Arrested Development: The Growing Debate Over When to Spay and Neuter

Guest Blogger, Dr. Rick Leininger Dvm, offers different perspectives on the best time to spay/neuter your dog.

As a general practice veterinarian, I am frequently asked by pet owners when is the best time to spay/neuter their dog. My answer to that question, for almost 25 years, has always been the same: before six months of age. Recently, however, I have begun to entertain the idea that that answer might not always be the appropriate one.

For the past several decades, the universally accepted recommendation has been to spay/neuter before our pets reach sexual maturity. The obvious and most compelling argument in favor of early sterilization has been to control pet overpopulation. And, more recently, the trend has been toward “pediatric” sterilization—sometimes as early as 12 weeks of age. There are economic, social, and medical benefits to early spay/neuter programs. Most animal shelters and pet adoption programs will not allow adoption of an intact dog, andspaying/neutering at a young age allows them to be offered for adoption while they are still cute, adorable puppies, which significantly increases their chances of finding a home. Intact dogs are often unwelcomed at day care facilities, grooming and boarding facilities, and dog parks, and are more prone to urine marking, humping, and other behavioral traits that we find objectionable in our homes. Neutering a male at an early age removes the risk of testicular cancer and decreases the likelihood of future prostate problems. Spaying a female before her first heat (average age 6 months at first heat, hence the recommended time for spay) eliminates the risk of future breast cancer and pyometra. And, in the case of females, spaying at an early age is easier, faster, cheaper, and far less risky than in sexually mature dogs.

Recently, however, there is growing concern over potential long term consequences of early spay/neuter practices. Early sterilization removes the hormones that govern far more than just reproductive functions. The most obvious result is that it arrests the full expression of sexual maturity, leaving many dogs looking “puppyish” and immature compared to their intact counterparts. But additional side effects are well recognized, particularly in the veterinary community. Lack of hormones in the female prevents full development of the genitals, which can result in chronic urinary tract infections, vaginitis, and dermatitis. Further, there is a well-documented link between early spay and urinary incontinence later in life. A growing body of objective evidence suggests that early spay/neuter may also increase the risk of some orthopedic conditions (Cranial Cruciate Ligament failure, Elbow/hip dysplasia), cancers (Osteosarcoma, Mast Cell tumors), and endocrine disorders (Hypothyroidism).

For most of us, the practical and appropriate decision is to still spay or neuter our pets before they reach sexual maturity. The social and medical benefits of early sterilization make pet ownership desirable and convenient for most families. But I do think change is on the horizon. I think the mounting evidence, although far from conclusive, will eventually show that some of the diseases our pets encounter later in life are due, at least in part, to early sterilization. And there are many hurdles to overcome if we are to move, as a society, in the direction of delayed altering. I don’t think the regulations of the animal shelters and adoption agencies are going to change; there is far too much to lose in the struggle to control overpopulation. So the change is going to start with pet owners who purchase/adopt from private parties and have the option to delay spay/neuter. And, we must remember that we are pet owners, not breeders. How many of us have the wherewithal—emotionally and logistically—to deal with a female in heat? Dog owners who choose to delay spaying will have to be willing to put up with a female in heat (for up to 3 weeks) every 6 months or so, which includes not only the mess of bleeding, but the strict, constant supervision necessary to prevent her from conceiving. We are busy, working families; between homework, soccer, karate, and scouting, how many have the time and patience to deal with the intact male who lifts his leg on the living room couch? I think that spay/neuter is still a necessary and beneficial part of responsible pet ownership in this country. The issue of when to perform the procedure is a healthy and ongoing debate—one that might slowly change the way we approach the spay/neuter issue in the future. Pet owners should talk with their veterinarian to determine the right decision for their pet and their family.

© Thriving Canine 2013