Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The unspoken truth about spaying and neutering our pets

By Christie Keith, Special to SF Gate

Why is it so hard to have a factual conversation about the medical risks
of spaying and neutering pets?

The health implications of sterilizing dogs and cats are complex and
highly individualized. Pet owners, animal advocates and veterinarians
should be able to talk about them openly and honestly.

But we can't. Why not? The societal benefits of mass spay/neuter -- the
prevention of unwanted puppies and kittens, and ending the killing of pets
in shelters -- are seen as so overwhelming that the slightest suggestion
of a medical downside to sterilization is met with an avalanche of

The backlash can be so severe, for example, that when I've reported
research about increased health risks in sterilized dogs or cats, I've
been accused of not caring about the lives of shelter pets, or of being
hopelessly naive about people's ability to analyze the risks and benefits
of medical procedures.

Promoting spay/neuter has evidently become so important that it trumps
everything else, including the truth.

Read the advice in dog and cat magazines or the Web sites of animal  wefare organizations, and you'll be assured that not only are there no
adverse effects of spaying and neutering, but opting for the surgery will
make your pets healthier and better behaved.

Conventional wisdom says that altered pets are less likely to soil in the
house, to roam and to fight. They won't get testicular, uterine or ovarian
cancer or infections, and they'll have a greatly reduced chance of getting
mammary cancer. It sounds so great it almost makes you want to rush right
out and get spayed or neutered yourself.

Some of those things are true. You can't get cancer or an infection in an
organ that you no longer possess, so it's accurate to say that your dog or
cat won't get ovarian, uterine or testicular cancer or infections. And
there is an increased incidence of mammary cancer in unspayed female dogs
and a pretty high rate of uterine infection as well.

But there are also notable health risks associated with having your dogs
and cats spayed or neutered.

These include an increased incidence of some cancers, including
osteosarcoma, a painful and usually fatal bone cancer, in neutered male

Neutered males also have a greater chance of getting prostate cancer and
transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder.

Spayed females have a greater incidence of urinary incontinence. They may
also have a higher risk of bladder infections.

Meanwhile, spayed female and neutered male dogs have a significantly
greater incidence of anterior cruciate ligament injuries than intact dogs.

Recent research by Purdue University suggests that female dogs (and,
interestingly, female humans) live longer if they keep their ovaries.

And yes, no matter what you've been told, study after study has shown that
spayed and neutered dogs and cats weigh more when fed the same amount of
calories as intact animals. The surgery won't "make" them fat, but by
changing how their metabolism functions, the amount of food they can eat
without gaining weight is reduced.

For most dogs and cats that's actually no big deal -- just feed them a
little less, exercise them a little more, and they'll be fine. But how do
you do that when you're having it beaten into your brain that spaying and
neutering does not, cannot, will not make your dog or cat fat or have any
other adverse effects?

This is where I have a problem. I'm not opposed to spaying and neutering.
Most of my dogs and all of my cats have been sterilized. I believe that
for most pets, the health benefits will outweigh the risks.

Furthermore, most people will choose to sterilize their family pets
because managing intact dogs and cats is often messy and inconvenient, and
our increasingly urbanized and over-scheduled lives only make it more of a

Most importantly, the benefit to society of preventing unwanted litters of
puppies and kittens is huge. Dogs and cats who are never born can't die in
a shelter or live homeless on the streets.

But is any of that a valid reason for what I can only call the deliberate
spreading of false and misleading information? Does it justify the anger
and opposition that meets me and anyone else who openly discusses the
medical risks to spaying and neutering?

Yes, I know there are millions of homeless pets in this country. And there
are people out there who will seize on any excuse not to alter their pets.
They're the ones who often let their animals, particularly cats, have
unwanted litters.

I also know that there's someone out there who's going to read this column
and say, "Hell, Martha, spaying and neutering will make our dog get
cancer. I read it on the Internet!"

But those aren't the majority. Most people are trying to do the best they
can for their pets and their families, and they simply need factual
information on which to base their health care decisions.

For their sakes, and those of their pets, we have to stop fearing the
truth and reacting angrily when we hear it.

If we can't have honest conversations about the health consequences of
spaying and neutering, people won't be on the alert for signs their
sterilized pet is gaining weight, because they'll have been told that,
"spaying and neutering won't make your pet fat."

They won't take precautions to protect their spayed or neutered pets from
avoidable risks such as cruciate ligament injuries.

They may not be aware that some risks of spaying and neutering can be
decreased by delaying the surgery until a dog or cat is a little older,
while others are breed-related, which can affect which breed of dog a
person adopts in the first place.

There's one final reason I firmly believe we have to stop shutting down
this conversation: Because it erodes trust. If you lie to people, they'll
stop believing what you tell them.

Veterinarians, shelter workers, dog trainers and pet sitters -- all have a
certain amount of credibility with the pet-owning public. Veterinarians,
in fact, have one of the highest levels of trust of any profession. We
shouldn't squander that in order to manipulate people into doing what we
think they should do -- or because we're afraid some idiot is going to use
it as an excuse not to spay or neuter his pets.

Let's face it, the guy who refuses to remove his dog's equipment because
he thinks it will make his own shrivel up and fall off is not being moved
by facts and a rational decision-making process.

Cheating caring dog and cat owners out of truthful medical information
because we're worried about what that guy is going to do not only doesn't
make any sense, it simply hurts the pets of good owners.

For update for 2011 see:

Copyright 2010 SF Gate


Lindsay said...

Hi! I found your blog by chance, in looking for Vizsla pups. We are hoping to add one to our family very soon and was wondering where your darlings came from!

BTW, your photos are great! Such cuties!

Rod Michaelson said...

Hello. Both Chloe and Bailey are from small family breeders here in the Bay Area. Both are from great Vizsla backgrounds with long AKC lineage. E-mail me directly and let me know more and I should be able to put you in touch with some good breeders. Thanks for visiting and I hope you take the time to scam the 150 posts. The earlier ones had a lot of basic Vizsla facts and even some videos.

Radar Red Dog said...

I am a firm believer that a dog's natural state (intact) is the most conducive to health and longevity (because it stands to reason that we've evolved to survive and Mother Nature wouldn't have produced something so faulty that long and healthy life depended upon human surgical intervention!). However in the ever popular world of spay and neuter we are being led to believe that certain body parts are superfluous and that their absence makes not one iota of difference to overall health. This study, www.gpmcf.org/respectovaries.html, for I think the very first time, highlights the fact that this is not right. It's really interesting! And the questions and comments towards the end, after the nuts and bolts of the study have been covered, ask very good questions.

Another excellent article that looks at the pros and cons of castration/spaying is Karyn Orzeszko's (fellow Vizslaphile from Australia with qualifications in this area) website "V-Source" which gives you everything you need to know:


PS I've never spayed or neutered any of my dogs...my last lab died, intact, at the ripe old age of 18!!

Cindy Mommsen said...

Good article and definitely a tough decision to make. I remember being out on the beach when Remo was 6 months old and some dog walker was yelling at me to get my dog fixed. Geez, he was only 6 months old and I told her to mind her own business...it's a free world.

Ruth Andre said...

Excellent article. Thank-you.

Anonymous said...

i had a vizsla pointer mix and he was never neutered