To Neuter or Not to Neuter

When we first got Isis, I didn’t know there was anything controversial about spaying and neutering dogs. I thought the only reason not to do it was if you planned to breed them.

Preventing pet overpopulation is, of course, the obvious reason to spay and neuter, but that’s not why we did it. We were a one-dog household with no intention of letting Isis stay out after curfew with wild boys. We believed the Humane Society’s list of health benefits, and to be perfectly honest, we had Isis spayed before her first heat because I didn’t want to deal with the mess. I had no idea there were health risks.

I even won a T-shirt (for me) and a little beaded necklace (for Isis) from the Humane Society for spaying her during February, because Feb 24 is World Spay Day. Isis wore that necklace her entire life. You can see it in the pictures with I is for Isis, and this one about why choke collars are bad.

Never did it cross my mind that spaying Isis contributed to her fearfulness, anxiety, and aggression later. But Dr. Sophia Yin reports:

According to Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell University Hospital for Animals, spaying may actually contribute to behavioral problems. In a cooperative study with the Institute of Animal Medicine at Gyeongsang National University in Korea, Houpt and her colleagues found that ovariohysterectomy (spay) in healthy German Shepherds bred as working dogs led to increased reactivity.

Then there’s Leo. By the time we got him, I had heard that it’s better to wait before neutering a dog, to allow them to mature fully. I had the best of intentions of letting Leo finish developing. But then he started humping dogs at daycare and they wouldn’t let him come back until he was neutered.

This knee-jerk castration is ridiculous, really. Behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes:

One doesn’t need to be a veterinarian or physiologist to suspect that removing hormone-producing organs has a profound effect on a body’s physiology, beyond that of eliminating the potential of reproduction. Natural selection is a conservative process, and it is rare for any hormone to play only one role in the body. Androgens produced in the testes play a role in muscle and skeletal development. Estrogens, we’re told, affect the urinary tract, the heart and blood vessels, bones, breasts, skin, hair, mucous membranes, pelvic muscles, and the brain. Thus it is reasonable to wonder what the effects truly are of neutering animals at young age, sometimes as young as a few months of age.

Injectable sterilization may be the better option for boy dogs, because testosterone is not completely eliminated, but then neither is humping, marking, or roaming.

I hope that animal shelters and rescues consider that an alternative to neutering puppies before placing them in homes. Author and trainer Steve Duno writes about the absurdity of neutering too soon (as young as eight weeks) in this article:

Research also indicates adverse behavioral issues associated with early neuter, including increased rates of noise phobias, fear aggression, and reduced intelligence. … I can tell you that an abiding professional observation of mine, after working with thousands of dogs, is that those undergoing early neutering often become either bubble-brained, slow-learning goofballs, or nervous, insecure handfuls.

I have seen no evidence elsewhere to back up the reduced intelligence claim. And yet — bubble-brained, slow-learning goofball — Sound like anyone we know? Don’t get me wrong, I am over-the-moon bonkers about Leo, but he’s not as smart as Isis or Mia. Maybe it’s just because he’s a boy, although I have to wonder, could neutering have something to do with it?

When our trainer first met him as an eight-week-old, she said, “You’ll be able to teach this dog to do anything.” I have to tell you, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

N is for Neutering

N

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8 thoughts on “To Neuter or Not to Neuter

  1. To be honest, I saw the post title and was hesitant to read it. I imagined it to be more “Spay/Neuter Saves Lives” propaganda. Like you, I was a big proponent of spay/neuter as well. (Come on, I’m an animal control officer. I see the effects of over population every day.) But about 8 years ago I started noticing some of the medical studies that suggested there were adverse/unintended side effects. Removing the sex organs (castration in males, ovariohysterectomy in females) compromises bone density and exacerbates (if not causes) hip dysplasia. A recent study done with golden retrievers reports links between neutering and Cushing’s disease.

    One possible solution may be sterilization without removing the sex organs, i.e. vasectomies and tubal ligations (just like with people). This is not an uncommon practice in Australia. But like you said, that would not remove the frustrating hormone-driven behaviors like humping, straying and the bleeding heat cycles. We may not have the perfect answer yet, but I think it’s important to have the conversation. Thank you for articulating it so well.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! Pyrrha was spayed by the rescue when she was a year old, so I’m grateful that she was at least older. But she was always going to be a fearful dog, and I don’t think the spay exacerbated that. Eden, however, is 9 months old and is currently going through her first heat. We’re trying to decide when to spay her, but I’m always going back and forth about if and when to do it, pending all of this current research.

  3. This is fascinating. I have never heard this information before. Like you, I assumed that spay/neuter was a given (and most of my adopted dogs/cats were already spayed or neutered when I got them). Thanks for posting. This was thought-provoking.

  4. I’m all about spay/neuter for pet dogs that have no breeding intent – after all backyard breeders/oopsie litters are one of the biggest factors in Canadian pet overpopulation.
    HOWEVER, this pro-spay/neuter stance of mine should have a footnote: eventually.
    For large breed dogs, I am all about later spay/neuter. I understand why rescues spay/neuter puppies before adoption – that’s kind of key to their mandate and people who adopt know they’re getting a spayed/neutered dog.
    But I did my research, and my larger breed dogs will always be spayed/neutered at 1 year or more (I wrote a long thing about it once, which I won’t repeat all of: http://backalleysoapbox.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/spayneuter-when-not-why/).
    Sure, Moses was neutered as an adult and marks and occassionally still humps other dogs (not all, but some certain dogs seems to turn his fancy), but he also had the chance physically grow fully with all the necessary hormones. Behavioural stuff you can work on – the physical health stuff – that’s permanent.

  5. Laika was spayed when she was 4 years. We were told by the vet that it should be done between 2 runtimes and that she should be balanced otherwise her behavior would change. She was sick to get some puppies every time she was in heat and began to herding her human father. When her puppy sickness was over, she was spayed and we have never had a problem after. She is alert but not aggressive and is a great dog

  6. In my family we’ve always waited until after the first heat cycle to spay (we’ve only ever had girl dogs), but I’ve read waiting that long increases the risk of breast cancer. So it seems like one of those situations that there are downsides either way. It’s so sad because their lives are already too dang short.

    Hope you’re having fun with the A to Z challenge,
    Jocelyn

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