Spaying and neutering are widely publicised by animal charities nationwide for population control. If intact male and female dogs are not controlled and separated during fertile periods pregnancy is inevitable. Due to so many unwanted pets our only option has been to sterilise dogs and cats from a young age as it is our only safe means of controlling the increasing number of unwanted pets.
Spaying or neutering seems to be part of the deal when getting a puppy, along with vaccinating, puppy socialisation and deworming. But what do we need to consider when deciding whether or not to spay or neuter our pets? What are the pros and cons and when is the best time to have the procedure done?
The majority of veterinary surgeons would advise spaying your pet at 6 months old. This is usually before their first season. If they have a season before you have booked the procedure, your vet would recommend that you wait about 2 months after the season finishes and then book your pet in for the operation. The reason for this is that during and around oestrus (fertile period) the blood vessels and tissues in the female reproductive tract are enlarged. This makes spaying a pet during this time more complicated and puts them at a higher risk for post operative-bleeding. Spaying your female dog is supposed to decrease the risk of mammary tumours and this risk is apparently further reduced if the female is spayed before puberty. Although widely documented, this is theoretical and not scientifically proven. The other benefits of spaying are preventing pyometra (a life-threatening condition involving severe infection of the uterus), preventing false pregnancies, preventing getting on heat and therefore breeding, and also together with decreasing mammary cancer, preventing cancer of the ovaries and uterus.
For male dogs, 6 months is normally recommended to eliminate aggression, roaming, urine marking, leg humping and territoriality. As with female dogs there is a decrease in the chance of testicular and prostatic cancer after castration. Benign prostatic hyperplasia – a condition seen in older dogs – is prevented by castration and is also the current treatment for this condition.
After a study published by UC Davis last year some are questioning when we should be spaying and neutering pets, with some questioning whether we should be doing it at all. This follows a finding by researchers have found that certain disorders and diseases are linked to spaying and neutering.
A study done on golden retrievers found that the age at which we neuter may affect the animals risk of developing certain cancers and joint diseases. Spaying or neutering interrupts the production of certain hormones that play a key role in important body processes, for example closure of the bone growth plates. The study found that animals neutered early in life (before the age of one) had complications such as irregular body proportions, possible cartilage issues and joint conformation issues. They found that early neutering was associated with an increased incidence of hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament ruptures and lymphosarcoma cancer.
Other cons to spaying female dogs are urinary incontinence. Oestrogen is important for the urinary sphincter control and by spaying a dog we eliminate oestrogen-predisposing them to incontinence. Interestingly, oestrogen is not only responsible for the reproductive cycle, but also has other important effects on the rest of the body. It’s protective effects on human cardiac and skeletal health are well documented.
We know that there is a purpose for every organ in the body and most organs are linked in some way. For example the kidneys are responsible for the formation of urine as well as producing EPO -the hormone which causes red blood cell production. It’s logical to assume that when you remove an entire organ system e.g. the reproductive system, that there are going to be some health consequences as the body’s equilibrium has been disrupted.
What are the other options beside neutering and spaying?
Pharmaceutical companies have developed injectable products that prevent the reproductive cells from producing eggs and sperm, while still allowing the sex hormones to be produced. Neutersol or Zeuterin is an FDA-approved drug that is injected into the testicles, killing the sperm-producing cells and resulting in scar tissue formation. This drug merely prevents reproduction. These dogs will possibly still urine mark, roam and show aggression as they’re still producing testosterone. They will also have the added benefit of normal growth plate closure, a more male physique and increased muscle tone.
Chemspay (not as yet registered) is an injectable or oral contraceptive for female dogs that reduces the number of eggs in the ovaries making them sterile.
As none of these drugs are available in South Africa at the moment, they are not an option, but it is something to look out for in the future.
Other surgical options for vets to consider are tube ligation, hysterectomies and vasectomies.
The procedures are not often practiced by veterinary surgeons worldwide, but may be something for vets to consider. These operations leave the hormone-producing parts of the reproductive system intact – hopefully decreasing all the negative complications of this procedure.
In the end the decision is yours when or if you want to spay or neuter your pet. Please remember that if you have an intact male or female it is your responsibility to prevent unwanted matings and pregnancies.
I recommend to all my clients to wait until their pet is at least 2 years of age before neutering or spaying, especially for large breed male dogs where we see a huge benefit in dynamic joint support from the bulkier, more muscular males. In females their vulva forms fully and they have less chance of getting peri vulvar dermatitis and some suggest that there is also a decreased chance of urinary incontinence. Obviously one needs to be extremely vigilant during this period that the pet is not mated. Small breeds usually come into season once every 6 months and large breeds usually every 8 months, but giant breeds such as the Great Dane can be as far apart as once a year. You will usually notice when your pet is coming into season by a swollen vulva and interest from male dogs in the area. You will need to keep them separated for about 3 weeks from the time you notice bleeding or spotting.