The spay neuter debate is nothing new in the blogosphere, but it hasn’t reached the boiling point like other controversial topics. But a study released in 2013 stoked these debate flames somewhat. This study released in 2013 demonstrated a correlation between spay neuter and certain medical conditions in golden retrievers. I have included a link to the article for those who are interested in reading . “Golden Retriever Spay Neuter Study” But a summary of the study is that they followed a group of golden retrievers and monitored the occurrence of certain diseases between those that were altered and those that were not. What they found is that there was increase in certain cancers and other medical conditions in these dogs compared to dogs that were not neutered. So what does this information mean ? Does having your pet spayed or neutered guarantee an illness? What do the statistics mean? I plan to address these questions and share my perspective on this issue.
Promotion of spay/neuters
Spay and neuter surgeries have long been promoted by veterinarians, rescue workers, and animal health advocates alike. The reasons behind touting the surgeries include reducing overpopulation from unwanted pregnancies, increased health benefits, and eliminating or greatly reducing cancers such as mammary cancer, and testicular cancer. Now with this study and previous studies that demonstrated an increase in incidence of certain health conditions, does that change the narrative? Well, it depends on who you talk to. It all comes down to experience. Rescue and animal shelter workers who have witnessed first hand the problems of pet overpopulation are not likely to change their stance on spay/neutering. Veterinarians who have seen numerous cases of medical problems related to unaltered pets are likely to feel that the benefits of spay/neutering far outweigh the potential costs despite the study result. See 4 Medical Conditions You Need to Worry About in Your Unspayed Female. How about pet owners who pets have suffered from various medical conditions mentioned in this study? They may very well have a different perspective based on the information this and previous studies have provided.
Summary of data
This is a summary of the golden retriever study. If you want further details I included the link. “Golden Retriever Spay Neuter Study” This study looked at the veterinary records of approximately 760 golden retriever between the ages of 1-8 years. These groups of dogs included neutered males/females and intact male/females. There was also a comparison between groups neutered later in life vs earlier (less than one year old). The specific disease incidences looked at were hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament rupture, mast cell tumor, hemangiosarcoma, and lymphoma. Overall the conclusive data from this study indicated that the golden retrievers in the altered group had a higher incidence of the mentioned diseases, vs the unaltered group. It also demonstrated that those dogs who were spayed or neutered later in life had less incidence of disease than those who were altered earlier. This is all very compelling information, but to examine this data objectively, one has to look at what is missing from the results and what else the data indicates.
So the overall theme of this study shows that having a pet spayed or neutered increases the chances of certain orthopedic issues and cancers. But is that entirely true? Let’s discuss this data further.
What the data does not say
What is missing is the incidence of diseases that are of concern in intact males and females. In females some examples include pyometra or infection of uterus, and mammary tumors. In males there is prostate cancer, testicular cancer, and prostate infections. Also, it would be nice if additional data included comparison studies between other breeds or mixed breed dogs.
Additional information that the data provides
If you have read the article you see that the authors provided bar graphs summarizing the data. One thing that was noteworthy was the incidence of disease occurrence in the mentioned groups whether it was an altered or intact dog was never higher than %10. Also, both altered and unaltered dogs experienced the mentioned medical conditions except for cranial cruciate ligament tears. Overall %90 of dogs in a specific group experienced none of the medical conditions mentioned. This means most of these dogs whether they are spayed or neutered were not subject to any of these ailments. Statistically that is a good thing but subjectively statistics may not mean much because there is still an increased incidence of disease overall in altered animals. So feelings on this data may come down to experience. Experience of pet owners who have dealt with any of these medical conditions vs owners who have not. Also veterinarians who have had experiences with these issues vs issues related to unaltered animals.
My perspective based on my experience
Outside of being a veterinarian, my first experience with animals has been working as a veterinary technician at a no-kill shelter. At this no kill shelter we faced the challenges of overpopulation due to unwanted puppies and kittens being born. Many of the puppy and kittens that were adopted out were coming back to the clinic pregnant despite a mandatory spay neuter clause on the adoption contract. The way the shelter addressed it was to implement an early spay neuter program which resulted in kittens and puppies being spayed and neutered prior to being adopted. Though controversial at the time it was implemented, it resulted in less drop offs of kittens and puppies. There was also a significant decrease of a return of pregnant animals to the shelter. As a benefit, it allowed the organization to rescue more animals because overpopulation was less of an issue.
My veterinary experience not only involves medical conditions related to unaltered pets, it also involves owner behavior regarding their unaltered pets. Based on my experience, I have seen more issues with unaltered females then males. But I have seen males with their share of problems. With females the most common medical issues I have encountered are mammary tumors, and an infected uterus otherwise known as pyometra. Pyometra can be expensive to treat since surgery is the most effective treatment. Also, if it is diagnosed late it is often fatal. Having a pet spayed guarantees that this is not an issue. My experience with mammary tumors have been with mostly older intact females, typically older than 8 years of age. The problem with these tumors is that the recommended treatment is not just to remove the tumor itself, it also involves performing a spay at the same time. This usually involves extended time under anesthesia therefore more risks for problems especially since these patients are often older. Often owners wait until the mammary tumor is very large or get infected before having their pet seen. This often results in a very difficult and taxing surgery for both the surgeon and the pet.
As I mentioned before, I don’t see too many issues with intact males compared to female. But the problems I have seen have been prostate issues in male dogs such as cysts and infections. Also, I have occasionally seen tumors associated with the testicles though it is not too common. Usually the male dogs with severe prostate infections require urgent castration for complete treatment.
With regard to client behavior, I have seen many clients who are totally unprepared for unexpected pregnancies in their pets. This involves the expense and the amount of care required to care for the pregnant female and her offspring. This unpreparedness leads to unvaccinated puppies who have related illnesses often leading to death. Also, pregnant females have less than optimum care resulting in complications during and after their pregnancy.
My thoughts about spaying and neutering
Even with the results of the data, with my personal clinical experience, I still see more benefits than costs with spaying/neutering. I have seen many breeds of dogs experience pyometra and mammary tumors. I also have seen owners elect to euthanize because they couldn’t afford to treat these medical conditions. Those who treat have to deal with the anxiety of whether their dog can make it through surgery because majority of these dogs are older. I also have seen issues with clients whose pets have puppies which they cannot afford, or pregnant dogs that clients do not understand how to deal with. As a result, they end up suffering especially if they have any problems giving birth.
My personal experience with the medical conditions mentioned in the golden retriever study also have contributed to these thoughts as well. Regarding hip dysplasia, this is a medical condition I have seen commonly in older large breed animals. I have seen other factors play a role in an increased incidence of the disease. Factors such as obesity, genetics, breed predilection and previous injuries also contribute greatly to the disease. Regarding cranial cruciate ligament rupture, I see this disease commonly in both altered and unaltered pets. In these cases, dogs who are extremely active are the ones who are most prone to this condition. Hemangiosarcoma, though a devastating cancer, seems to have a strong breed predilection in Golden retrievers based on my experience. I rarely see this cancer in smaller or medium breeds, therefore it seems that the breed is a very strong factor in increasing incidence in dogs as well.
What should you as an owner do?
Obviously as a pet owner your experiences may shape how you feel about this study. If you are an owner that had the unfortunate experience of cancer in your pet, you may be leery of having your next pet altered. On an alternative note ,if you experienced a pet with pyometra, testicular cancer, mammary cancer, or problems with a pregnancy, you still may be a staunch advocate for spaying and neutering. Whatever side you end up on, you have to remember that there are many factors that affect a pets health. How you approach your pets health should be focused on your pets wellness. This means a well balanced diet, regular veterinary visits especially when they get older, and keeping them up to date with vaccines when applicable. Keep in mind that your dogs exposure to potential carcinogens such as cigarette smoke, and certain chemicals can also play a role in certain cancers. So minimizing exposure to these will help as well.
One conclusion that most can agree one is that altering a pet is not a benign procedure. Outside of the risk from the surgeries themselves, there is an obvious correlation to an increase incidence with certain diseases based on this study and others. The disagreement may lie in whether these increases are significant enough to change how we approach or promote spays and neuters. While every one has a right to an opinion on this subject. Clinical and other relevant experience has a huge role in this debate. Based on this experience, I believe that certain breeds are more prone to the specific medical conditions mentioned in the study. The question that remains is how much other factors play a role. It would be wrong to apply the results of this study to all dogs inclusively. Pet owners of these breeds concerned with the results of the study may consider altering these pets at a later age. But those who chose not to alter their pets at all, have to be prepared for the possibility of health problems associated with intact pets. For some pet owners it may be worth the risk.