Spaying/Neutering Your Pets: What You Need To Know

I’d like to help you navigate the sometimes murky waters of the spay/neuter conundrum. There’s a lot of misinformation and lore out there about spaying and neutering and I want you, the pet owner, to have the right information from a practicing veterinarian. Despite all the controversy, one thing is still crystal clear: For the vast majority of pets and pet owners, having your pet spayed or neutered (at some point in their life) prevents far more problems than it causes.

First, some definitions.

Neutering a pet is a catch-all term that means surgically or chemically making them unable to reproduce, regardless of gender – male or female. Somehow, this term has come to refer specifically to males and the surgical act of castration, or removal of the testicles. For the rest of this article, I’ll apply the word “neuter” to both males and females

Spaying a dog or cat only refers to females and this term has undergone a bit of a change in recent years as well. 20 years ago everyone agreed that a “spay” meant removal of the ovaries and the uterus, usually done through an abdominal surgery. Nowadays there’s a movement afoot to just remove the ovaries and leave the uterus, or womb, in place, which means a shorter recovery time, a smaller incision, and less risk and cost. In some cases it’s even done through a tiny incision smaller than a postage stamp with high-tech devices called laparoscopes that are tiny fiber-optic cameras. It hasn’t completely taken hold but the writing is on the wall that the spay of the future may mean dogs and cats get to keep their womb and get back on their feet sooner.

The obvious upside of neutering your pet is that they will no longer be able to have a litter of puppies of kittens. Pet overpopulation is a very real and pressing problem, so fewer puppies and kittens born means fewer unwanted pets in shelters and fewer stray and unwanted pets being euthanized. That part’s pretty easy to get your head around. (For responsible pet breeders and aficionados of certain dog and cat breeds, breeding pets is done out of a love of the breed and profit is only a secondary motive – I won’t include them in this discussion.)

Infections of the prostate (prostatitis) or uterus (pyometra) are also common in pets who have not been neutered. Older male and female dogs are often afflicted with these conditions and can become very ill very fast; both conditions require intensive care and often need surgery on an emergency basis. Your average neuter surgery on a young, healthy dog or cat usually costs around $50 to $300 depending on age, size and species (and in some cases, it can be even less) while surgical and medical treatment for an infected prostate or uterus can run into the thousands.

Another condition that’s often prevented through neutering is mammary (breast) cancer in female dogs. Estimates are that 1 in 4 dogs that are not spayed (and experience more than 1 heat cycle) will develop mammary tumors. Happily, for dogs or cats that are spayed before they’re sexually mature, mammary cancer is virtually unheard of; the usual timeframe for a spay is before 6 months of age – sexual maturity is usually round 9 months.

Another benefit of neutering a dog or cat is the decrease of hormonally-driven behaviors like fighting, spraying/territory marking and roaming. In general, neutered pets are more docile, less likely to roam and get along better with others.

So, why would anyone not want to have their pet sterilized and avoid unwanted litters, bad behavior, infection, and cancer?

It comes down to the skeleton in most cases: joint/ligament injuries and bone cancers. There’s emerging data that neutering pets at a young age may make some kinds of cancers more likely. Bone cancer, in particular, seems to be less common in   or “intact” pets. Bone cancer is bad – it’s one of the worst cancers out there. Pets with bone cancer often die from the disease a few weeks or months after diagnosis and therapy can be complex, painful and expensive. One thing to keep in mind is that bone cancer, for all its badness, is relatively rare. It alone is not a reason to avoid having your dog or cat spayed (bone cancer is almost unheard of in cats – large-breed dogs like great Danes and Mastiffs are most commonly afflicted).

So what are we to do? On the one hand, there are uterine infections, dog fights, litters of unwanted puppies and mammary cancer, while one the other we have bone and ligament issues and a rare but awful cancer.

The key here is to avoid a blanket statement like, “all dogs and cats should be neutered at 4-6 months of age.” The decision on if and when to neuter a dog or cat needs to be tailored to the breed and size of pet, and the tolerance of the pet owners to accept risk. Nothing is clear-cut and our knowledge of the risks and benefits of neutering is incomplete and evolving. What worked as a recommendation 20 years ago is no longer relevant and what we decide today will probably not hold true in 20 years.

In the interest of simplicity, I can offer up these recommendations:

  • Discuss neutering with your veterinarian and ask questions until you’re satisfied
  • For cats, fewer of these issues are germane: most cats can still be neutered at 4-6 months without fear of long-term complications
  • For large-breed dogs, neutering after they become skeletally and sexually mature may have some benefit: waiting until they’re one year old and have undergone one heat cycle is a reasonable option
  • Most small-breed dogs can still be neutered at around 6 months of age and avoid many of the issues outlined above

As our understanding of all the factors involved improves, so will our ability to make recommendations that hit that sweet spot between risk and benefit. Until we have all the data we can only take what we know, realize that it’s imperfect and hope that we make the best recommendation that we can based upon the knowledge that we currently have.

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