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Should you spay or neuter your pet? If so, when’s the right time?

By on March 3, 2017

Growing up with family dogs, I never had a canine that wasn’t spayed or neutered. And as I grew older, moved away, and adopted animals of my own, the case was the same. Every dog and cat I’ve had (they’ve all been adopted from shelters) had been sterilized before he or she became mine.

The reason shelter pets are inevitably sterilized is simple. Pet overpopulation is and has been a giant problem. Sterilizing animals that are unaltered before adopting them out assures that the shelter dog or cat will not add to the population problem. That’s a fact.

If you’re adopting from a shelter, you likely don’t have any choice in the matter. If you get an animal from a friend, family member, or breeder, the question of when should you spay or neuter the animal is something to consider, even if you never plan to breed the animal. This article explains concerns people have about sterilization, thoughts from various sources about timing the surgery, what experts say about whether you should sterilize, and when you might consider doing it based on how research, advice, and preferences effect you.

That said, there are also people who have had nothing but non-sterilized animals. There are people who have had altered and unaltered animals. There are also folks who get a dog, then wait until a certain time to have the surgery done. And it’s not only a question of preference. Some recent research shows neutering as early as is safe can hurt animals in the long run. Is the research conclusive? Who knows. Stats and research can be skewed or biased. Keep that in mind. A professor once reminded me that in addition to global warming scientists, there are global freezing scientists. Chew on that for a second.

A note on stats and research just to reinforce what was said above: Sometimes there’s bias. Things get skewed for whatever reason. The famous filmmaker Jean Luc Godard once said, “Cinema is truth 24 times per second.” Ken Burns, another great cinematographer, took his queue from Godard when saying, “It’s lying 24 times per second, too.” It’s all about manipulation and stats/research can be manipulated. Also, sometimes “experts” tell you what to do without citing stats and research. It’s all very confusing sometimes.

We’re simply presenting research and findings here (and some opinion that folks feel they need to express with or without facts). We’ll leave it up to you to make decisions. Overpopulation is a problem. Irresponsible pet owners are a problem. An unaltered dog can add to the problem, but not always. See how this is a question that is difficult to answer? Answers aren’t always necessary, but formulating problems correctly is. That’s what we’ll attempt to do here.

The ASPCA has authored an article (find it here) that makes no bones (get it?) about whether you should spay or neuter your animal. The article is titled, quite simply, “Spay/Neuter Your Pet.” Now, we know the ASPCA is concerned about the pet population. That’s their motivation for publishing this article that lists ONLY the benefits of sterilizing your pets. Among the benefits, the ASPCA claims, are these:

  • Your female pet will live longer healthier lives. It cites lower rates of uterine infections and breast tumors as one reason for this. Interestingly, Dr. Troy Everson of The Pet Clinic recently told me about research he’s read that says sterilizing too early can increase your female’s chance at developing mammary cancer. He added that sterilizing too early can also promote hip dysplasia in larger dog breeds. That research is out there.
  • Your male pet will be less likely to develop testicular cancer and prostate problems.
  • Among the behavioral benefits of sterilizing your animal, according to the ASPCA who, by the way suggests you sterilize as early as is “safe,” are that your female pets won’t go into heat, your male dog will roam around the neighborhood less, and overall behavior will be “better.” The organization also warns that the longer you wait, the more likely complications will occur after the surgery.
  • Sterilizing is cost-effective. The ASPCA says, quite simply, that sterilization costs much less than caring for a litter of puppies.

One objective statement the ASPCA makes in the post is this: “Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best time to spay or neuter your pet.” Agreed. The ASPCA bases its statement on experience, studies, and more, surely, but it doesn’t cite data in that post. But! Here’s the type of information we think illustrates the conundrum of whether to and when to sterilize:

Research that supports spay/neuter in terms of life expectancy: According to a University of Georgia study, researchers looked at a sample of 40,139 death records from the Veterinary Medical Database over 20 years. It was determined that the average age at death for dogs that had not been spayed or neutered  was 7.9 years. Dogs that were neutered or spayed? They lived a year-and-a-half longer.

“There is a long tradition of research into the cost of reproduction, and what has been shown across species is if you reproduce, you don’t live as long,” said Dr. Kate Creevy in an article posted here. Considering this research, the numbers show that if you want your pup to be around for a longer period of time, you should sterilize it.

BUT (there’s always a but in research, you know), the same study that said sterilized dogs live longer said that dogs that have not been sterilized die from cancer at a lower rate than dogs who have been fixed. That comes from Jessica Hoffman, a University of Georgia doctoral candidate who co-authored the study referenced in the article.

So. The ASPCA advocates for sterilization. It is concerned with population problems. We get it. The research from Georgia says dogs that are fixed live longer but die of cancer more often than their non-sterilized pals. Confusing. Here’s a bit more to muddy the waters.

Doggington Post, a popular, national dog site has a series called “Ask the Trainer.” And in one article from the series, the trainer who is being asked says this (note he uses the word opinion and is quite judgey…):

“I personally believe in always choosing to spay and neuter.” The trainer goes on to cite “myths” and “misinformation” and “terrible reasons” that people give for not sterilizing. Some of the “terrible reasons” he cites are really terrible. They are also a bit unbelievable. We’ll just let you read more from the trainer if you’d like, but include here that the trainer agrees with the ASPCA, saying, “This is a personal choice.” Personal choices about pets should include consulting your vet, so we’ll repeat it again. Talk to your vet.

We haven’t talked about cats much specifically, so here’s a bit of apocalyptic advice from a Cat Behavior Associates post:

“If you’re under the impression keeping your male cat intact is the kinder choice, you’re dooming your cat to a life of frustration and being at the mercy of hormones.”

Yipes. That’s one way of saying, “Sterilize your cat,” we suppose.

The Cat Behavior folks also say unaltered cats will get in fights, get hurt, get sick, etc. They cite overpopulation, like the ASPCA, but there’s little research and only a few statistics cited in their post. Again, we’re trying to provide you with real data that can help you with your decision. You won’t find statistics often in the Cat Behavior post, just more observations and experiential stuff. You will find many ads promoting “The Cat Bible,” though. So if you’re looking for that sort of thing, they’ve got that going for you.

In sum, most of what you’ll read online is opinion or “common practice” or people urging you to sterilize in order to control the pet population from your end. There are rare places, though, like the Georgia study, that hint at the possibility of bad things happening later in life to animals who have been sterilized. Again, that’s one study. Here’s (maybe) the best we’ve got after spending a few hours researching the question of if or when one should sterilize:

“Most veterinarians in the United States recommend bitches and dogs be spayed or castrated between 6 and 9 months of age. This is not based in science; no one has performed a large-scale study in which bitches and dogs underwent gonadectomy at various ages and were tracked throughout life to determine what abnormalities developed relative to age at gonadectomy.”

This comes from Margaret Root-Kustritz, a vet writing for www.petmd.com. You can read her article here. In lay terms, she says, essentially, nobody knows for sure that sterilizing causes problems later in life. We haven’t researched it enough. Maybe someday we will find an answer, but at this point, we’re all just trying to formulate the problem correctly.

The takeaway: You can read until you are red in the face. You’ll likely be told to sterilize as early as you can by most sources. Some will say there’s a chance at your animals experiencing health problems later, some won’t. Again, this is a personal decision that you should speak with your vet about. If you don’t sterilize, be responsible. If you do (or if you don’t), feed your animal quality food, get them checked out every year, and love them. Doing these things WILL prolong your pet’s life. Those are things we do know. And maybe that’s all we need to know. Then again, we don’t know what we don’t know about implications of sterilization, so stay tuned.

About Eric Forrest

Eric is a pet lover, bookworm and dad. He's had 5 family dogs, 4 cats, a cottontail rabbit he nursed back to health, and two ducks. Cats are his preference, but Eric loves all little critters.

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