German Shepherd Dogs: The Impacts of Early Neutering

SFSBlog_germanshepherds_maccath_flickerCC_stick2getherGenerations of veterinarians in the United States have been taught to recommend neutering for dogs between four to six months of age, and certainly before their first birthday. Relatively recent research has revealed compelling negative implications of such “early neutering” in Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Vizslas, and Rottweilers. Now, along comes more compelling research, this time pertaining to German Shepherd dogs.

German Shepherd research

It’s difficult to find a dog more loyal and intelligent than a well-bred German Shepherd. It’s also difficult to find a breed more prone to joint maladies. Recently published research out of the University of California, Davis explored the impacts of early neutering on the incidence of joint diseases, various cancers, and urinary incontinence (involuntary urine leakage) in this breed.

Medical records from 1170 neutered and intact (not neutered) purebred German Shepherds were retrospectively evaluated throughout the first eight years of the dogs’ lives. The records were investigated for the incidence of joint disorders (hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, cruciate ligament disease), various types of cancer (osteosarcoma, lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, mast cell cancer, mammary cancer), and urinary incontinence.

Study Results

Joint diseases: The incidence of one or more joint disorders was significantly higher in male shepherds castrated before one year of age (21% of dogs) compared to the intact male population (7% of dogs). Females spayed before one year of age also had an increased incidence of joint disease (16%) compared to their intact counterparts (5%). Of all the joint disorders the incidence of cruciate ligament disease increased the most in proportion to early neutering.

Cancer: Mammary cancer (breast cancer) was diagnosed in 4% of intact female shepherds compared with an incidence of less than 1% in dogs spayed before one year of age. No significant differences in the incidence of the other cancer types studied were discovered when intact and neutered shepherds were compared.

Urinary incontinence: The incidence of incontinence in intact females was 0%. Amongst the population spayed before 6 months of age, the incidence was 4.7%, and for those neutered between 6 and 11 months, the incidence was 7.3%. The average age of onset of incontinence was 5.2 years.


The increased incidence of joint disease in early-neutered German Shepherds resembles data collected on Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and Vizslas. The theory behind this association relates to closure of growth plates, the regions within bones that promote lengthening. When reproductive hormones arrive on the scene (puberty), they signal the growth plates to close, and lengthening of bones ceases. When a dog is neutered prior to the onset of puberty, the growth plates don’t receive this signal and the bones continue to lengthen. It is theorized that this excess lengthening disrupts normal joint alignment that, in turn, causes joint disorders later in life.

The increase in mammary cancer in intact females in this study aligns with other research results. Interestingly, the effect of early neutering on the incidences of the other cancers studied vary significantly compared to what has been learned about the impact of early neutering in Golden Retrievers, Vizslas, and Rottweilers. In these breeds, early neutering is associated with dramatic increases in multiple types of cancer. These differences are fascinating and underscore the value of performing breed-specific research.

The increased incidence of urinary incontinence in early neutered dogs isn’t surprising. This association has been demonstrated in a number of previous studies.

I can think of multiple occasions throughout my professional career when new information has prompted me to question what I’d been taught to be the “norm” in veterinary practice. All of the research to date pertaining to the impacts of early neutering has caused me, and hopefully plenty of other veterinarians, to question the standard recommendation to neuter dogs before one year of age.

What about your dog?

Is it reasonable to extrapolate the results from any of this breed-specific research to your dog? I don’t know the answer to this question, but do encourage you to discuss it with your veterinarian before your dog is automatically neutered prior to his or her first birthday.

I have a “granddog” named Fisher. He’s a super lovable, kind of goofy, large, mixed-breed dog who wasn’t neutered prior to his adoption from a shelter (surprising given that most shelters insist on this). I encouraged my son to postpone neutering Fish until after his first birthday. My thinking was that neutering later rather than earlier might prevent future joint maladies. My son’s last dog, a fabulous Hurricane Katrina rescue named Tipper, experienced torn cruciate ligaments in both knees! Mr. Fish was neutered just last week, a couple of months after his first birthday.

I present all of the information above with the caveat (and my strong personal belief) that prevention of unplanned litters of puppies should trump all other considerations. If a dog cannot be responsibly supervised, neutering before the onset of sexual maturity is a clear first choice.

Is your dog neutered? If so, at what age was the surgery performed?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at


Be Sociable, Share!

21 Comments on “German Shepherd Dogs: The Impacts of Early Neutering

  1. Well, Jasmine was spayed at vet’s recommendation at four months of age. She paid for it. Cookie has been spayed probably even earlier than that, according to what her vets figure. She is already paying for it and she’s only four. When adopting, one might have little say as most dogs have already been “fixed.” If I ever did have a say I wouldn’t touch their bodies until they reach full maturity.

    My brother-in-law adopted two young, still intact, German Shepherds about six months ago. I urged him to hold off cutting until they are fully mature. He took the advice and I hope his dogs will benefit from that decision.

  2. I always appreciate the comments on these articles. Amber makes some interesting points, but she lives in a different world than I do. In an ideal world, where humans are responsible companions for their dogs, as I imagine all your readers are, we would wait indefinitely to neuter/spay. Sadly, in America, Only 1 dog in 10 spends their entire life with one owner! For responsible owners who will keep the dog until death no matter what, the option to not spay/neuter is fine. For the other 90% of dog owners, unaltered dogs are at risk for so many horrors: fighting with competitors, unplanned breeding, pregnancy complications; dog fighters prefer unaltered animals, thinking that as bait, they might fight better; idiots who are too lazy to get a job want unaltered animals so they can be BYB and make money selling puppies. I have rescued bait dogs; I have rescued pretty mixed breeds who were used for constant puppy production.
    I also know vet techs in poor communities who see owners bring in their intact dogs wanting them destroyed because they had an unplanned breeding, so for the rest of the dog’s life they will only have mutts (Seriously: common!!!)

    I have a small rental on my property; I always try to rent to people with pets. Every single pit bull owner (and I LOVE pitties) has an unaltered animal that they plan to breed. Pit bull owners that I talk to on the street, when I stop to admire their dogs, have unaltered dogs that they either breed or plan to breed.
    This is not an idyllic world where every dog is cared for and protected; and in this world, it makes sense to neuter/spay an animal that cannot be guaranteed to be kept by the same person their entire life. I personally do not consider it a “right” for anyone to own a dog; it is a privilege. I’d like to see people have to pass a test in order to have a dog. The abuse I see and hear of is unbearable.

    My first male came from an outstanding breeder (although my boy died years ago, the breeder and I keep in touch), and I planned to neuter him, but shortly after I got him, I injured my back, and his neuter went on the back burner. When it finally came to the fore, he was about 18 months old; he did not chase girls, he was never aggressive, and even though he was a Siberian Husky, he actually came when called! Since there were no problems, I decided not to neuter him…until he developed testicular cancer at 9 years old. He survived that, and went on to tear 2 ACLs, but lived to 15 (and died a virgin). I did not read the results of the research, but wonder how much of the joint/bone/structural problems were due to genetics or diet; these are 2 huge factors.

    I think that Ovary Sparing Spay and Vasectomy has a lot of potential to keep the hormones but protect dogs in transit from many of the potential horros that await so many intact dogs.

  3. My dogs are shown, either in conformation or performance events. Some have been bred, some have not. All were neutered later in life when their show careers were over. Our first dog was spayed before she came in season and she had urinary incontence issues. None of the others have. Responsible dog owners are very aware of hormones and treat situations accordingly

  4. I have two German Shepherd males that were neutered at 4 months old. They are both large boned and right now at 10 months and change not looking any longer boned that any other shepherds I have had. The breeder was reluctant to sell me two males telling me that even neutering will not prevent the inevitable quest for dominance in the household. I have seen examples of this in dogs whose handlers or owners do not display proper alpha behavior. From the time my pups were 8 weeks old, and fun game of rough and tumble that escalated into actual growling or lunging at one another was dealt with by MY biting them both! Seems to have worked even if it sounds extreme. I am with them 24 hours a day and they are making progress at herding our goats instead of chasing them. Good breeding tells all. It hurts the pocketbook, but is well worth it.

  5. I have a 3.5 year old german shepherd, and he is intact and will stay intact unless health dictates otherwise. He is with me every day because I am a certified emergency veterinary technician. He does not escape, does not roam, does not mark, is not aggressive. He is well trained, well socialized, and despite having testicles will never sire a litter.

    I have heard many people in the veterinary field claim despite these studies, they will still recommend 4 -6 months to clients because of the shelter agenda. I find this EXTREMELY unethical. As veterinary professionals, our first responsibility is to OUR patients. Not some agenda towards puppies that may or may not be in the future. Owners deserve to know the risks and be given the chance to make the decision for their pet. I have a member at my training club who was told to neuter his malinois/german shepherd mix at 4 months old. And he blindly did it because he didn’t know better. Now the dog is gangly, has extreme angulations, elongate femurs, and I guarantee will have problems down the road. Knowing what he knows now, he was very upset that he was not informed of the risks behind such early castration.

    Study after study keeps coming out. And I agree, it’s a “small” sample size, although I don’t think over 1,000 animals is too small to discredit. I’ve seen papers looking at 10 or 20 animals. And there are bigger questions. Are owners who keep animals intact more likely to be owners like me? WELL-BRED purebred vs. BYB or puppy mill, high quality diet, very well conditioned, kept lean, etc…. Making their instances of these diseases lower regardless? At the same time, we KNOW that sex hormones signal growth plate closure. We KNOW that early castration causes elongated long bones. This phenomenon was studied in human eunuchs decades ago. We can see it in early castrated dogs. So why someone cant fathom that elongated long bones can easily lead to joint problems is beyond me.

    We can also look at the health implications in humans when they have low testosterone and low estrogen, so why we don’t think these problems arise in animals is again beyond me.

  6. I was influenced by information that cancer in giant breed dogs may be linked to early neutering. My male rescue saint was neutered at 8 months and developed bone cancer at 4.5 years. I did a lot of reading after this, and eventually came to the Great Dane Lady. Her information, and many articles linking health problems to early neutering, was very persuasive. I also traveled to Germany and spoke to a monk at the Kreuzberg where they breed and train St. Bernards. They do not neuter early because they believe health and behavior problems result.
    I chose to go to a breeder (and not rescue another saint) on the recommendation of my veterinarian. We researched breeders and were surprised how little any bone cancer appears in their lines. All that we contacted seemed to honestly disclose any health problems and even gave referrals to their veterinarians. One breeder did say that it is her opinion it is highly unlikely that the bone cancer would occur in the lines of most breeders because the dogs are generally not neutered because they tend to be “show dogs.”
    Currently, my well supervised St. Bernard pup is approaching a happy healthy 3 years old. I have decided to show him, so he is not neutered. However, I would have waited to do this anyway based on all that I have learned.

  7. These findings are interesting, but your sample size is very small. I do not believe the findings are statistically significant due to the small sample size. In addition, there is no discussion of other variables that would have a potential impact on the findings. Were these dogs rescues? Or did they come from a breeder? Did they have the same family through out the 8 years studied? How about the food they ate? Where were these dogs located (the ones in the study) – USA? If so, all in the same geographical area? Or different states? Without more information and a larger sample size, I do not believe any valid conclusions can be drawn.

  8. I have 2 hearts in my chest on this one – the medical one, and the rescue one.

    Medically I completely agree, trouble is that in the day to day world unfortunately there are too many unresponsible dog owners who believe it is a good idea to breed their dogs.

    Therefore in rescue all dogs have to be desexed. Not because it is better for the dogs, simply because many people would not do the right thing. Very sad really.

  9. For shelties, I agree with Chris Zink’s recommendation to wait until growth plates have closed, which usually occurs by 14 months and can be confirmed with hip xray prelims.

    My mama girl was neutered at 7 years of age, a year or so after her final litter. The bitch puppy was spayed at 2 1/2 years when I decided not to breed her. The risk of pyometra concerned me for both girls and it was a good decision for them.

    My oldest boy was neutered at 10 months because he had one testicle fail to descend. However, in retrospect, I would have only taken the undescended testicle and removed the 2nd at a later date after he had fully matured. There are clear differences in temperament, musculature, and voice between this dog and his younger brother, who was late neutered at 7 yrs.

    I wish I had not neutered the younger boy at all. I believe neutering negatively affected his temperament. He changed physically, post neuter, also: his muscle mass declined noticeably and he dropped 3/4 inch in height.

    My rescue male has an unknown neuter date. I suspect he was a very early neuter because of the excess length to his legs and lack of flexibility.

    In my experience with my breed, I believe neutering males does not have a favorable effect on temperament although it does reduce or eliminate mating behaviors. For the girls, pyometra is an over-riding concern. Regardless of gender, I would wait at least until the growth plates close before considering.

  10. Great blog! I will be sure to share this on our canine megaesophagus support groups since there are many German Shepherds and other breeds you mentioned here.

    The biggest delemma our group faces with megaesophagus dogs is whether to put them through the procedure for fear of aspirating during or after the surgery. Special precautions should be taken such as tilting the table to elevate the head, giving a promotility drug to help empty the stomach before the procedure and holding the dog upright while coming out of anesthesia among other special precautions. Many choose to keep their dogs intact and others acquire their pups as rescues and most shelters neuter and spay very young.

    Personally our husky mix was neutered at 6 months without an issue. His problems began later in life, contracting Lyme disease followed by myasthenia gravis and finally mast cell cancer. He never had joint issues besides a little arthritis which was relieved with cosequin DS and fish oil.

    Fascinating studies. Thank you for your perspective on the subject!
    Donna Challender
    Upright Canine Brigade

  11. There are alternatives to conventional spay and neuter. Vasectomy and hysterectomy preserve the normal hormones that are essential for development and that may decrease cancer incidence. Obviously, these dogs still act intact, but they are sterile. This will also prevent pyometra in aged bitches, though there may still be an increased incidence of mammary cancer. Please see the Parsemus Foundation website, or the FB group Ovary Sparing Spay and Vasectomy for links to more information.

  12. As a pet owner and a professional trainer, I am so glad that all this new information is coming out regarding the effects of early spay/ neuter. I have a 3 month old Aussie puppy, and plan to neuter him after he turns one year old, to optimize his joint development.

  13. Hi Jan. Yes, roaming in response to a female in heat in the neighborhood is certainly a possibility if you do not have house and yard that is completely secured.

  14. Thanks Dr. Kay for your comment on my dog, Roc. The other thing I would be concerned with would be if he was really focused on getting out of the yard and running away in search of a female??
    The day I brought him home from out of state, he actually did get through my chain link fence and kept circling around (we live on 5 acres and other land is also around) and would not let me near him. I was so upset. He had no ID on him yet. Later that day, my husband came in and said “you have a visitor” and there was Roc. He was lying in the driveway waiting to come in.
    I don’t how he knew he was “home” but I guess he did. He did go back to the place in the fence where he had escaped, but then when he realized it was repaired, he’s quit looking there. No digging or other frantic or otherwise trying to escape, so I feel he can stay intact.
    Thanks again for your opinion. I’m not sure what the vet meant about “horror stories” but I feel confident I could contain him on leash if we happened to be around a bitch in heat. If he continues as he has been, I see no reason to have him neutered. I have always had rescues and have not had the option to leave them intact, so this will be interesting!

  15. I have 3 dogs, all are smaller breeds. My oldest is a JRT who is almost 12 and had luxated patella surgery on one knee before he was 15 weeks old. He was neutered at 4 months when the pin was removed since he had to be put under anyway. He has had numerous knee issues his entire life, including 3 torn ACL’s. Was it from early neutering or from the fact his knees are genetically bad? He now has Addison’s Disease and Glaucoma. I call him my little genetic lemon. My other 2 dogs are an 8 year old mini Aussie, 16 inches tall and 24 lbs, he was neutered at 11 months, he has had no joint issues at all and he is very active in agility and hiking. He was diagnosed with mitral valve disease, grade 2 murmur and heart enlargement and is currently on Pimobendan and doing well with no cardiac symptoms. My 3rd dog is a female mini Aussie, she is 3 years old, 22 lbs, 16 inches tall and I spayed her at 8 months before her first heat. I had to do a lot of soul searching on that one and made the decision based on my lifestyle and living in the country with no way to protect her(or my other 2 smaller dogs) from a big coyote problem while in heat. She has been healthy until she was 2 and developed Idiopathic Epilepsy. She is on Keppra and it keeps the seizures to a minimum. She is high drive and a very active dog, she runs agility, hikes and plays fetch, etc. and no issues other then the epilepsy.

  16. I currently have 2 Shelties. One 11.5 year old female and a 4 year old male. My first sheltie, who passed away a year ago last Christmas at 15.5, was neutered after he turned a year old maybe around 14 months and had a hip injury from chasing a rabbit and getting his leg caught in a hole at full run. He recovered beautifully and had not trouble with that hip for the rest of his life. My second dog, my female, was spayed at 6 or 7 months. She had injured her knee in agility and now has severe arthritis. My young male was neutered at 9 months. I had every intention on waiting longer for him but he started humping everything in within his little reach and while I have good control over my dogs, it was super annoying. He is doing great, is very fast and much more flexible than my female or first male. I am on the fence about when to neuter. I think it will have to be a case by case basis for me and my clients and totally based on the recommendations of our vets.

  17. I have two neutered Australian Shepherd bitches one has been urinary incontinent since shortly after the surgery.
    I wonder about the statistics on joint anomalies If the dogs were spayed or neutered because of early signs of same, it would skew percentages that suggest the surgery was the possible cause

  18. I am definitely in the camp that waits as long as possible to neuter a male. I do agility with corgis and want to give them all the advantages I can toward healthy joints. I have purchased my last two corgis from very reputable breeders who had neutering required in their contracts. ( I would have neutered even if they didn’t). With the first one I didn’t realize I would get hooked on agility so I neutered him at 7 months. The second one I knew he would be doing agility so I asked his breeder to extend the age requirement out further. He was neutered at 15 months. The first one was not a very sound dog and I retired him early into his career. The 2nd boy is still going strong at 9!

    Interestingly, I had one other corgi before these two, who was not neutered until 14 when he developed a peri-anal tumor. He was a very sound dog his whole life (no agility but lots of frisbee), but did suffer from IVDD starting at age 9. He lived to the ripe old age of 17.

  19. I tend to disagree with your veterinarian. If, by chance your dog comes into contact with an intact female dog, he will very likely be on leash and can be removed from the situation should he become overly excited. I’ve seen in tact males pull, tug, and get very excited, but have not seen them turn into monsters!

  20. We have been Guardians of 3 Giant breed male dogs over the past years, a Newfoundland, a Leonberger and currently another Leonberger. Our Newfoundland was neutered at around 8 months old as suggested then by his Veterinarian. Our first Leonberger was neutered at 14 months old and our current male, “BUCK” we waited until he was 24 months old.
    There were significant visual structural differences between both male Leonbergers. Although almost equal in height ( 32 1/2″ ) our first male was much more leggy in his structure. Buck, our current male is built much more in line with the Leonberger breed standard,
    plus he is also a larger dog overall. A solid, muscular 173 lbs. compared to 150 lbs.
    Thankfully our first Leonberger never experienced any other type of health or structural problems during his long, healthy and happy life.( he passed away at just shy of 12 years old.
    Our current male is 5 years old and has shown absolutely no health or joint problems.
    I had read many articles by the Great Dane Lady about Giant breed dogs and why waiting to neuter Giant breed dogs until at least 18 months or even longer and the health benefits to the dog. This was the main reason why we waited and I’m very glad we did.

  21. A little off topic, but this reminded me of my current mixed breed dog, Roc, who is approximately 5-6 yrs old and is still intact.(weighs 43 lbs) I got him a few months ago from a gal who had rescued him from another owner so thus the reason he is still intact. (no shelters or formal rescues involved) He is red in color,medium length hair, no guesses to his heritage. Vets, other dog people guess different breeds so not evident.
    Roc is a very mild mannered happy boy. I am not in a hurry to neuter him. He is in the house except when in a fenced yard with me present. Always on leash when taken out socially too. My vet pointed out I can always have him neutered but his concern was he’s seen some intact male dogs “go crazy” when exposed to a female in season. He said he’s had horror stories over the years and wants me to expose Roc to a female in season to be sure he’s not going to turn into a monster. Have not done so as yet, but I respect him and his opinion. What are your thoughts about this?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *