Spay or Neuter – A HOT Topic!

We recently posted some information about the benefits of spaying and neutering pets. WOW! That set off a firestorm!

What are people talking about? Why the firestorm?

There have been a number of articles published recently on social media about newer spay and neuter studies. These studies have shown that there are health risks associated with spaying and neutering at early ages, and in general. While we firmly believe social media is a great way to share information and connect with each other, it also can contribute to the rise of “fad” viewpoints. What the general public is not aware of is that for decades, various studies about the effects (positive and negative) of spaying and neutering have been conducted, with contradictory results.

As an active part of the veterinary community, we have been following those studies over the years, and we discuss the pros and cons amongst our doctors and staff at our hospital regularly. Here’s a quick overview as well as our thoughts and considerations at this time:

  • There are a few studies that have shown certain breeds of dogs are somewhat less likely to develop specific health conditions if they are sterilized later in life, or are allowed to stay intact. The health conditions include orthopedic problems and/or occurrence of certain types of cancer. However, this study also showed that females that were spayed AFTER six months of age had a higher risk of developing other types of cancers.
  • While the findings of the studies have merits to consider, they are far from conclusive because of the small numbers of animals in the studies (as a percentage of canine population) and the actual percentage of positive/negative findings within those groups. The results are also hard to completely decipher because the animals in the recent studies have genetic predispositions to a majority of the problems found, all which can also have predominance in certain bloodlines. Therefore, more studies with a much larger base need to be conducted including a wider range of breeds, mixes and types.
  • Many other studies over the years have shown that there are benefits to spaying and neutering prior to the reproductive age. These benefits include reduction of behavioral problems associated with sex hormones, reduction or elimination of certain types of illnesses and various types of cancers, and an increase in the lifespan of many pets.  
  • The pet-overpopulation problem is not just a problem, it is a crisis! The numbers of animals that are destroyed every year in shelters are staggering. Currently, approximately three to six MILLION dogs and cats enter shelters each year in the United States alone. Of those, approximately 25% or around 1 MILLION are purebred. While efforts of rescue groups and humane organizations have placed some of these animals in new homes, unfortunately, approximately 3 MILLION dogs and cats are euthanized every single year. Believe it or not, this is a “good number” when you consider that in the 1980’s, prior to increased efforts to spay and neuter pets at the age they are able to reproduce, 17 MILLION were euthanized on a yearly basis.

Our conclusions:

  • Spaying and neutering programs have had a positive impact on the pet over-population problem, but with 3 Million euthanized every year, we still have a long way to go. We believe that spaying and neutering is a part of responsible pet ownership and animal stewardship.
  • For most pets and their families, the behavioral and health benefits of spaying and neutering at around 6 months of age, which is when most dogs and cats are able to reproduce, outweigh the risks.
  • For cats and dogs we recommend neutering at six months because the incidence of prostate disease is greatly reduced. And of course, with the neuter procedure itself, the risk of testicular cancer is completely eliminated.
  • We recommend spaying at six months because studies have shown that females allowed to stay intact after sexual maturity, developed certain cancers at an elevated rate. The risk of mammary cancer and other cancers are reduced by spaying before the first heat. Additionally, studies have shown that the risk of developing pyometra (a potentially fatal uterine infection) rises with each year in intact females. Studies found that almost 24% of intact females experience pyometra by 10 years of age and it has shown to be as high as 54% percent in certain breeds of dogs. Another reason to spay at six months is that the procedure becomes more complicated with age, especially if the pet has become overweight. This translates to longer surgery times, higher risk to the pet, and a higher cost for the pet owner.
  • We advise planning for your pet’s healthy future by making sure they receive regular physical exams that can detect problems early. It is always important to keep pets at a healthy weight for a number of reasons including helping to maintain joint health.   As a part of this, we also recommend looking into pet health insurance.
  • Just like in human health care, there are other sterilization options for pets. Research is being conducted about the benefits and the risks.   At this time the specific benefits and risks are unclear because more studies are needed and more time is required to evaluate the results as pets age. However, depending on the results, there may come a day when other options are more readily available and recommended, especially for high risk breeds.
  • The practice of veterinary medicine is an art. Each patient and situation must be evaluated individually.   Discussions with your veterinarian about the best approach for both your pet and your family should always take place prior to any surgical decision, including a spay or neuter.

For more information about this topic, here are links to articles that we recommend: