Revisiting the spay/neuter mantra in practice and in legislation
The party line’s the same from almost every vet in the country: spay and neuter your pets. Though there’s some variety in the preferred age at which these procedures are performed, six months is still the generally accepted “ideal” on this front.
Nonetheless, new research is chipping away at our rock solid beliefs on the perfect time for spaying and neutering—especially in dogs. Most recently, a December 1st paper in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (sorry, you have to buy it to read it) infers that delaying spaying may confers a benefit to the individual dog with respect to the malignancy of mammary tumors.
Even in light of other recent findings, this factor does not yet present sufficient evidence to shift our current spay standards. But as evidence accumulates, the optimal time for dog spay may no longer be the six-month mantra we all hold so dear.
Other scholarly papers (one retrospective study from this past March, in particular) point to the lack of evidence in favor of neutering male dogs as a means of preventing disease. Sure, behavior and population control figure prominently in our decision making, but no longer can we blithely rely on past standards in favor of blanket neutering of dogs.
Some vets are even getting comfortable advocating a wait-and-see approach for specific pets when it comes to altering their sex hormone flow. But most still find themselves making near-blanket statements on spaying and neutering—and will continue to do so until research definitively guides the profession to alter its current guidelines.
But that doesn’t mean an owner doesn’t deserve to hear a thoughtful pros and cons argument. After all, the decision is ultimately theirs. And it doesn’t mean that owners with an interest in keeping a pet intact (for whatever reason) shouldn’t receive support for their decision.
Legislation proposed in California earlier this year brought this issue to the fore in full force when mandatory spay and neuter almost became the law of the land. Individual civil liberties prevailed over population control issues, but it seemed pretty darn close for a while there.
The irony for this vet is obvious: As science continues to research what’s best for the individual, finding that earlier may not be better for all pets, our increasingly progressive shelter-medical minds are advocating more widespread adoption of spays and neuters through legislation.
This paradox has led to a polarization within the pet community, exemplified by the white-hot blaze of the California debate and the still-smoldering embers it left behind after the legislation failed to pass.
Pitting the red state libertarians against the blue state regulators may sound like a pithy comparison, but the debate is increasingly making inroads along these lines. Those with a vested interest in their individual pets as children and family members suddenly find themselves at odds with the welfarists who take a broader, more utilitarian view on pets and animal suffering in general.
Asking the vets to chime in is equally fraught with danger, as the California Veterinary Medical Association found out when they backed their state’s spay/neuter bill: “How can we not support a bill that may well be the single most effective means of easing the suffering caused by overpopulation of unwanted pets?” they asked. And the answer was a vociferous, “Because it’s the wrong bill, stupid.” (The CVMA later went neutral on the subject.)
It's now clear that if you want to stem pet overpopulation you need to secure the buy-in of all invested parties. And that won't be easy to do when society continues towards greater disparity between the have and have nots in the pet world.
Ultimately, the vet profession will have to yield in two disparate directions simultaneously: One for the purposes of individual animal optimization and another to treat the pet overpopulation epidemic. Forcing one to yield to the detriment of the other, as the California bill did, will only serve to further polarize the issue and halt progress altogether.
So here’s where I ask you for your solution to the conundrum. Do you favor legislation at all? If you were to design a bill, how would you craft it?
btw: Yep, that's me with a pretty canine uterus!