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You have a puppy or kitten and it’s time for the proverbial “snip-snip.” You’ve consulted with Dr. Google and learned that you absolutely MUST spay or neuter at 6 months of age. But you also learned that you absolutely MUST spay or neuter at 12 months of age. Or you should never spay or neuter your pet because, if you do, it will most certainly lead to some awful, horrific disease and your pet will become overweight or develop urinary incontinence and life will never be the same again. Well, we would like to try to clear some things up for you.
Neutering is technically the term used to describe removal of the male and female reproductive organs. Spaying (removing the ovaries and, in most cases, the uterus) is the term used for neutering females and castrating (removing the testicles) is the term used for neutering males. Although in the industry, neutering is almost always the term used for castrating a male. There are many reasons to neuter our pets but the timing of these procedures is currently a hot topic of debate. Neutering a pet is performed for both health considerations as well as population control. The vast number of healthy, adoptable animals in pet shelters is heartbreaking and to think that many of these guys will be euthanized because there aren’t enough homes willing to adopt them or enough space or funding to keep them sheltered and fed in the meantime is unbearable.
As far as health benefits go, there are some medical studies confirming them. For females, we completely eliminate the chance of ovarian cancer, decrease the risk of breast cancer, and eliminate the risk of life-threatening uterine infections. For males, we eliminate the risk of testicular tumors, decrease the risk of an enlarged prostate leading to urinary problems, and decrease the risk of weakened perianal muscles that could cause intestines or even the urinary bladder to herniate. Neutering males may also lead to decreased aggressive or dominant tendencies, escape and marking behaviors.
Traditionally, the procedure is recommended around 6 months of age as this is when most of our pets begin to exhibit signs of sexual maturity and, for some breeds, can have their first heat (aka “period”). Spaying or neutering at this age can be ideal for some owners as you can avoid dealing with the challenges of behavioral changes in a female in heat or an intact male who senses females in heat in his territory. Younger pets tend to recover from surgery faster and skin incisions heal sooner. The surgery itself tends to be faster (smaller/less developed reproductive organs are much easier to remove with less bleeding observed during the procedure) leading to a shortened anesthesia time.
We also have the added benefit of being able to check your puppy’s teeth for any baby teeth that should have fallen out by this time and remove them without the additional expense of a separate anesthetic procedure. Additionally, the risk of mammary (breast) cancer is also reduced if we spay a female before her first heat (less than 0.1% chance of developing a tumor in her lifetime).
Recently, there has been a recent shift in thought about how beneficial the hormones produced by the ovaries and testicles may be for developing dogs. The thought is, the longer we expose our developing pets to these hormones, the less risk they have for developing certain chronic conditions such as obesity, orthopedic or joint disease (both arthritis and things like cruciate/ACL tears as well as certain types of dysplasia), urinary incontinence, recurrent urinary tract infections, and, potentially certain types of cancer. There is still not a conclusive or definitive link between these conditions and early spay/neuter, but some of the evidence is compelling.
So, what is the right decision for your pet?
Here is what we can say definitively. Spaying or neutering in general will have health benefits, impact your pet’s behavior and help to prevent pet overpopulation. Beyond that, there is still much we don’t know about the positive and negative effects of the timing of a spay or neuter. Research is ongoing and veterinarians will critically look at all the research as it becomes available.
Until such time as we have more definitive answers, the decision on when to spay or neuter your pet should be done in collaboration with your veterinarian. Considerations include:
- What is the breed and estimated size of your pet? Larger breeds predisposed to orthopedic disease might benefit from a later spay or neuter.
- Are you willing to manage potential issues associated with intact males and females in heat?
- Are you considering a minimally invasive procedure option? Your pet should be at least 10 pounds to benefit from a laparoscopic spay.
- What is the lifestyle of your pet? Is this a sporting dog?
- Male or female? Gender can also impact the risk factors and should be discussed when making a final decision.
While there is no black or white answer, each pet parent should be actively involved in this decision. Even in the veterinary community, opinions vary. What is important, is making an informed decision that incorporates the pet’s genetics, breed, size, lifestyle, gender and age.