Do we need a paradigm shift in canine neutering?
Canine neutering has become the prevailing standard practice in the US, but questions remain about whether this universal approach is appropriate in all cases.
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The history of spay and neuter
In the 19th century, urbanization and increased pet ownership were catalysts for performing neuters. Owners found a pet’s heat cycle in their home to be inconvenient, so neuters were performed to eliminate this annoyance. In the 1950s, neutering became the solution to overpopulation of pets in New York City. By the 1960s, when compliance to neuter contracts was low, humane groups made neutering a requirement prior to pet adoption. In 1975, the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommended early neuter to get as many pets neutered before adoption as possible. Then in 1993, the American Veterinary Medical Association supported early neuter for the purpose of curbing overpopulation.
A standard of practice
Neutering young dogs between 6 and 9 months of age is now common practice. This practice in the US contrasts with many European countries, where neutering is quite uncommon. For example, in Norway, it’s illegal to neuter a pet unless there is a valid medical reason. With these opposing philosophies, veterinarians in the US have begun questioning the validity of the juvenile neuter approach. Practitioners are asking: What are the clinical effects of removing these hormones? How early is too early? Are there even benefits to spay and castration?
Spay and neuter benefits
Preventing mammary tumors is a well-known justification for spaying females before their first heat. Every vet student reads the classic paper, which reports only half a percent of female dogs developing mammary tumors if they are spayed prior to their first heat.1 In contrast, 26% develop tumors if they are spayed after their second heat. Removing these hormones has also been shown to decrease or eliminate the development of reproductive tract tumors and pyometra, which affects nearly 1 in 4 intact females by age 10.2 It also eliminates other things, such as bleeding in the house and unwanted pregnancies. Additionally, there is evidence that these pets may live longer.3
For males, castration has similar benefits in reducing reproductive tract disease. Castration removes the risk of testicular cancer, which affects 27% of intact males.4 Removing cryptorchid testicles is particularly important, as they have a significantly higher risk of developing tumors.5 There is also a reduced risk of prostate hyperplasia, perianal tumors, and perineal hernias with castration.6,7 There is even indication that castration decreases unwanted behaviors, such as urine marking in the house, roaming (which can lead to injury and reduced lifespan via fights and getting hit by cars), and mounting.8
Spay and castration have a handful of negative effects worth noting. To start, it is a surgical procedure, which carries an inherent 6% risk of complications, including incisional infections and anesthetic events.9 It also increases the risk of urinary incontinence in females.10-12 Fewer than 1% of intact females develop incontinence, but 4% to 20% of spayed females are at risk. This risk goes up when spayed before 3 months of age.12 Another concern is leaving a pet with immature genitalia.13 Immature, recessed vulvas can lead to urinary tract infections and perivulvar dermatitis. Spay and castration have also been reported to increase the risk for hypothyroidism and vaccine reactions.14-15 Further, spaying can predispose females to aggression toward family members.16 There may also be a faster progression of cognitive impairment in neutered pets, especially males.17 Finally, obesity, which has its own set of risks, is much more common in both spayed and castrated pets.12
In addition to the above medical concerns, there are also various cancers that have been shown to be more prevalent in neutered pets. Mast cell tumors, hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, and osteosarcoma have been reported to occur more frequently in neutered pets.18-21 A study of Rottweilers found that when spayed prior to 1 year of age, females had nearly 3 times the risk of developing osteosarcoma, and males had almost 4 times the risk.22 For neutered males, there is also about 4 times the risk of developing prostate cancers.23
There are also orthopedic considerations for pets neutered at a young age. Early neuter has been shown to delay growth plate closure, resulting in taller pets.13 By altering bone growth, a pet’s conformation is affected and may predispose them to excessive tibial plateau angles. When the tibial plateau angle is excessive, there is a significantly greater risk of developing cranial cruciate ligament disease in 1 or both knees.24 Hip dysplasia has also been found to be more common in altered pets, especially when neutered before 6 months of age.12
Although identifying these unintended consequences is important, the impact of being affected by these diseases should also be considered. We must consider factors, such as the frequency of the disease. Even though an increased risk of developing a specific cancer is identified, this cancer may only occur in a very small percent of the population. For example, osteosarcoma affects less than 20% of the population.25 We must then also consider the severity of the disease, availability of treatments, and how effective these treatments are for the diseases with an increased risk from neutering. Lastly, the impact of these diseases on specific breeds should also be individually evaluated. Luckily, multiple large studies—primarily out of the University of California, Davis—have recently attempted to tackle this complicated decision-making process for common breeds of dogs, including golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and German shepherds.26-28 These studies have made specific recommendations for male and female pets of more than 30 different breeds and mixed breeds.29
When to spay and neuter
If broad conclusions are made from all these studies, then the standard recommendation of spaying prior to the first heat cycle can be continued. Early neutering is also still warranted in shelters to help curb overpopulation. However, castration after 2 years of age (or full maturity) is likely a more appropriate recommendation for male dogs.
That said, based on the evidence presented in these more recent studies, shifting away from the 1-size-fits-all approach of neutering at 6 to 9 months of age is warranted. An open discussion of the pros and cons of neutering at various ages for different breeds should be discussed with every responsible owner. For example, female golden retrievers could be left intact because of their high risk of developing common cancers after being spayed.29 In these unaltered pets, owners would then need to diligently monitor for signs of pyometra or mammary tumors to allow for prompt treatment.
In conclusion, for any common surgical procedure, it is important to continually reevaluate when and why it is done, as new evidence could call for significant paradigm shifts.
- Schneider R, Dorn CR, Taylor DO. Factors influencing canine mammary cancer development and postsurgical survival. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1969;43(6):1249-1261.
- Egenvall A, Hagman R, Bonnett BN, Hedhammar A, Olson P, Lagerstedt AS. Breed risk of pyometra in insured dogs in Sweden. J Vet Intern Med. 2001;15(6):530-538. doi:10.1892/0891-6440(2001)015<0530:bropii>2.3.co;2
- Bronson RT. Variation in age at death of dogs of different sexes and breeds. Am J Vet Res. 1982;43(11):2057-2059.
- Grieco V, Riccardi E, Greppi GF, Teruzzi F, Iermanò V, Finazzi M. Canine testicular tumours: a study on 232 dogs. J Comp Pathol. 2008;138(2-3):86-89. doi:10.1016/j.jcpa.2007.11.002
- Reif JS, Maguire TG, Kenney RM, Brodey RS. A cohort study of canine testicular neoplasia. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1979;175(7):719-723
- O’Shea JD. Studies on the canine prostate gland. I. Factors influencing its size and weight. J Comp Pathol. 1962;72:321-331. doi:10.1016/s0368-1742(62)80037-x
- Wilson GP, Hayes HM Jr. Castration for treatment of perianal gland neoplasms in the dog. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1979;174(12):1301-1303.
- Hopkins SG, Schubert TA, Hart BL. Castration of adult male dogs: effects on roaming, aggression, urine marking, and mounting. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1976;168(12):1108-1110.
- Pollari FL, Bonnett BN, Bamsey SC, Meek AH, Allen DG. Postoperative complications of elective surgeries in dogs and cats determined by examining electronic and paper medical records. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1996;208(11):1882-1886.
- Stöcklin-Gautschi NM, Hässig M, Reichler IM, Hubler M, Arnold S. The relationship of urinary incontinence to early spaying in bitches. J Reprod Fertil Suppl. 2001;57:233-236.
- Angioletti A, De Francesco I, Vergottini M, Battocchio ML. Urinary incontinence after spaying in the bitch: incidence and oestrogen-therapy. Vet Res Commun. 2004;28(suppl 1):153-155. doi:10.1023/b:verc.0000045394.31433.9e
- Spain CV, Scarlett JM, Houpt KA. Long-term risks and benefits of early-age gonadectomy in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2004;224(3):380-387. doi:10.2460/javma.2004.224.380
- Salmeri KR, Bloomberg MS, Scruggs SL, Shille V. Gonadectomy in immature dogs: effects on skeletal, physical, and behavioral development. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1991;198(7):1193-1203.
- Panciera DL. Hypothyroidism in dogs: 66 cases (1987-1992). J Am Vet Med Assoc. 1994;204(5):761-767
- Moore GE, Guptill LF, Ward MP, et al. Adverse events diagnosed within three days of vaccine administration in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2005;227(7):1102-1108. doi:10.2460/javma.2005.227.1102
- O’Farrell V, Peachey E. Behavioural effects of ovariohysterectomy on bitches. J Small Anim Pract. 1990;31(12):595-598. doi:10.1111/j.1748-5827.1990.tb00701.
- Hart BL. Effect of gonadectomy on subsequent development of age-related cognitive impairment in dogs. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2001;219(1):51-56. doi:10.2460/javma.2001.219.51
- White CR, Hohenhaus AE, Kelsey J, Procter-Gray E. Cutaneous MCTs: associations with spay/neuter status, breed, body size, and phylogenetic cluster. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2011;47(3):210-216. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-5621
- Ware WA, Hopper DL. Cardiac tumors in dogs: 1982-1995. J Vet Intern Med. 1999;13(2):95-103. doi:10.1892/0891-6640(1999)013<0095.ctid>2.3.co;2
- Villamil JA, Henry CJ, Hahn AW, Bryan JN, Tyler JW, Caldwell CW. Hormonal and sex impact on the epidemiology of canine lymphoma. J Cancer Epidemiol. 2009;2009:591753. doi:10.1155/2009/591753
- Ru G, Terracini B, Glickman LT. Related risk factors for canine osteosarcoma. Vet J. 1998;156(1):31-39. doi:10.1016/s1090-0233(98)80059-2
- Cooley DM, Beranek BC, Schlittler DL, Glickman NW, Glickman LT, Waters DJ. Endogenous gonadal hormone exposure and bone sarcoma risk. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002;11(11):1434-1440.
- Teske E, Naan EC, van Dijk EM, Van Garderen E, Schalken JA. Canine prostate carcinoma: epidemiological evidence of an increased risk in castrated dogs. Mol Cell Endocrinol. 2002;197(1-2):251-255. doi:10.1016/s0303-7207(02)00261-7
- Duerr FM, Duncan CG, Savicky RS, Park RD, Egger EL, Palmer RH. Risk factors for excessive tibial plateau angle in large-breed dogs with cranial cruciate ligament disease. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2007;231(11):1688-1691. doi:10.2460/javma.231.11.1688
- Kustritz MV. Determining the optimal age for gonadectomy of dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2007;231(11):1665-1675. doi:10.2460/javma.231.11.1665
- Torres de la Riva G, Hart BL, Farver TB, et al. Neutering dogs: effects on joint disorders and cancers in golden retrievers. PLoS ONE. 2013;8(2):e55937. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055937PLoS ONE. 2014;9(7):e102241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102241
- Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Long-term health effects of neutering dogs: comparison of Labrador retrievers with golden retrievers. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(7):e102241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0102241
- Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Neutering of German shepherd dogs: associated joint disorders, cancers and urinary incontinence. Vet Med Sci. 2016;2(3):191-199. doi:10.1002/vms3.34
- Hart BL, Hart LA, Thigpen AP, Willits NH. Assisting decision-making on age of neutering for 35 breeds of dogs: associated joint disorders, cancers, and urinary incontinence. Front Vet Sci. 2020;7:388. doi:10.3389/fvets.2020.00388