Next month I’ll be speaking to veterinarians at the North American Veterinary Conference about, “Current Spay/Neuter Research: Tips for Counseling Your Clients.” I love this topic for a couple of reasons. Based on results of some relatively recent and compelling research, the veterinary profession must now question some of its long-held beliefs about neutering dogs. And, shaking up dogma within this profession is usually a really good thing.
Secondly, when it comes to neutering or any other medical or surgical issues, I’m a big believer in folks having the ability to act as informed medical advocates for their pets. Veterinarians play a super important role in facilitating this, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to coach them on how to go about doing so.
Punching holes in neutering dogma
Here are a couple of examples of long-held beliefs related to neutering that my talk will call into question:
All dogs not being used for breeding should be neutered between four and six months of age.
By allowing dogs to reach sexual maturity before they are neutered (if indeed they are neutered at all), are there health benefits to be gained? Based on recent research data, this certainly appears to be the case for Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Rottweilers, Vizslas, and German Shepherds. Such breed-specific studies have documented that neutering before one year of age may increase the risk for development of behavioral problems, orthopedic diseases, urinary incontinence, and various types of cancers. Can and should this information be extrapolated to other dog breeds? We don’t know (yet).
Neutering prevents/eliminates aggression.
For decades, veterinarians in this country have been taught that neutering dogs prevents/eliminates aggressive behavior. While we know that castration definitely deters some undesirable male behaviors (urine marking, mounting, roaming), it does not pack nearly as mighty a punch when it comes to preventing or eliminating aggression, particularly that which is directed towards people. In other words, neutering is not the end-all, be-all for prevention or treatment of aggression.
What about female dogs? It’s been documented that aggression towards guardians can actually increase in dogs spayed before 12 months of age. And, in a study of Vizslas, the younger the age at the time of neutering the earlier the onset of aggression and other undesirable behaviors.
How veterinarians can counsel their clients
In my upcoming talk, my goal will be to provide veterinarians with tips on counseling their clients about if and when to neuter their dogs. (Unfortunately, I won’t have time to discuss the many options for “how” to neuter.). Here are the talking points I will recommend:
- What is the level of client responsibility? Will the dog be managed responsibly so as to prevent unintentional breeding? If not, neutering is a no-brainer. The pet overpopulation issue trumps all other considerations.
- What is the dog’s intended use? Will the dog’s occupation be breeding, showing, hunting, athletic competition, or simply couch surfing? If and when to neuter is, in part, determined by the dog’s intended purpose.
- An explanation of what we know and what we don’t know. I will provide the veterinarians in attendance with a current bibliography of spay/neuter research. This will hopefully enable them to talk to their clients about what we now know and don’t know with. Please contact me if you would like a copy of this bibliography.
- An explanation of the relationship between neutering and behavior. Before deciding when and whether or not to neuter, every client deserves an accurate understanding of the likely impacts of their decision on their dog’s behavior.
- Pick your poison! Be it pyometra, a torn cruciate ligament, hip dysplasia, behavioral issues, or cancer, we’ve all worked our way through significant medical and surgical issues with our beloved dogs. Such personal history definitely has a place in guiding decision-making about when, if, and how a personal pet should be neutered. See the example below.
A personal example
I will end my upcoming talk with a personal example involving Jacob, one of my children. When Jacob was in college, he fostered Tipper, a Hurricane Katrina rescue who was convalescing from heartworm disease. Tip was a gem, and the foster quickly turned into an adoption. This was Jake’s first dog independent of our family and, oh my, how he loved and cared for Tipper. He cared for Tipper through surgery and recovery for two torn cruciate ligaments. And, Jacob nursed his best buddy through his final months during which he finally succumbed to cancer.
Approximately six months after Tipper passed away, Jacob adopted an unneutered mixed breed puppy from a shelter in New Mexico. Fisher, as he came to be called, grew into an exuberant, loving, 65-pounder. Jake and I discussed when and if to neuter Fish. Based on his history with Tipper and recent research indicating that neutering before one year of age might predispose to cruciate ligament disease and/or cancer, Jacob opted to have Fisher neutered when he was approximately 18 months of age. Now, we will see what the future holds in store.
Food for thought
Are you aware that in some Scandinavian countries it is illegal to neuter dogs, and they have no animal shelters because there would be no animals to place there? I was shocked when I first learned of this, and it continues to blow my mind. This speaks volumes about the level of responsibility in caring for dogs there versus here in the United States.
More research about the impacts of neutering dogs is surely in the works, and I suspect that today’s neutering recommendations will be considered pure quackery a decade from now.
Clearly, there is no one-size-fits all in terms of if, when, and how dogs should be neutered. We must do away with the blanket recommendation that dogs be neutered between four and six months of age.
How do you weigh in on the topic of neutering dogs?
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
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com 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 http://www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.