As you surely know by now, there is an enormous movement in pet health care towards a more natural, functional approach. This is great, but as with any transition, there are some bumps along the way that we must face. With the internet and other forms of communication, gathering information can be overwhelming. Everyone and their grandmother has an opinion.
Since I started practice over 35 years ago, I have routinely been asked whether a pet should be spayed or neutered. Years ago it was common to see intact dogs and cats, but with social changes this has become uncommon. Most of us remember a time when stray dogs and cats roamed the streets having puppies and kittens. Shelters were full to the brim and laws were passed to reduce the problem. Society, and most individuals, had no time to deal with dogs and cats that were intact and the problems that came with them being so.
Nowadays, we see a reflection of that change in society here in the US. Even veterinarians have become conditioned to think of spayed and neutered pets as the “typical” pet. The over-population problem has been reduced dramatically, outbreak of diseases and parasites have been controlled and people have adjusted quite nicely to having the altered pet at home. But, what about the pet’s health and how is it affected by neutering or not?
For the sake of discussion, I will refer to neutering in dogs and cats to include both neutering the male and spaying the female. Let’s look back about 35 years when I was just a veterinary pup. The standard protocol for neutering a dog or cat was to let them develop sexually before neutering. This meant allowing the female to have a normal heat cycle and letting the male develop his male hormones. The average female dog went into heat at about six months. Some larger breeds are late bloomers. Female cats become sexually active dependent on the season as they are considered “seasonal polyestrous.” This means that they come into heat in the early spring and will continue to cycle until they are bred. Unlike dogs that cycle about every six months. Male dogs and cats become sexually mature between 8-12 months.
About 30 years ago a report came out that indicated that dogs that were spayed after their heat cycle had about a 200% greater chance of developing breast cancer at a later age than those who were spayed before their first heat cycle. Because of this research, the entire veterinary profession in the US did an about face and changed their recommendations to spaying before the first heat cycle, meaning between 4-6 months typically. That recommendation continues today. Most males are neutered about the same time. Stray puppies and kittens at the shelters are neutered much younger, often as young as six weeks. Ouch. That’s another issue.
Let’s get back to the health considerations. Another issue regarding males is the potential for diseases associated with remaining intact. These diseases include prostate problems and testicular problems in older, intact males. Intact females also had a high potential for uterine infections (pyometra) as well as hormonally-related cancer. These were pretty much eliminated with neutering. I remember many fine old dogs dying on the surgery table with emergency surgery to remove an infected uterus that was about to rupture. When a male is neutered, the prostate gland becomes de-activated and this eliminates the potential for prostate infections and reduces the potential for prostate cancer. There are obviously many reasons why neutering is considered preventative for dogs and cats but what else should we consider?
Research now indicates that neutering a dog or cat at early ages prevents normal development and eliminates other sex hormone influence on the body. Estrogen, the female hormone produced in dogs and cats, is eliminated by spaying. Many dogs, after having been spayed, develop urinary incontinence. This is because estrogen plays a role in the function of the bladder sphincter. When it is removed, the sphincter gets sloppy and some dogs begin to leak urine. This is similar to some humans who develop urinary incontinence post-menopausal.
Some people believe that removing the sex hormones will reduce the ability for the dog to perform. Working dogs, such as Labradors, Border Collies, etc. will often be kept intact in order for them to perform at their maximum ability. In the reports I have seen, it does not appear to affect their performance but many old-timers believe otherwise. Some breeds will not allow spayed or neutered dogs to perform.
The other thing we must consider is what we can expect when we decide to keep our pet intact. For female dogs, this means having them come into heat every six months. The average heat cycle for a dog is three weeks. Even though they usually only bleed for 7-10 days, many dogs will accept a male dog at any time during the three weeks. This means that every six months you must deal with this for three weeks. Having an intact male dog also comes with some considerations. Male dogs are, well, male dogs. They mark their territory, which might include your couch. They like to hump or ride things, which might be your leg or your young child. They like to escape from the yard and go in search of other dogs that may or may not be in heat. And, sometimes they can get a little aggressive when they don’t get their way. Intact cats come with their owns issues. Female cats, because they are seasonal polyestrous come into heat and stay in heat for up to 9 months. If you have ever seen a cat in heat, it is not so cute. I used to get phone calls from clients who thought their cat had either gotten into some toxin or gone crazy due to their behavior when in heat. They roll around on the floor and do this blood-curdling meowing, like they are possessed. They are, female hormones have taken control of Male cats. I don’t even know if you want to go there; not something most people would want in a pet. Many cities will not issue tags to unaltered pets. Many boarding facilities will not allow intact pets. Many organizations that deal with service pets will not allow intact pets. All of these and more must be considered.
So, what is a pet caretaker to do? Good question. I don’t think there is a correct answer. If we lived in a natural world without social consideration and accepted the laws of nature and survival of the fittest, we might just let it be natural. But, we do not live this way, so we have to consider everything when we make this decision. Some people have decided to have their dogs surgically altered so that they will not have puppies or kittens but will continue to produce the sex hormones. This is an option, but you still must consider the factors that I discussed above. My best advice is to give it careful consideration and if you decide to go natural, accept the conditions and do the best with it.