Prepubertal castration: Sounds creepy, but it's necessary

Patty Khuly, DVM
January 08, 2008
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One of the biggest stumbling blocks in the battle against pet overpopulation is the whole issue of spaying and neutering cats and dogs before they get out of shelter environments. It’s both morally unconscionable to me as a vet to let these pets get out of sight before ensuring their reproductive dead-endedness and understandably a mite troubling to have them assume the potential health risks that may attend such early spays and neuters.

Knowing that most humans require spays and neuters pre-packaged with their adoptions (because they might otherwise mess up in their humanness and unwittingly allow an animal to procreate) makes this conundrum all the worse. Though I hate to assume people will be people just as pets will be pets, there seems no better way to deal with the problems unspayed, unneutered pets present than to eliminate the problem outright—at its source.

Prepubertal castration (the medical term for spays and neuters done before the typical six-month puberty window opens wide and allows canine and feline behavior to have its way with the population controls we might otherwise wish up on them) is now widely advocated by the veterinary shelter medicine community as one of our tools for limiting reproduction among shelter graduates.

And we’re not talking three or four months old, now. These are babies as young as six to eight weeks, even. Thankfully, these guys do very well when vets are trained in the specialized techniques designed to effectively and economically (more so than for older pets) remove the offending gonads.

Nonetheless, the practice is not without its controversy. Seasoned vets schooled in the standard six-month time-frame have major reservations about the safety of such a procedure while the public screws up its face and says, “That kind of early surgery seems a bit over-the-top, now, doesn’t it? I mean, they’re just tiny babies!”

Some of my clients are justifiably angered over the procedure as well. Last week one of my clients brought in her two year-old shelter rescue whom she adopted as a 10 weeker. They refused to grant her the choice of having her vet do the procedure at six months in a higher quality facility with more careful anesthetic monitoring. No way. Now her dog has urinary incontinence and she wonders whether the age of the procedure contributed. I wonder, too.

Yet vet protectionism of a bread-and-butter procedure may well factor into the safety concerns some vets complain about. (Yes it’s true that we do fewer spays and neuters now that this practice is more widespread, but I think naysayers on this front are an increasingly small percentage of vets.)

And where the public is concerned, it’s also true that vouchers for future spays and neuters just don’t seem to suffice. It’s a reality that significant percentage of well-intentioned but less responsible adopters will always slip through the cracks.

Moreover, given the limited resources of shelters, the lower cost of these early spays and neuters seems to justify this timing, even if a higher percentage of problems could theoretically result in later years (urinary incontinence in female dogs, as in my previous example).

Overall, conserving resources so more pets can be spayed, neutered and sheltered takes precedence over the relatively low risk and low-ish malignancy of potential health concerns surrounding prepubertal castration.

So what’s the controversy all about?, I have to ask. On balance, it seems a no-brainer...for a shelter. What’s your take?