Beneath the fluffy backsides of Valerie Robson’s two male golden retrievers isan unusual sight: intact anatomy. Neither dog is neutered.
This presents occasional challenges. Astro and Rumble are barred from mostdoggy day-cares, and many boarding kennels won’t take them. But althoughRobson has no intention of breeding the dogs, she says she has no regrets.Research that suggests neutering could be linked to cancers and jointdisorders persuaded her that skipping sterilization is best for her pets.
“Sometimes people notice,” said Robson, a county government employee inConifer, Colorado. “I just explain that we chose to do this for health andwellness, and he’s a good boy, and it’s never been an issue.”
“Intact” dogs were the norm for a long time, and a litter of puppies was oftenpart of the deal. But in the 1970s, when overflowing animal shelters wereeuthanizing millions of homeless dogs annually, spaying and neutering puppies— procedures that involve removing ovaries or testicles — became the dogma inthe United States.
It still is: Surveys indicate a large majority of pet dogs are fixed, and 31states and D.C. require that pets adopted from shelters or rescues besterilized. The surgeries simplify pet ownership by preventing females fromgoing into heat and, some believe, by improving dog behavior, though expertssay that is not clearly supported by research.
But the common wisdom has been complicated in recent years amid wideningevidence connecting spaying and neutering to health problems in dogs. Thefindings are stronger for certain breeds and large dogs, and age of neuteringplays a role. But the research is causing some owners and veterinarians toquestion the long-held tenet that fixing puppies — or fixing, period — is anecessary part of responsible pet ownership.
“We owe it to our dogs to have a much larger conversation about spay andneuter,” said Missy Simpson, a veterinary epidemiologist with the MorrisAnimal Foundation, a charity that funds animal health research. “It’s nuanced,and there isn’t a great one-size-fits-all recommendation for every dog.”
Simpson was lead author of a recent paper on about 2,800 golden retrieversenrolled in a lifetime study, which found that those spayed or neutered weremore likely to be overweight or obese. The study also found that dogs fixedbefore they were 6 months old had much higher rates of orthopedic injuries,and that keeping dogs lean didn’t prevent those injuries.
The research has sparked controversy in the veterinary and shelter worlds, inpart because widespread spaying and neutering are credited with helping fuel adramatic decline in euthanasia. The American Society for the Prevention ofCruelty to Animals, which says about 670,000 dogs are killed in shelters eachyear, supports “early-age” sterilization.
“The question on a bigger level is to what extent are we sacrificing some bitsof welfare for an individual animal for the welfare of the species?” saidStephen Zawistowski, science adviser emeritus at the ASPCA. “The fact that wecan actually have the conversation is a sign that we’ve made such enormousprogress.”
Spaying and neutering do have some clear health benefits for dogs. Testicularand ovarian cancers are moot, and there’s evidence that spaying lowers therisk of mammary cancer and uterine infections. Fixed dogs also live longer onaverage.
But researchers say the reproductive hormones controlled by the removed sexorgans have important systemic roles. They influence muscle mass and tendonand ligament strength, and they tell bones when to stop growing. “Withoutthose hormones, your body might just not be as robust,” Simpson said.
The recent debate over spaying and neutering flared in 2013, when a study fromthe University of California at Davis reported higher rates of hip dysplasia,cranial cruciate ligament tears and certain cancers among desexed goldenretrievers — especially those neutered early, defined as before 1 year of age.The paper caused “quite a bit of controversy” among critics who “accused usof, you know, driving overpopulation of animals,” said author Benjamin Hart, aprofessor emeritus at Davis’s vet school.
Hart and his colleagues later found higher rates of joint disorders, but notcancers, among Labrador retrievers and German shepherds that were neuteredearly. Their latest study, which is not yet published, examined 35 breeds andmutts and detected no associations between desexing and cancers or jointdisorders in small dogs. But it found much greater rates of joint disordersamong nearly all large dogs sterilized early, Hart said.
“Dogs vary tremendously in their physiology, their anatomy. It’s notsurprising they would vary in these other things,” Hart said. “It iscomplicated. That’s why people need to talk it over with their veterinarian.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association agrees, saying decisions should bemade on a case-by-case basis.
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