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Approaching Neutering With Nuance

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

As with most things in this world, the answer to, "when is the correct age to spay or neuter?" isn't black and white. There are many factors to keep in mind when considering surgical sexual alteration of your pet. We'll go over some of those, but first let's define our terms.

I n t a c t (or unaltered) denotes a dog that has not been spayed or neutered.

S p a y i n g (otherwise known as an ovariohysterectomy) is the surgical alteration of a female dog to negate fertility. In most cases, this involves the complete removal of the uterus and the ovaries through an abdominal incision. In some cases where reproductive hormones need to be preserved, the procedure can consist of removing the uterus but leaving the ovaries in place. Hormone-preserving spays are currently relatively uncommon.

N e u t e r i n g (otherwise known as a gonadectomy) is the surgical alteration of a male dog to negate fertility. In most cases, this involves the complete removal of the testicles. In some cases, where reproductive hormones need to be preserved, the procedure can be more akin to a vasectomy where the vas deferens (sometimes now referred to as the ductus deferens) is severed and either tied or cauterized to prevent the transport of semen from the epididymis to the ejaculatory ducts. Complete testicular removal is by far the most common procedure.

C r y p t o r c h i d i s m is the failure of one or both testes to fully descend into the proper position, and requires a cryptorchid gonadectomy in order to retrieve the undescended testes from the lower abdomen. If left intact, cryptorchidism is associated with a higher rate of reproductive cancers, as the cancer cells form around the undescended testes. Canines with cryptorchidism should always be neutered once they are at the appropriate age.

Both spaying and neutering can technically be referred to as gonadectomies and/or neutering, but there is a general colloquially gendered separation of terms and so in this post the alteration of males will be referred to as a neuter or a gonadectomy, and the alteration of females will be referred to as a spay or an ovariohysterectomy.

Why spay/neuter?

For many owners, reasons for spaying or neutering may be that they do not want to have to deal with a female dog going into season and dripping blood inside the home, or they may not want an unaltered male smelling the hormones from a dog in season down the road and howling for a week. Many owners cite urine marking as a reason for neutering. Some say their main concern is the help with behavioral issues such as hyperactivity. Regardless of any of these reasons, and regardless of whether or not any of them are backed up by scientific evidence (sexual alteration often has no impact on hyperactivity, for example), surgical sexual alteration has one primary objective; to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

A common reason given by advocates of spaying and neutering is cancer prevention. While it is obviously true that removing the uterus will prevent uterine cancer, for example, there is recent evidence to suggest that spaying and neutering may actually increase the risks for certain other cancers, such as mammary tumors, osteosarcoma, and hemangiosarcoma. Another thing worth considering to help you make this choice would be genetic health testing, which is available by mail at Embark, and can evaluate a dog's potential risk for various illness and cancers.

When to spay/neuter?

The generally accepted rule of thumb for when to get a dog spayed is as follows; at least one year of age PLUS at least one heat cycle. For neuters, you'll ideally wait until he is at least 12 months old. This can vary, however. Larger breeds, such as Golden Retrievers and Great Danes should ideally wait until 2 years of age before being spayed or neutered. This is because a dog's gonads (testes in males, ovaries in females) are part of what generates an overwhelming majority of hormones and these hormones assist the body in the proper development of bones, joints, and cartilage. If, for example, a Golden Retriever is neutered at 7 months old it will statistically be at a significantly higher risk of developing structural problems by early adulthood and joint issues such as hip dysplasia and elbow luxations as they mature. But while most large breeds should wait until 2 years of age, and most smaller breeds can be altered at 1 year of age with little risk, some breeds such as certain dogs from the sighthound group should either be altered later (3-4 years old) or not altered at all.

As you can see, the decision to spay or neuter and its timing is something you need to discuss with the veterinarian at length. Your vet will explain what is likely best based on your dog’s breed, age, and lifestyle.

One of the riskiest things you can do as a dog owner is to demand an early spay or neuter. These are often referred to as pediatric alterations, because they are done before the dog has exited puppyhood (puppyhood is not a set-in-stone length of time, but for most breeds puppyhood lasts for 2 years). Most veterinarians consider past 1 year of age to be an acceptable time for alteration due to most dogs doing most of their growth prior to this age. Please proceed with all of the information and potential risks in mind prior to seeking a pediatric spay or neuter.

Alternatives to typical alteration:

As previously mentioned, you may have other options. Hormone-sparing sterilization methods are becoming more popular as an alternative to traditional gonadectomies and ovariohysterectomies. These methods include the hysterectomy (also called an ovary-sparing spay) for females and the vasectomy for males. These procedures sterilize pets without the negative impacts from hormone loss that can result from spay/neuter

Research has shown that a gonadectomy can be associated with an increased chance of select diseases in some dogs, including obesity, urinary incontinence, hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament rupture, immune-mediated diseases, aggressive or fearful behavior, and cancers like hemangiosarcoma (hemangiosarcoma can develop in dogs regardless of being altered or intact, but there is a greater statistical correlation with altered dogs). Hormone-sparing sterilization methods ensure population control while guarding the lifetime well-being of dogs and preventing many of the less-desirable results of alteration. With that said, traditional spaying and neutering can still be a fantastic option if done at the appropriate age for your pet.

It’s important to note that hormone-sparing sterilization is not yet widely available and may be more expensive than traditional spay/neuter procedures. Talk to your vet about whether spaying or neutering your dog (and, if so, at what age) is the right decision for your dog. A procedure such as a vasectomy will also be a bit more work for you once your pet returns home, which may include using cold packs on the testicular area, administering antibiotics and pain medications, limiting your dog's activity for several days, and making sure he cannot lick or bite the incision area which will likely be more sensitive and inflamed than it would be for a typical neuter. Also consider that a vasectomy can fail in two ways; infection, which may lead to the required removal of the testicles and a scrotal ablation, or self-reversal, which is when the vas deferens may find themselves reattaching so that semen can then be transported to the ejaculatory glands and impregnation may occur. But with all of this in mind, a successful vasectomy or hysterectomy may still be the best option for your particular pet.

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