To Neuter or Not to Neuter – What You Should Know

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Is neutering good for your dog or cat or is it dangerous? Are there adverse consequences to neutering? Most of us have been told for years that neutering is good and prevents many health problems, but are there negative effects of neutering? The answer is yes. We want to tell you what you may not know about the dangers of neutering.

I’m the Irreverent Veterinarian. I give my honest opinion about various controversial issues in the animal care world. I speak my mind and some might say I am honest to a fault. I tell it like it is. Some of what I say can be harsh but that doesn’t stop me – it can be hard to hear the truth. This is a topic some pet owners and some veterinarians may not enjoy.

If you ask nearly every veterinarian, veterinary technician, shelter worker, rescue group or anyone else in the animal care world, they will tell you that neutering your pet is a necessary procedure and your pet will be happier and healthier. About 80% of dogs and cats in the US are neutered.

Neutering is a general term that refers to removal of the testicles in males or ovaries and uterus in females. For male dogs and cats, the surgery to remove the testicles is called castration. For female dogs and cats, the surgery to remove the ovaries and uterus is called an ovariohysterectomy (OHE), commonly called spaying. This is a good time to mention a pet peeve of many (one of many). If a female animal had its ovaries and/or uterus removed in the past, it is SPAYED (pronounced SPADE or like played). It is NOT spaded! The verb is ‘to spay’ and the past tense is spayed (just add ‘-ed’ on the end like the majority of verbs. To play – past tense played.))

For decades the recommendation has been to neuter pets around the age of 6 months. There is no reason and no research that proves why this age is important. Apparently someone made it up and it caught on. It is likely an age when veterinarian felt the pets were old enough and strong enough to have minimal risks of anesthetic complications.

For the past decade or so early neuter has been suggested. This is primarily for animals in shelters for adoption purposes. The shelters want to ensure that the animals do not have litters after leaving. There is current and ongoing research that is showing some negative health effects of early neutering such as increased rate of urinary tract infections, urinary incontinence, hip dysplasia, and some behavioral issues.

Much more research needs to be done and the risk of pregnancy must be weighed against the benefit and take the negative health effects into consideration. There are also negative health concerns regarding neutering at later ages as well, including at 6 months.

Usually, the number one reason vets and others will say to spay your female pet dog (to remove estrogen) is to reduce the risk of mammary (breast) cancer. The overall risk, depending on the study, is about from less than 1% to 3% and up. If the dog is spayed before its third cycle (around 3 years of age) the risk can be reduced a little further. However, vets will usually say something like “if you spay your dog early you can reduce the risk of mammary cancer by 98%.” What they don’t tell you is the risk itself is very low. This means that about 1 to 3 out of 100 dogs may get mammary tumors. For dogs, there is a 50:50 chance they are benign. For cats, most are malignant.

There are also the obvious benefits of no testicular cancer, no uterine cancer, no ovarian cancer and no life-threatening uterine infection (pyometra).

Another claim is regarding positive behavioral changes. There is no reliable research that proves this is true. However, there is research that is starting to show that what vets have been telling pet owners isn’t true. For example, veterinary staff often say that more intact dogs roam, run away, display sexually inappropriate behavior (mounting and humping) and have a tendency toward aggression. Having the vet community admit that we were wrong or more information is needed is not likely to happen.

Obesity is another concern for neutered pets. As most of us know, it is very difficult to get a pet to lose weight after it has gained too much. Preventing obesity is the key and that means training the owners. I heard there is a study that hasn’t been published yet that shows how people can’t tell when their pet is overweight, even if it is obvious to everyone else.

Did you know that there are many European countries that recommend avoiding routine neutering of pets? And the country’s animal health authorities agree? And, before you think it, those countries do not have pet overpopulation problems.

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