By: Dr. Hilary Slaven
That IS the question for a lot of pet owners. Or sometimes it’s a matter of WHEN to spay, meaning at what age/stage of life? Let’s discuss…
There is a lot of information out there regarding spays and neuters and the aftermath — some is opinion, some is fact, and some is yet to be determined. It can be pretty overwhelming for the owner that is debating the pros and cons for their own beloved puppy or kitten. So here’s the low down.
Traditionally, our clinic recommends spay/neuter at 4 months of age, before the pet goes through puberty, and right around the time that we are administering the last round of puppy/kitten vaccinations. This is for many reasons, both to help address the problem of stray pets in America (on average, 3-4 million unwanted pets are euthanized in shelters in the U.S. every year), and to help prevent known life-threatening medical issues and behavior issues in intact pets, such as:
- Breast cancer
- Testicular cancer
- Uterine infections
- Ovarian cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Prostate infections
- Wandering behavior (away from home, which can lead to hit-by-car situations, fighting, lost dogs, and unwanted pregnancies)
These issues are very real and are seen regularly in intact dogs and cats at our clinic. Typically, spay/neuter prevents these ailments, and spay/neuter is a key part of treatment as well.
However, there is still some debate out there (even between veterinarians) regarding other medical issues that may or may not be affected by early age neuter (anytime before puberty, which occurs around 6 months of age).
I’m going to try to address the most commonly asked questions out there to help guide our clients with these important questions regarding age of neuter.
And show you some really cute dog pictures, too.
“Doc, I’ve heard that neutering my dog while he’s young can stunt his growth.”
We know that growth plates can stay open much longer than normal in dogs that are neutered very early in life (less than 2 months of age), but so far there does not appear to be any medical relevance to this.
“I think that spaying my female dog before her first heat cycle will change her personality.”
This is an old wives’ tale that has never been substantiated with research. In fact, spay before the first heat cycle significantly decreases the likelihood of mammary cancer.
“I’ve had a female dog in the past that became incontinent after her spay. I’m afraid to have this new female spayed because I don’t want to have this problem again.”
There have been multiple university studies on this subject, with conflicting results. Three well-known studies in the veterinary world have yielded three different results! So the jury is still out. There does seem to be a genetic predisposition for urinary incontinence, for instance, Doberman pinschers and other large breed females in general are more likely to have incontinence issues than small breed dogs. There needs to be more research done on this issue. I can tell you that incontinence is generally very treatable with a daily supplement (pill).
The bottom line: The jury is still out on the effect of spay at a very young age (less than 4 months) on urinary incontinence.
“Right after my other cat was neutered, he gained a lot of weight. I think that it changed his metabolism. He’s been fat ever since.”
Obesity is a problem that we see routinely in both in tact and neutered dogs and cats of all ages. It is known that lower hormone levels can lower pet’s activity level. However, lifestyle and age can play just as significant role in the body’s metabolism. Just like humans, pets need exercise daily and control of calorie intake in order to control weight gain. As veterinarian and Mississippi State University Dr. Philip Bushby says, “It (obesity) has a tendency to come about regardless of age of spay.” He cites a long-term study at Cornell followed over 1800 dogs from neuter through up to 11 years of age. The study actually found a decrease in obesity for both male and female dogs spayed/neutered before one year of age.
The bottom line: ALL dogs and cats need regular exercise and restriction on calorie intake to prevent obesity, just as humans do. Spay/neuter can lower the metabolism and make this an even more important part of taking care of our pets.
“I’ve heard a rumor that dogs are more likely to develop hip dysplasia if neutered or spayed young.”
Veterinarians have been researching this topic; Texas A & M University studied hip dysplasia on dogs that were spayed or neutered as a young pup. The study showed no increase in hip dysplasia in these dogs. A separate study at Cornell on the same subject showed a slight increase in hip dysplasia in these groups, but also showed that dogs neutered at a traditional age were three times more likely to be euthanized because of hip dysplasia.
The bottom line: there is no hard evidence at this time that neutering young (less than 6 months of age) affects hip dysplasia. Some orthopedic veterinarians still recommend waiting until 6 months of age to neuter a large breed dog because of some continued unknowns as to joint development before this age.
One last note: the American Veterinary Medical Association and many other respected, organized veterinary groups widely endorse not only spay/neuter, but early (less than 6 months of age) neuter at shelters to fight the pet overpopulation problem in the United States. The societal benefit of early age spay/neuter in shelter situation far outweighs the rare medical issue that may arise because of this standard.
It is known that 40% of spays in the U.S. every year happen after the pet has one unwanted pregnancy.
We as veterinarians advocate for shelter spay before that problem arises.
Of course, once a pet is in the hands of it’s owner, it is up to them to decide at what age they will perform the procedure. Your veterinarian can help advise you to make the best decision for your family as to timing of a spay/neuter.
To spay, or not to spay: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of unwanted puppies and kittens,
Or to take arms against a lowered metabolism,
And measure food and exercise daily?