Pet overpopulation is a profound problem.  Veterinarians began neutering (castrating or spaying) pets and strays to combat this ever present reality.  Neutering has become so widespread that people (veterinarians included) have come to think that it is for the health of our pets, not as just population control.  I am writing this not in an effort to ban all neutering, but with hope that we all just take a moment to consider what we are doing when we neuter our beloved pet, and the potential health implications it has on them.

Should we early spay and neuter our dog?Since I graduated from veterinary school in 1995, the common veterinary practice has been to neuter all dogs at six months of age.  This is what I’ve been doing since starting to work in this industry.  After some years in practice, I began to notice some general patterns.  When neutered, many (not all) of the larger breeds (Labs, Goldens, Boxers, Rotties, etc.) seemed to become taller and skinnier than the same breed that was not neutered.  The final result when skeletally mature (about 20-30 months old) was a tall, leggy, but thin dog with relatively less muscle mass than his un-neutered counterpart.

When veterinarians neuter dogs young, the growth plates (where bone growth occurs) actually stay open longer than they would if the dog was not neutered.  So why is this an issue?  The main problem with these now thinner, taller dogs is their long-term skeletal health.  Many large-breed dogs are destined to have hip dysplasia and other developmental skeletal abnormalities because of their genetic potential for rapid growth.  If they lack the healthy muscle mass and other soft-tissue support for unhealthy or awkward joints, they are left at a significant disadvantage.  They are more prone to injury, particularly in their anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs).  I recently asked a veterinary surgeon from California practicing at a busy referral practice what percentage of his average work day would he guess were ACL repairs.  He didn’t hesitate in his answer, “About 70 percent.”

For the last few years, I have been recommending that the average owner wait until after a year to neuter their large breed dogs.  For working or performance dogs I think it is even more important due to the rigors of their work.  For male dogs not exhibiting any behavioral issues that might be hormonally driven I really don’t care when (or if) they get neutered, as long it is beyond the age of 18 months.  For large breed females, since there IS an association between earlier spay and a reduced incidence of mammary cancer, I recommend these owners wait until the dog has gone through one heat cycle and then spay them about 2-3 months later.  I always hope that these females go into their first heat after their first birthday.  As more research is being done, there is increasing evidence pointing to health problems that early neutering may play a part in.  In a study just published in February 2013 by The University of California-Davis using Golden Retrievers, one of the findings indicated that the development of hip dysplasia in male dogs doubled in those dogs neutered prior to one year of age.

There are other health problems potentially associated with early neutering that I have not included in the scope of this article: prostate cancer, osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, obesity (and its sequellae: osteoarthritis, diabetes), urinary incontinence and hypothyroidism.

This is a very controversial subject and strong opinions exist on both sides of the fence. For now, the bottom line for me, and what I recommend to the majority of my clients is not to spay or castrate dogs under one year of age, particularly larger breed dogs.

Authored by: Charles Lerner, DVM
Photo credit: © iStockphoto.com / CREATISTA

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2 Comments

  1. Ed LaFontaine says:

    Keep up the good work, like what I see!

  2. Danette says:

    I am glad to see more veterinarians opening up to the broader health concerns with early sterilization. It is important to make decisions for an animals health care based on the individuals needs

    Although I agree that spay and neutering programs are an important part of the solution to the pet overpopulation problem, the working dog population is aside from that and not contributing to stray and unwanted pet numbers.

    I practice in emergency veterinary medicine and we do not perform sterilization procedures. I can say that a majority of our cases seen relating to an intact status are females in labor (particularly small breeds), roaming males getting into fights and car accidents, and older female reproductive tract infections or other uterine diseases. I would venture to say that working dog breeders and owners are attentive to their animals, leaving them not at high risk to these problems.

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