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all articles by Lisa Lafferty unless otherwise noted.  Some previously published on K9Station (defunct) under author's previous name Lisa Giroux

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Spay/Neuter: Pros and Cons

By Lisa Lafferty

Here I want to be perfectly clear as to my motivations for including information about spaying and neutering in this article. 

I believe that automatic spay/neuter, especially before the dog is mentally and physically mature, is more harmful that helpful to the mind and body of the dog.

I believe that the common practice of spaying and neutering to control the overpopulation of pets is a) not working across our society, we haven't seen an improvement in the 30+ years that people have been motivated to spay/neuter and b) the kind of people that are responsible enough to spay/neuter are the kind of people that would prevent their canines from breeding in the first place.

Spaying and neutering in today’s society normally occurs before one year of age (in other words, during adolescence).  Sometimes it occurs before the onset of puberty.  Spaying and neutering at around 6 months of age is considered harmless and the “right” thing to do.  Yes, it effectively prevents the dog from ever accidentally reproducing but what side effects can occur?    

A spay or neuter stops hormone production in its tracks.  The residual hormones within the dogs’ body slip away within about 6 weeks of the operation.

Some physical side effects that are possible: 

1.   Hormone production stops growth.  When a dog is deprived of these hormones through surgery, the dog will often grow taller and slimmer than he normally would have. 

2.   In bitches, hormones are responsible for the strength of the muscles that control the flow of urine.  In some spayed bitches, these muscles are no longer capable of controlling the flow, and incontinence occurs during sleep or while the dog is moving around.  This is called "spay incontinence" and is usually noticed first when the owners realize that the dog is peeing on its bed while sleeping.

3.   Physical masculine and feminine traits are “softer” or nonexistent (head types, musculature, etc). 

4.   Recent studies have shown that sexually altered dogs that had the surgery prior to adulthood have a much larger chance of developing skeletal disease and certain kinds of cancers.  Studies were carried out using Labradors, Rottweilers, and Golden Retrievers (all of which have a relatively high incidence of hip and elbow skeletal disease).  I urge you to Google this and do some in-depth reading--because the findings are shocking to say the least.

Some behavioral side effects that can occur:

1.   The hormonal changes that dogs experience after being sexually altered are drastic. 

a.   Mood changes occur.  If you have any question on the validity of this, ask anyone working with Guide Dog pups.  Ask them how the pup changes in their reaction to environment after a spay or neuter.  Guide Dog schools regularly make decisions on spay/neuter age by evaluating temperament.  If the dog has a very soft, sensitive, reactive temperament, later altering is preferred to allow the dog to mentally mature and be better able to respond to high-level environments.  Particularly in the case of young females, the dogs will be pulled from heavy-duty environments for a month or two and then gradually re-introduced, because it has been found that the females can be absolutely shattered by the changes occurring in their bodies, and can find previously well-accepted environments difficult to endure.  Hard-charging, perseverant, early-leg-lifting males are often neutered earlier to prevent the development of overly cocky attitudes.  If you have further doubt about how the removal of sexual organs can affect mood and temperament, just ask any woman who has had a hysterectomy what mood changes and other side effects occurred in the months after her surgery.

b.   Mental development to mature attitudes is either arrested or prolonged.  The change into true adulthood is definitely aided by hormone production.  Development of reasonable, mature attitudes and reactions becomes more difficult in some cases.  I firmly believe that some dogs never achieve the level of mental maturity that they could have had they been left intact until later in their sexual development.  I also firmly believe that even those dogs who were sexually altered prior to maturity who *do* eventually become settled, well-adjusted adults have a more difficult, prolonged time of the experience.

In this day and age, there is pressure from all sides to spay or neuter as early as possible if the dog is not intended for use as a breeding animal.  However, it is troublesome that this major medical procedure that carries the potential to such far-reaching side effects is regarded by most in a very cavalier way.

I believe that many pet homes are not aware enough of the risks of accidental breeding to be responsible in their actions during heats or with their young males.  But spay/neuter is not necessarily solving this problem.  The people that are responsible enough to spay and neuter are likely thoughtful and responsible enough to prevent conception if the animal were intact.  So to me, the answer to the problem of too many dogs getting bred is education--both to pet owners who are thinking of breeding their animals, and also to the consumer, the customer, to expect responsible behavior from breeders and to resist buying irresponsibly bred animals if they want a purebred dog.

I think that spaying and neutering should be done with consideration to the animal’s individual traits, rather than on the “generic timeline” of veterinarians and popular opinion. 

In most cases, if you want the best pet possible, it’s better to allow the animal to mature mentally prior to sexual alteration.  In particular, for those who are training dogs for search and rescue, service work, or top-level performance or working dogs, I strongly encourage you to research thoroughly prior to altering your animal at an early age.  For work such as this, you need a mature, sensible adult…not a perpetual puppy.

There are side effects to spaying and neutering dogs no matter what their age, but especially those that are not yet mentally and physically mature.  These side effects should be considered. 

Vets and Internet articles that support early spay/neuter often quote things like the prevention of mammary tumors, prevention of testicular cancer, and other such stuff as "pros" of having the surgery done.  But check your statistics.  The chances of these things happening to your dog are low.  I would even say that this attitude is as ridiculous as if I were to try to tell you that you should cut all your fingers off to prevent finger cancer or arthritis.

There is absolutely NOTHING WRONG with keeping your pet dog intact, IF you are capable of preventing unwanted pregnancies.  If you do not think you can control this factor (for example, if you live in an area with a lot of free-roaming dogs, etc) then by all means alter your dog.  If you do not wish to live a lifetime of going through female heat cycles, then by all means spay her.  If you have a male that is testy with other males, neutering will take the edge off.  Just please do the surgery for any pet dog after the dog has had a chance to grow up and get the benefit of some adult hormones.  For a male, this would be around 18 months.  For a female, after two to three heat cycles, between 18 months and two years of age.

I also believe that it is a good idea for shelters and rescues to alter their adult animals prior to adopting them out. 

Please note that I am only talking about dogs here...spay/neuter for cats that are going to be indoor/outdoor cats is essential, and neutering males prevents spraying and other tomcat traits, making them better pets.  For female cats, I personally do not wish to go through the yowling associated with heat cycles.  Every species is different when it comes to sexual alteration surgery--cats, horses, cows, pigs--they all have very different reactions to sexual alteration.  Cats, in my opinon, are much better pets when altered--and their breeding cycle is so short that they can reproduce an astonishing number of kittens in a very short time. 

Sexual alteration has its place in domestic animals--but we as a society need to re-think how and when we perform this surgery on our pet dogs.  Please, no matter what you decide, just make it a thoughtful decision based on facts and your personal family dynamics, rather than just bowing to pressure from society.



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Lisa & Kerry Lafferty  /  ozarklisa@gmail.com  /    Mountain Home, Arkansas