Today, the process of neutering or spaying dogs, sometime around or just beyond puberty, has become so routine that people may even feel they are somehow ‘less responsible’, as owners, for not having these procedures done. When in reality there can be downsides as well as upsides – both physically and behaviourally – with this surgery on dogs (outlined a bit later), which I feel they also have a right to know about.

One of the greatest arguments put forward for the more systematic neutering or spaying of dogs is to stop “unwanted litters of puppies being born”. And yet, interestingly, the countries with the highest neutering rates – such as the UK and USA – also have the highest number of abandoned dogs (around 3.3 million annually in the US and 47,500 in the UK). Suggesting there are factions in these societies who will never take greater responsibility over the breeding of dogs, no matter what anyone else does.

I would question, too, whether the average more responsible dog owner would not know how to stop their entire dog siring or giving birth to unwanted puppies if they wanted to.

We can also have a real blind spot when it comes to the seriousness of neutering/spaying surgery on dogs. In that people will get really heated about how cruel it is to dock dogs’ tails. Then think nothing of surgically removing all their sexual and reproductive organs before they have barely developed them. Interestingly, again, in some parts of Scandinavia and in Germany neutering dogs – other than for purely medical reasons – is actually illegal, on the grounds that it is a form of mutilation. And while the kinder argument for such surgery elsewhere is that it will stop any sex hormone-related cancers in dogs in later life, much the same could be said of human beings if they had the same surgery themselves at puberty.

So you will appreciate I am playing devil’s advocate here, in terms of asking bigger questions about the usual reasons why we are told to neuter or spay our dogs.

In terms of minimising the risks of future hormone related cancers – as well as womb infections in bitches – the benefits of neutering/spaying are clear (even if not every dog would go on to develop these problems if left entire). However it is simply not true that neutering/spaying “will not change your dog in any way” – as I have heard so many owners being told. As you simply cannot undertake such a massive upheaval in a dog’s normal hormonal production systems without there being some fallout on either growth, health or behaviour.

One of my greatest concerns is dogs being neutered/spayed before they have reached their fuller adult growth or development – i.e. under two years of age. This is because growth hormones and sex hormones are tightly interconnected. Thus interrupting the normal growth hormone levels via neutering means a risk of interfering with the normal extension of growth plates in limbs and general laying down of sufficient density of bone. And a study undertaken by the University of California, Davis, in the USA, concluded that joint conditions like Hip Dysplasia and cruciate ligament tears were all significantly higher in neutered/spayed dogs than entire ones, particularly if neutered under six months of age.

Neutering can also increase the risk of urinary incontinence later, lead to greater obesity (without far stricter calorie control by owners) and can often completely change the colour and texture of a dog’s coat. Behavioural changes can also occur. It is not always realised that sex hormones can give dogs, much like people, a greater sense of mental wellbeing and confidence. So when we more suddenly remove these – as several studies in both the US and Australia have shown – the end result can be a dog displaying greater fearfulness, anxiety and more excitable behaviours. And as a behaviourist I have certainly witnessed this time and again.

One of the things we always crave most, because we love our dogs, is certainty; i.e. that whatever we choose to do to them, or for them, is the ‘right’ thing. Whereas what I think I have illustrated here is that with neutering or not neutering there is never just one easy or most ‘right’ solution. If you do not neuter, there can be downsides. But the same is true if you do. So it remains up to any owner to do what they genuinely feel is right for their own dog, and weigh up the balance of risks. But they cannot do that unless they have a far fuller picture of what can go wrong as well as right, which I have done my best to highlight here.

Given how much vets can rely on neutering/spaying operations to keep them financially afloat, it is completely understandable why it may be harder for them to dwell more lengthily on the downsides of these procedures. However this is not true of all vets, and if you have one genuinely happy to discuss with you every possible pro and con of neutering or spaying your own particular dog before you go ahead, and who does not unduly try to pressurize you into any surgery before you feel ready for it, it is usually a good sign, and should make you feel that much more confident about any future decision you make.


All text © Carol Price 2020

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