We've all heard the rhetoric about the importance of spaying and neutering to prevent pet overpopulation. Shelters and humane organizations routinely spay and neuter every animal before they are allowed to be adopted, even very young dogs and cats that are less than 8 weeks old. We can definitely be thankful for the significant reduction of euthanasias performed on animals due to these widespread spay and neuter campaigns by humane organizations.
Even dog breeders will usually sell on only a spay or neuter contract. This contract ensures that the breeder's offspring don't end up in the hands of unscrupulous breeders, limits competition, and also gives the impression of being a responsible breeder. Dog breeders are under a lot of pressure these days to appear to be responsible. Indeed, spaying and neutering are virtually synonymous with being responsible, whether you're a rescue, a pet owner, or a breeder.
Despite the conventional wisdom that widespread early de-sexing is the only or at least best choice here in North America, this is not the norm in many European countries. A survey of European countries reveals that Hungary has 57% intact dogs and the UK stands at 46% of intact dogs.
In some countries, spaying and neutering are considered to be inhumane and is even illegal. In Sweden, 93% of females 99% of male dogs are left intact. Under Norway's Animal Welfare Act, it is illegal to neuter your dog in Norway unless it was deemed medically necessary or for animal welfare reasons.
To have your dog desexed in Norway and other Scandinavian countries, you will have to write a detailed letter with the many reasons you feel your dog must be neutered (for his benefit), and even then, it's difficult to find a veterinarian that will perform a surgery they believe is unnecessary and painful for the animal.
The good treatment of animals is just one facet of the Scandinavian desire to treat living creatures, including women and children, with respect. In their view, it is more responsible to leave a dog intact and guard and train the dog properly rather than have mass spay/neuter campaigns to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, Scandinavian countries do not have pet overpopulation problems.
And yet Americans have been conditioned to believe that choosing not to spay and neuter our pets is highly irresponsible, no matter the circumstances.
De-sexing surgery is commonly advocated in this country as a means for limiting aggressive behaviors and to prevent dogs from wandering. Many of my friends here in the U.S. who have traveled abroad have remarked on the way dogs (including intact ones) are allowed to go nearly everywhere in many European countries, including restaurants and grocery stores.
If not allowed inside certain establishments, dogs are often tethered outside on metal rings designed for this purpose. No one bothers the dogs or worries about theft. And the dogs appear content while tethered. Even unsupervised, my friends and family have also noted that European dogs seem to be better behaved than dogs in the U.S. This flies in the face of the assumption that neutering is required to reduce male aggression and wandering.
Sex hormones are very important to the development of a growing puppy. Testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone affect the immune system, the musculoskeletal system, the cardiovascular system, as well as psychological development. Spaying and neutering remove a growing puppy's hormones and we're discovering that 20+ years of "spay everything that moves" campaigns have had some significant effects on man's best friend.
Choosing if, when or how to spay a female dog is a difficult decision with several pros and cons both for and against the procedure.
Early spaying (before a females dog's first estrus) has commonly been advocated in this country not only to prevent unwanted litters but also to prevent certain cancers. Spaying before age 2-1/2 years of age may reduce the risk of mammary tumors, which are the most common malignant tumors in female dogs. But even this commonly-cited reason for advocating an early spay may have been overestimated and may not have a reliable source.
Spaying also mitigates the risk of uterine, ovarian, and cervical tumors, though these cancers are quite rare (0.5%).
Spaying can also prevent uterine infections known as pyometra which can be life-threatening, although infections can still occur after spaying if all of the uterine tissue isn't completely removed.
Spaying also eliminates breeding behaviors, menstrual spotting, and the attraction of male dogs. It is certainly more convenient, at least in the short term, to have a dog spayed. Despite these benefits, the decision to spay shouldn't be taken lightly.
Spaying a dog is the human equivalent to women getting a complete hysterectomy. In women, removing the uterus, cervix, and the ovaries sends her body into instant menopause. If you have gone through menopause yourself or know of a loved one who has, you've probably heard about the accompanying hot flushes, psychological changes (mood swings, depression, and difficulty concentrating) insomnia, and skin changes including thinning and decreased elasticity. The same procedure in female dogs will also affect how she feels physically and psychologically because of the same sudden loss of estrogen and progesterone.
Recent studies have shown some troubling statistics with regards to female health and spaying, particularly with early spays (before 1 year of age.)
According to Laura J Sanborn, M.S. of Rutgers University notes that the cons of spaying include:
The benefits of neutering a male dog include curbing the desire to roam from home. More intact male dogs get hit by cars than neutered dogs. Neutering a male dog usually decreases the incidence of urinary marking. Gonadectomy also prevents testicular cancer, but this is a rare cancer in the first place.
It seems that cons for neutering a male dog far outweigh the benefits in terms of a dog's health. Risks associated with neutering male dogs include:
Recent studies on German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, Vizslas, and Rotweillers have indicated that spaying and neutering can have a dramatic increase for the risk for several serious diseases and behavioral problems in these breeds.
The bottom line? Talk to your vet about your individual dog's needs and situation to make an informed decision about if and when to spay/neuter your pet or opt to have sterilization procedure done instead of desexing. No one wants to go back to the days of widespread animal euthanasias of unwanted pets. Choosing not to spay or neuter must be done thoughtfully and have safety parameters in place to prevent unwanted litters. If preventative measures can't be ensured, spaying and neutering at the appropriate age is the best alternative.
For more information and citations on this subject, please visit:
Neuter. Or Not? And When? by Vital Animal.