The Pros and Cons of When to Spay or Neuter Your Dog

In this discussion of risk versus benefit, Dr. Deb gives the pros and cons of when to spay or neuter your dog and the dangers associated with early neutering.

Puppies that are neutered before 1 year of age run the risk of hip dysplasia later in life, studies have shown. By: Andrew Warren

WHY spay or neuter your dog? WHEN should you spay or neuter your dog?

Vets grapple with these questions every day and invariably come to different conclusions. To add to the struggle, we’re finding that new evidence is putting fresh wrinkles on this subject, and making the “when” and “why” to neuter your dog more of a controversial issue.

Research on the Risks of Early Neutering

In a recent study, hip dysplasia occurred twice as often in male Golden Retrievers neutered before age 1, University of California, Davis Veterinary School researchers reported. The study also linked cranial cruciate ligament tears (CCL, ACL) and certain forms of cancer to early neutering. This study makes the discussion about neutering even more complicated.

For many years, the majority of small animal practitioners have recommended early spay/neuter for most of their patients; this usually meant under one year of age. The benefits, both behavioral and medical, were many. But animal welfare and control of unwanted pets was and is a major reason to spay and neuter. So any evidence that neutering can be detrimental is problematic, particularly for animal welfare activists and service dog organizations.

Potential Negative Effects of Early Spaying and Neutering

Veterinarians have been discussing pros and cons of neutering, and when to perform these procedures, for a long time. This study is strong evidence that neutering before age 1 increases the risk of certain orthopedic problems. Opponents of the study remind us that this was a small sampling (759 dogs) in one hospital in one geographic area, with a particular kind of clientele. In other words, this may not be a representative sample of all the Golden Retrievers out there.

The researchers went on to say that “It is important to remember, however, that because different breeds have different vulnerabilities to various diseases, the effects of early and late neutering also may vary from breed to breed.” Hip dysplasia, CCL tears and tumors are overrepresented in Golden Retrievers. Neutering does not cause these problems, but this study confirms neutering at a young age increases the risk.

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When a dog’s testes or ovaries are removed, the production of hormones is interrupted, which affects bone growth. Because the bone growth plates may close earlier in dogs neutered young, orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia and cranial cruciate ligament tears may result.

Neutered dogs also tend to gain excess weight, further stressing the joints. But neutering does not equal obesity. It’s more difficult to keep neutered dogs in shape, but it can be done. None of my neutered dogs have been fat — that’s the truth.

Dialogue Between Veterinarian and Pet Owner

The discussion that has to be had with owners is about risk versus benefit. In my practice, I am going to broaden the discussion to other large breeds, particularly Labradors. Hip dysplasia and CCL tears are overrepresented in that popular breed as well.

My conversations with my owners will go something like this:

There are two main areas of benefits to neutering your dog: health and behavior.

Health-wise, neutering lessens the possibility of prostatic problems, related urinary problems, testicular cancer and unwanted litters.

Behavioral benefits of neutering are many. Intact male dogs exhibit what we call testosterone-dependent behaviors. These include aggression (to other dogs or people), roaming and urine marking. Those are the biggies. When do these behaviors begin? Rule of thumb has always been to neuter your dog before 2 years or 18 months to avoid most of these behaviors becoming habitual.

Roaming is a very strong instinct in intact dogs. As I read this study, I thought to myself, “Okay, so they reduce the risk of a CCL tear later in life, but what if the dog is hit by a car at 10 months because the owners couldn’t control it? Or, how many more out-of-control dogs might be surrendered because owners didn’t neuter and now they can’t deal with the behaviors? The dog gets euthanized in a shelter. Where’s the benefit now?”

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For the average Golden Retriever or Lab owner, I think a logical compromise may be to recommend neutering between 18 and 24 months, on a case-by-case basis. If the owners are facing difficult behavioral problems, neuter sooner.

The Responsibility of Spaying and Neutering Dogs

Pet owners should talk to their veterinarian about spay/neuter options for their dogs. By: Magnus Bråth

If more and more dogs are not spayed or neutered, no matter how vigilant the owner, we are going to see a rise in unwanted matings and more homeless dogs euthanized. This stinks. We’ve finally been making huge advances in controlling the dog population in the United States, and I don’t want this news to turn the tide and have people stop neutering their dogs!

When I practiced in rural and lower-income communities where folks did not routinely spay and neuter, I saw a high euthanasia rate of unwanted dogs, many unwanted litters, people with too many animals they could not afford and diseases and cancers caused by NOT neutering. We don’t want to go backwards.

Spay/neuter and when to do it has been a hot topic in veterinary medicine for quite some time. With the publication of this study, it just got hotter. And the answer is…? It’s complicated.

My feeling on this? If you’re going to wait to neuter your dog for any number of valid reasons, you have to be an even more vigilant and responsible owner. Don’t let your dog roam free just because you’re “pretty sure” there’s no dog in heat for miles. He’s going to get hit by a car, or get in a dog fight. Don’t take male dominant behavior lightly. If Mr. Macho-in-the-Hood is getting out of control, the benefits of neutering may save you a lot of headaches. Serious headaches.

As I said, there’s no clear-cut answer. Have an honest talk with your vet about the best thing to do in your situation.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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