07 July 2016

HEALTH - Early Spay/Neuter of Dogs May Cause Problems

The question of when to spay or neuter dogs is complex.

Spaying or neutering dogs at 6 months is common practice, and is often convenient timing for pet owners. It coincides with completing their first series of vaccines, and allows pet owners to skip the mess and frustration of female dogs going into heat.

Early spay/neuter, sometimes as early as 6 weeks, is common in shelter environments, and prevents further pet overpopulation by sending adopted puppies and kittens home already neutered or spayed.

In addition to the issue of pet overpopulation, another reason for early spay/neuter is the assumption that the procedure can reduce aggression and other undesirable behaviour in dogs. But, especially when it comes to aggression, this isn’t guaranteed.

The behavioural effects of neutering are difficult to study because many studies rely on owner surveys and have trouble accounting for variables such as training and owner behaviour. However, one study in 1997 found that neutering reduced urine marking, mounting, and roaming by a significant amount (90% in 40% of the study dogs, and 50% in the remaining 60% of the study dogs).

But behaviour isn’t the only piece of the puzzle.

There is a growing body of evidence that early spay/neuter (earlier than 6 months) can result in increased joint issues in German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers.

These findings are troubling, but they are far from conclusive.

As Tina Wolfe, DVM, MS, DACVS notes in a guest editorial for Advances in Small Animal Medicine and Surgery, “Though some associations were found between spay or neuter and some health conditions, this differed between breeds, and a causal relationship is not clear… In addition to the spay/neuter status and its timing, other factors including diet, lifestyle, environment, preventive care, and genetics should be considered.”

Laura Sanborn’s 2007 overview of the research available at the time shows that the complexity of this issue is nothing new, and these findings contribute to an existing body of research that clearly demonstrates that there are significant benefits and significant risks associated with spaying and neutering at any age, and particularly at early ages.

Sanborn concluded, “The number of health problems associated with neutering may exceed the associated health benefits in most cases.”

This may be true for individual dogs, but group health is also a concern.

Overpopulation is a considerable pet health issue, because, according to the American Humane Association, “millions of cats and dogs are euthanized… because there are more pets than there are responsible homes for them.”

This risk has to be weighed against other health issues such as potential joint problems as a result of early spay/neuter, and highlights again how complex the issue of spaying and neutering really is.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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