It's every dog owner's dilemma. Once you bring that puppy home, and once those days of teething and chewing on socks are long over, then you have to think of THAT question. Should you spay or neuter your dog?
The majority of pet owners still spay or neuter their pets. Still, there is an increasing number of pet owners who leave their pet's anatomy intact. We delve into the pros and cons of this debate and help you make an informed decision on behalf of your pet.
What is neutering or spaying a dog?
“I just got a female dog, and I am not sure if I should sterilize her!”
“We are new pet parents, and I am confused about how to handle my dog as he gets older.”
“A friend told us that we MUST neuter our dog. But our neighbour told us we really shouldn’t.”
“I adopted a pet recently, and I have no idea what’s spaying or neutering. Is it necessary?”
We get questions like this all the time. Becoming a pet parent is a huge step, and the conflicting advice you may get from well-meaning friends or colleagues can make that step appear more stressful than it should be. But a helpful approach is to consider all aspects before making a decision.
So, first things first:
Neutering or spaying is the most common method of reducing the population of dogs. Both are surgical procedures that involve removing the testicles in a male dog and uterus or ovaries in a female dog. Both spaying and neutering take little time and are done under anesthesia. While both surgeries require several stitches, dogs can resume normal activities in a few days.
Dogs can be neutered at different ages, although some vets do not recommend neutering puppies very early.
Why do pet parents choose to spay or neuter their dog?
Canine health benefits
There are clear health benefits to spaying or neutering. Although there hasn’t been enough research to sufficiently back this up, it has long been held that spay-neuter can prevent behavioral issues in dogs.
Spaying or neutering is thought to reduce aggression in dogs. Female dogs won’t go into heat once spayed, and this means that you won’t have to sequester your dog during those times. It also eliminates yowling, bloody clots or discharge, and erratic behaviour. Other behavioural problems that can be potentially eliminated include:
Roaming, especially when female dogs are in heat
Testicular or ovarian cancers are immediately removed from the equation. Limited evidence also indicates that spay-neuter can lower the risk of mammary cancer or uterine infections. In female dogs especially, spaying, if done before 2.5 years of age, can reduce the risk of mammary tumors, one of the most common malignant tumors in dogs.
There is also some evidence that suggests that neutered male dogs may possibly reduce the risk of diabetes. Also, for female dogs, spaying almost removes the risk of pyometra. This is a serious uterine infection that can be life-threatening and happens because of hormonal changes in female dogs as they change. Spaying is the only way to remove the risk of pyometra.
“There is no blanket recommendation for spaying or neutering pet dogs,” says animal Reiki practitioner and pet parent Sheetal Raju. “It’s a personal choice. But as a pet parent, I neutered my dog, Spikey. I was very clear I didn’t want to make puppies from my boy. I also wanted to avoid tension if he was socializing with other dogs. Peaceful play dates were what I was looking for. I had done a bit of research before I did the procedure and anticipated a few incontinence issues in the future. But at least, his playtime was more into sniffing, walking, and running after that,” she adds.
The average lifespan of sterilized dogs is longer than the lifespan of those dogs aren’t. The University of Georgia in the US conducted one of the most landmark studies on this, analyzing more than 70,000 medical records. It found that the average life expectancy of neutered male dogs was 13.8% longer, while that of spayed female dogs was 26.3% longer.
Fixed dogs had an average lifespan of 9.4 years compared to 7.9 years for unaltered dogs.
Reducing dog population and incidences of homeless strays
The world over, millions of dogs are euthanized every year as shelters run out of space to house homeless dogs. Many dogs are often abandoned and die due to malnutrition or lack of nourishment.
It’s why Sheetal believes that dogs in India need to be sterilized.
“I am all for sterilization of strays in India. The increasing population and lack of understanding and awareness from humans are at such a peak that there is a huge imbalance. Most times, the mother dog is killed in accidents, and no one is left to care for her pups.” Managing intact dogs can often be messy and inconvenient, especially given our increasingly urbanized lifestyles with cramped housing spaces.
The cons of spay-neutering your dog
But while there are health benefits, there have been increasing conversations in the pet space on NOT neutering or spaying your dog. Concerns have emerged over several studies that have pointed out negative side-effects of spay-neuter.
Adverse side effects
An increasing body of research has emerged in recent years that shows that sterilization has a bunch of adverse health effects. In a landmark study in the US, Missy Simpson, an epidemiologist with the Morris Animal Foundation, observed that spayed or neutered dogs were more likely to be overweight or obese as they age. The paper studied more than 2,800 golden retrievers throughout the course of their life. Interestingly, Simpson also found that dogs that were ‘fixed’ before they were 6 months old had higher rates of orthopedic injuries.
Another US research paper found that fixed Golden Retrievers had higher rates of hip dysplasia and ligament tears.
And there was this study in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, compiled over 13 years, that found that “… neutering dogs appeared to increase the risk of cardiac tumor in both sexes.” Another study by Torres de la Riva et al. (2013) found significant issues in neutered dogs. The study compared both intact and fixed golden retrievers. It found that almost 10% of neutered male dogs, especially those fixed early, were diagnosed with lymphosarcoma. To put that in context, that was 3 times more than intact male retrievers.
Abnormal growth and long-term health risks
Both spaying and neutering result in the removal of testosterone and estrogen from dogs. These vital hormones are responsible for an animal’s growth, including bone and muscle mass. In female dogs, spaying was found to be associated with a net loss of bone mass.
Early neutered dogs could also be at increased risk of hip dysplasia. When you spay or neuter immature dogs, this can cause the bones in such dogs to be significantly longer than in intact dogs. This means that potentially a dog could have unnatural proportions as it grows if it was neutered or spayed early. This could lead to orthopedic disorders later and affect the long-term stability of the joints.
Similarly, hypothyroidism and incontinence could be other side effects of dogs that were neutered early. Neutered male dogs also have a higher risk of getting prostate cancer and transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder. Neutered dogs and spayed dogs are at increased risk of progressing from mild to severe geriatric cognitive impairment compared to intact male dogs, according to this study.
Phew! That’s a lot to process. Given the pros and cons of spay-neutering dogs, what is clear is that much of the available information right now is unbalanced. Much of the information can contribute to misunderstandings and create even more confusion. We suggest that while you ought to understand the health risks and benefits carefully, you should consider the following too:
Remember that the health risks and the side effects we mentioned through the course of this blog vary from dog to dog. Several factors come into play, including:
Age of the dog
You would need to consider these aspects carefully along with non-medical factors, including the environment in which you are raising your pet, your experience with animals before, and the kind of support you have at home.
Ultimately, the health implications of sterilizing dogs are complex. All the conflicting research only shows that we have a long way to go to understand this complex subject.
As pet owners, we encourage you to have an honest discussion with your vet.
Always check with the vet before considering any surgical option for your dog. The information on this blog is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion. Wagr Consults is now live and offers online vet consultation at the drop of a tail.