In North America, spaying and neutering are generally regarded as a necessary and responsible approach. But new research indicates these procedures can negatively impact a dog’s health. So what’s the solution?
In North America, dogs are routinely spayed and neutered when they’re between four and nine months old. In order to be considered a responsible owner of a female dog, you’re expected to spay her before her first estrus cycle. However, recent studies have found that spaying and neutering dogs, especially too early in life, can have a detrimental effect on their health.
What many of us here don’t realize is that intact dogs are the norm in Europe. When female dogs go into heat, people simply manage the situation by removing them from group events until the heat cycle is complete. The dogs are kept at home or sequestered from males, and are walked on a leash. Alternatively, their guardians implement ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies (more on this later).
Why is spaying and neutering an issue?
The problem with de-sexing dogs is that we’re not just sterilizing them; we’re also removing extremely important sex hormone-secreting tissues, namely the ovaries and testes. As a result, we’ve created health problems that are non-existent or significantly less prevalent in intact pets.
Over the last several years, a number of small, breed-focused and primarily retrospective studies have been conducted on the effects of spay/neuter in large and giant breeds, providing us with a growing body of evidence that indicates spaying and neutering, especially early in life, may increase the risk of serious health problems.
In large and giant breed females, for example, spaying increases the risk of obesity, cranial cruciate ligament disease, hip dysplasia, urinary incontinence, cystitis, and several types of cancer, including lymphoma, mast cell tumors, hemangiosarcoma and osteosarcoma.
Musculoskeletal disorders in de-sexed dogs
Removing a dog’s ability to produce important hormones while his/her skeleton is still developing can result in delayed closure of the growth plates at the end of each long bone. This can cause a dog’s legs to grow longer than normal.
- One study indicates that Labrador and Golden Retrievers de-sexed before six months of age develop one or more joint disorders at two to five times the rate of intact dogs.
- When it comes to problems with cranial cruciate ligaments, large breed dogs spayed under six months of age have three times the risk for early life CCL injuries, while dogs de-sexed at any age have a two to three times higher incidence of CCL disease compared with intact dogs.
- In a study of several hundred Golden Retrievers, none of the intact dogs had CCL disease; however, 7.7% of spayed females who were “fixed” before they were a year old developed CCL injuries.
- Another study of 40 years of data collected on a range of different dogs de-sexed at a variety of ages showed a 17% increased risk of hip dysplasia.
How I approach the sterilization issue
Over the years, I’ve changed my views on spay and neuter, based not only on research, but also on the health challenges faced by many of my canine patients after sterilization. My current approach is to work with each individual client to make decisions that will provide the most health benefits for the dog.
- Whenever possible, I prefer to leave dogs intact. However, this approach requires a highly responsible pet guardian who is fully committed to and capable of preventing the dog from mating (unless we’re talking about a breeder, of course).
It’s important to note that I’m not advocating the adoption of intact shelter animals to people who may or may not be responsible pet owners. Shelter veterinarians don’t have the time or resources to build a relationship with every adoptive family, so the animals in their care must be sterilized prior to adoption to prevent more litters of unwanted pups.
2. My second choice is to sterilize without de-sexing. This means performing a procedure that will prevent pregnancy while sparing the testes or ovaries so they can continue to produce the hormones essential for the dog’s health and well-being.
For females, this involves either a tubal ligation or a modified spay (basically a hysterectomy). The modified spay removes the uterus while preserving the hormone-producing ovaries. It also eliminates the possibility of pyometra (uterine infection) because the uterus is removed.
For males, a vasectomy is a good option, since it sterilizes the dog while sparing testosterone. The procedure is fast, and less invasive than castration.
But I thought spaying and neutering was healthier for my dog
While research indicates there are many benefits to leaving your dog intact, veterinarians tell us there are also some benefits to spaying and neutering. Getting rid of the sex hormones will reduce mammary, ovarian and testicular cancers, for instance.
Of course, it’s important to weigh the benefits against the risks. Ovarian cancer occurs only rarely, so you must consider the small risk against the health benefits of preserving hormones. Female dogs should be monitored for mammary tumors after middle-age. You can do this when you rub your dog’s tummy. These tumors are usually benign and should be removed promptly.
For males, leaving the testicles and hormones intact means that testicular cancer, perianal gland tumor, and enlarged prostate may occur. If these occur later in life, though, the vet will typically castrate the dog at that time. In the meanwhile, the dog has benefited from the natural hormones present prior to castration.
Responsible care of an intact female dog
Intact female dogs have one or two heats a year. Female dogs can get pregnant only during heats, and for about three to four days.
Some dogs will exhibit receptive behavior, including flagging, which means lifting the tail base up and to the side. Others show no behaviour signs whatsoever. It’s important to know the signs of heat in your own dog. If you have a female dog in heat, you should never leave her alone outside, even for a second, and even in a fenced-in yard.
Another way to prevent unwanted pregnancies is to use a product such as the Delay Her Spay harness. Made from soft and durable webbing with a mesh backing, it’s designed to keep the dog’s hind end covered at all times, while allowing her to urinate through the mesh, and defecate over the top.
The heat cycle lasts about three weeks, and bleeding can be unpredictable during this time. It isn’t consistently heavy nor does it occur every day all day. Many people with intact female dogs invest in special diapers or panties. Typically, though, female dogs are incredibly good at keeping themselves very clean. Most of the time, there’s very little mess.
Unfortunately, most veterinary schools only teach full spays and neuters, so unless your vet has obtained additional training in sterilization techniques that spare the ovaries or testicles (which is unlikely), you’ll have only one option available. The Parsemus Foundation maintains a list of vets that perform ovary-sparing spays and also has instructional videos for vets who want to learn the technique.
In this case, my suggestion would be to wait until your dog has reached full musculoskeletal maturity; and if you have a female, I’d wait until she has completed her first estrus cycle before scheduling the surgery.
Keeping your dog intact, or at least delaying the spay/neuter procedure, can help prevent a host of health problems down the road. Having an intact dog comes with some extra responsibilities, of course, but they’re not onerous and are well worth the effort.
Dr. Karen Becker is a holistic veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator. She has certification in acupuncture and homeopathy and in 1999 opened the Natural Pet Animal Hospital in Tinley Park, Illinois. Dr. Becker is also a licensed Naturopathic Medical Doctor. www.drkarenbecker.com