put a pad on my Golden Retriever Penny because my parents weren’t big on spaying and neutering – what can I say; it was a different time – and let me tell you it is not fun).

– spayed females don’t incite aggressive breeding behaviors from other dogs.

What about the health stuff?

The other consideration in spaying or neutering is for the dog’s health. This is where it gets a little tricky because there are pros and cons on both sides. As with many medical concerns, this issue is still being studied. I’ve had veterinarians say there’s no reason not to spay/neuter as young as eight weeks; some say wait until 6 months; others say wait until 18 months for the giant breeds. I’ve heard some vets say all three over the course of many years. And to their defense, the best age is really not conclusive. But we must start somewhere, so let’s start with the benefits.

benefits fancy

– spayed females won’t develop uterine infections, uterine or ovarian cancers and have a much lower incidence of breast cancer.

– neutered males have reduced occurrence of prostate disorders, no testicular cancer and less incidence of peri-anal fistulas (if you don’t know what this is, I’m not going to tell you about it because the world will look nicer to you if you never find out).

The flip side is that there are some health concerns that have risen in recent years that make it unclear what the impact is of spaying and neutering to your dog’s health. And further, how to calculate the perfect age to perform the spay/neuter to avoid these pitfalls. Basically, all the concerns have to do with depriving your dog’s body of their hormones and the impact of their absence on their bones, joints and general health.

health concerns fancy

– obesity: altered dogs tend to be less active and put on weight. However, I counter that this is easily controlled with diet and exercise intervention from us humans. (And dog parks and daycares – the kingdoms for altered dogs to romp and mingle – are great places to burn off those extra calories! So I dismiss this objection wholeheartedly.)

– cancer: even though removing the sexual organs can help your dog avoid many kinds of cancer, there are other cancers that some veterinarians think may be a bigger factor for dogs who are spayed or neutered “early” (“early” being under 14 months of age.) However, the studies associated with these findings could not link the cancer directly to the early neutering since the kinds of cancer in question were already risk factors in general. So I call this one a draw. Mainly because I’ve found cancer to be a real inevitability for any pet owner. Generally, if pets live long enough (thanks to your excellent care, of course!) they’ll get some kind of cancer. That’s just how it goes. So I don’t think this should dictate your decision to spay/neuter at all, really.

– Hypothyroidism: there has been some research showing an increased incidence of hypothyroidism in dogs spayed/neutered early. But this condition is easily treated and may occur anyway. So I don’t think this concern in any way outweighs the benefits of spay/neuter.

– Joint issues: this is the only health concern that really pauses me in my “go ahead and do it already!” campaign to spay/neuter. I can see such a direct link to growth and hormones, so it’s hard to ignore that an early spay/neuter could really hurt your dog’s skeletal development, causing dyplasia of the hips and elbows, ACL tears and knee luxation – all very common ailments among dogs and ones that really affect their ability to enjoy their life (and their owner’s ability to pay their mortgage.) To this concern, I say consult a vet about what kind of dog you have and what they think the best age to spay/neuter would be. In fact, consult a few vets. But generally, the bigger the dog, the longer you should wait. So if you have a teacup Yorkie, relax. If you have a Great Dane, be vigilant in your research before deciding what age. But still, I recommend moving forward with the spay/neuter at some point in young adulthood before the behavior issues you experience far outweigh any safety measures you think you’re taking to save your dog’s joints.

(At WOOF, have a few intact adolescent males and females waiting to get their growth in before being altered, and we allow for that as long as their behaviors stay safe in group.)

In conclusion:

Ask your vet about the health ramifications of spaying and neutering, but don’t worry too much about it. Dogs are meant to be together, and the truth is they’re better together when they’re not trying to mate with each other. If you have philosophical concerns about it being “unnatural” to alter your dog surgically, may I counter how “unnatural” it was to take canines out of the wild and make everything from Mastiffs to Dalmatians to Teacup Poodles out of them. Domesticated dogs no longer operate on the plane of natural.

They operate on our planes – human planes. With beach days, long hikes and cuddles with their daycare friends. Their main job is no longer to reproduce – we humans have taken that initiative from them and tuned it to our own purposes.

So get your dog, do your research and make the best decision you can. Not just for you.

For them.

spay neuter better

 

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Everything you ever wanted to know about spaying and neutering (and certainly weren’t afraid to ask)

  1. This is some great information on spaying and neutering. I like how you point out that it could actually affect their behavior in good ways. I’d hate to have my dog wander away because it wants to mate!

  2. I never realized that neutered male dogs do less leg lifting and marking. My dog is marking my yard all the time and it is very annoying. I will have to look into having him neutered in order to reduce that.

  3. I can and I will not take this article seriously because not one single opinion you state is backed up with science. Due to all the recent information coming out of the ill effects of early spay and neutering I think it is very irresponsible to write an article like this without at least citing where you got your information. I have always spayed and neutered every dog I’ve had until now and I have had absolutely no problems with my intact dogs. They do not mark, mount, wander or display any aggression at all. They are (in fact) healthier, more affectionate and more obedient than any dog I’ve had fixed in the past. Hormones are an extremely important part of life (probably more important than science has even discovered). It’s time to start paying attention to facts and stop spreading lies.

    1. Hello,

      Using the word “lies” is pretty strong. This is a topic that is still under debate with veterinarians and owners need to make their own decision based on their particular situation and their particular dog. If you found an “opinion” in here, it’s that each owner must decide what is right for their dog. Glad you found what works for you. But save the vitriole and have a great day! – Vickie

  4. Thank you for writing this! I have a 3 year old intact male shepherd, and have considered neutering since finding him at 6 months old. Despite years of research I’m stuck amidst shockingly contradictory studies and veterinary opinions. Your detailed exploration of all the confusing data is very helpful- I’d love even more, a deeper, more thorough interpretive piece with references. You could write a book!?

    So far I’ve settled on regarding neutering as a plan-B if necessary, but I continue to assess and debate the health costs and benefits… I appreciated your idea that “dogs are meant to be together” and I agree this is much more difficult to provide for unfixed dogs. But it can be done! Luckily there’s a local daycare which accepts intact dogs and forms small, personalized play groups- but he can generally only have spayed female friends, very few males. On the other hand Norway outlawed neutering dogs for behavioral reasons, viewing it as cruel. I wonder how Norwegian dogs socialize. Lastly, I loved your intact males giving the ‘middle finger’ analogy- hilarious and useful.

    1. Wow, thank you! Sounds like you have a good handle on what’s right for you and your dog! That’s what’s important. xoxo VJ

  5. I like that you brought up the risk of having an unwanted litter on your hands. It seems like everyone on our street has a dog so there are bound to be interactions. I think it is a safe route to have them fixed to avoid these consequences.

  6. You said the following:

    “So I call this one a draw. Mainly because I’ve found cancer to be a real inevitability for any pet owner. Generally, if pets live long enough (thanks to your excellent care, of course!) they’ll get some kind of cancer. That’s just how it goes. So I don’t think this should dictate your decision to spay/neuter at all, really.”

    This is akin to saying people should just go ahead and smoke because if you live long enough cancer is inevitable anyways. The cancers that are associated with early castration in male dogs are concerning and can result in an untimely death. Please if you feel the need to write a pro/con article try to do it in a balanced way.

    1. Hi Tarynn,
      In regard to research: cancer is a huge and complicated topic. Please, if you have statistics comparing cancer risks in humans via smoking vs. cancer risks in intact male canines, please do share them! (A cross-species study would be fascinating).
      In regard to being “balanced”: this is a little blog about spaying and neutering for pet owners. You’ve obviously decided what tips your decision. Not allowing others to decide based on their own concerns (medical and lifestyle) is what’s unbalanced.
      I’d encourage you to write your own blog – you seem to have strong opinions on the topic.
      Thanks for reading so closely!

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