For most pets today, the most common recommendation is to spay and neuter at or before sexual maturity. It’s what most of us (veterinarians) advise by way of addressing the overwhelming overpopulation crisis pets suffer in this country. But some veterinary researchers are finding that this isn’t always best.
It’s true, the standard recommendations for six-month spays and neuters for dogs are starting to give way to new modes of thinking. With the advent of higher standards of care for individual pets, the ideal age for sterilization may well vary based on any individual dog’s specific needs.
At this point, let me be clear: Cats should all be spayed and neutered at six months––maybe even younger in the context of a population control setting (like a shelter, rescue or trap-neuter-release program).
If cats’ gonads are not removed, males will continue to fight and spray (unsafe outdoors and untenable indoors, respectively) and females’ heat cycles will continue to recur almost continuously. Outdoor females would then be subject to sexually transmitted diseases (like FIV) and would make for extra-noisy pets exhibiting sexually solicitive behaviors. Nice, right?
But for dogs? As I intimated before, the recommendation for ideal timing of spays and neuters dogs are under fire by several studies that have unearthed some very surprising details:
Dogs neutered at six months may have an increased incidence of cruciate ligament disease. This serious (and expensive) orthopedic condition means lifetime lameness without surgery and significant arthritis, even with surgery.
Dogs may have a higher incidence of osteosarcoma ( a deadly bone cancer) when spayed and neutered at the recommended time over those spayed and neutered later.
Female dogs are more likely to suffer hormone-related urinary incontinence after being spayed. The timing of the spay seems to play a role (dogs spayed at six months may be even more likely to suffer it than those spayed later).
Neutered dogs have a higher incidence of prostatic cancer than unneutered dogs. Who the heck knows why?...but this we know.
Most of these points are under review, which is why we veterinarians have not yet backed off on our standard recommendations. It’s also (and perhaps foremost) because population control is so critical––not to mention that we also know spays and neuters prevent many major diseases that can kill, too: behavioral conditions, mammary tumors, prostatic enlargement (not cancer), perineal hernias in males, testicular tumors and pyometras in females, among others.
So what’s a pet owner to do?
Overall, it seems pretty clear that spays and neuters in dogs will continue to prevail at the standard, pre- or peri-pubertal timeframe. Population control is still too big an issue to ignore. But for owners with dogs whose specific individual health issues may lead them to question the timing, waiting to sterilize may be just the ticket.
Stay tuned for a twist in this plot in tomorrow’s post.
Dr. Patty Khuly