I changed my thoughts on spaying and neutering over the years. I used to advocate spaying and neutering dogs before they reached sexual maturity—between six and eight months—for mostly behavioral reasons. Not letting your dog’s hormones go wild does have some behavioral benefits—but at what cost? Newer studies made it clear to me that I was wrong. I changed my mind. We are allowed to do that when presented with better research data.
The State of Affairs
I work with many rescue dogs, and the annual dog euthanasia rate of about 670,000 dogs in the United States is naturally upsetting. Rescues, shelters, veterinarians, and animal welfare organizations advocate spaying and neutering. You can’t rescue a dog from a shelter intact. They are neutered or spayed upon adoption—even at eight weeks of age, which is reckless! Everyone pretty much advocates sterilization.
But here is the thing, the data is in, and ignoring facts and replacing them with—however well-intentioned activism and beliefs—doesn’t work for me and shouldn’t for anyone.
The Health Impacts of Spaying and Neutering
It is often advocated to sterilize dogs to protect them from cancer. However, it turns out the opposite is true. A study published at UC Davis in 2013, titled Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers found that sterilization of Golden Retrievers before six months of age increases their risk of joint diseases later in life by 400% to 500% percent! Similarly, for Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds (separate UC Davis study in 2015) by 300%. These are alarming numbers.
For female Golden Retrievers, spaying at any point after six months has even more serious consequences. The cancer risk increased by 300% to 400% percent. For female Labrador Retrievers, the cancer risk increased only slightly. Similar results were found in German Shepherds in a 2015 UC Davis study. Females also have a medium to high risk of urinary tract infections and incontinence.
And then there is the element of hormones being an important part of a dog’s immune system and sterilization deteriorating the dog’s health in the long run.
At this point, it is clear that the medical reasons not to spay and neuter are strong, even if the risk differences vary by breed. If the dog’s health is the only consideration, don’t do it. So, that’s the science part.
Countering the Health Impacts
But what about the other elements like curbing dog overpopulation, reducing shelter euthanasia, avoiding/reducing behavior problems, reactions of other dogs, not being able to go to the dog park, or possibly using daycare?
These elements are real, and when giving advice, I think it is important to strike a balance. To me, my dogs’ health is very important. I want them to live as long as possible and keep them away from the vet as much as possible. All my dogs are rescues and all, but one was fixed. My personal opinion is we can reduce a lot of the health risks from spaying and neutering by feeding an optimal diet (that means raw feeding), reducing vaccinations to the bare essentials (parvo, distemper every seven years, and rabies, unfortunately, by law every three years—biologically that would be seven years as well) and use natural tick and flea preventatives instead of the chemicals from the vet. I realize the last three points will make some people’s heads spin, but I can back those points up.
Given all this, my recommendation on this subject is the following:
If you have a puppy and are a responsible dog owner who is confident not to have mating accidents. If you are committed to training your dog well and don’t care about restrictions for dog parks, daycare, and alike, and if you don’t mind paying a slightly higher registration fee, don’t sterilize your dog. It will be healthier and live longer.
If any of these points are of concern, and you want to sterilize your dog, don’t do it before one year. Read the studies I referenced. Don’t do it sooner, and hand anyone who challenges you a copy of these studies if you care to. This is based on research. But, when you sterilize, invest more in fresh, healthy foods. Get a recipe for your breed and cook it yourself if you can’t bring yourself to raw feed but do consider raw feeding if possible—again, the data on that is in as well.
A Different Approach
Suppose you do decide to sterilize your dog. In that case, I recommend you consider an ovary-sparing spay (females) or a vasectomy (males) for your dog instead of the traditional full spay and neuter surgeries. These alternative procedures achieve sterilization without impacting the hormonal system and are healthier in the long run. Ask your veterinarian if they can do this, but many cannot perform these procedures as they didn’t learn them in veterinary school. You will need a board-certified veterinarian. You can check this website to find one in your area: Parsemus Foundation.
- Early Neutering Poses Health Risks for German Shepherd Dogs, Study Finds (UC Davis, 2016) (PDF)
- Neutering Dogs: Effects on Joint Disorders and Cancers in Golden Retrievers (UC Davis, 2013) (PDF)
- Long-Term Health Effects of Neutering Dogs: Comparison of Labrador Retrievers with Golden Retrievers (UC Davis, 2014) (PDF)