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Spaying and Neutering

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Firstly, I want to start out by saying that I am not going to tell you whether you should or should not neuter or spay your dogs. That will be your decision. Yes. Ultimately your decision. Not your vet's, not your daycare owner's, not your trainer's. However, I feel so many people aren't informed on all the varying facets of the topic of neutering/spaying and that's something I want to address.

I just had six intact dogs ranging from 15 weeks to 3.5 years in my house: a male Azawakh, two female Azawakh, a female Rhodesian Ridgeback. a male Newfoundland, and a female Irish Wolfhound. There was not one fight. Not one scuffle. No one got humped. No one marked. No accidental pregnancies. Everyone either got along or kept the peace. The vast majority of the dogs that I board or train are intact and I find I have no more issues than when I primarily worked with fixed dogs.

I also currently work at a dog daycare that allows intact males. And in a daycare setting, the intact males do become problematic from ages ranging from 4 months to a year or so. As their hormones change and their body develops into majority they can be prone to humping other dogs (sometimes to the point of obsession or shutting other dogs down) or picking fights with other dogs, often intact males. However, typically this is only a problem while their hormones surge. Once they settle to a reasonable level, the strong urges to hump and pick fights typically settle as well.

Why do I mention all of this? Because I have more experience with a wide array of intact dogs than most people (or even trainers) in the US. I have an intact male Service Dog. I have a mixed pack with a male and two female intact dogs. We run flyball, coursing, and racing with other intact dogs. Perhaps, having an intact dog isn't the end of the world.

Did you know that in many places in Europe, the majority of dogs are kept intact? Yet somehow the majority of Europe isn't famous for their out of hand stray dog populations (not anymore than parts of the US anyway) nor are they famous for their dog fights despite having a much higher percentage of intact dogs. In fact, everyone I've ever known that has visited Europe has remarked on how dogs are commonly brought everywhere and how well their dogs are behaved (but there reasons for that are the subject for an entirely different blog post).

Yet it has very much become common practice in the United States to remove whole organs of your dog as matter of course. While that sounds dramatic, perhaps it would serve us to remember that is exactly what spaying and neutering is. So let's look at some common conceptions about intact dogs versus spaying/neutering.

Intact dogs are more prone to behavioral issues including marking, roaming, aggression, dominance.

All misconceptions have an element or kernel of truth. Yes, intact males might hump. However, give them an alternative and set your boundaries and this can easily be averted.

Additionally, male dogs don't roam if you don't let them roam. I once had a client who just opened the back door when he left for work and let his intact Bouvier roam the neighborhood. I was aghast and we had an extensive talk. But if you are sensible, don't leave you intact male unconstrained on in an area they can escape (yes this can include fenced yards) while they are unattended, then roaming very quickly becomes a non-issue.

Aggression largely comes into play with intact male dogs. There are some dog breeds that are known to have same-sex aggression such as Dobermans, Akitas, and a number of large, working breeds. Knowing these propensities is important. But honestly, I've seen plenty of neutered male Dobermans have problems with same-sex aggression. Yes, neutering changes the dog's hormone composition, but it doesn't change genetic traits and it's certainly not a cure all or substitute for proper training, management, and behavior modification.

Dominance is an over used term. Full stop. Most people who claim a dog is dominant isn't reading the situation correctly at all. In fact, in my experience a dog is far more likely insecure or anxious than dominant (I'd argue this is frankly true of humans as well). I've also found no appreciable difference (anecdotally, but with a large sample size) in training intact dogs versus training neutered and spayed dogs.

Intact dogs have more health issues.

For a very long time, as the push to spay and neuter all pet dogs became more influential and common place, the belief was that spaying and neutering your dogs only carried with it health benefits: no risk of testicular or ovarian cancer, reduced risk of mammary cancer, complete prevention of pregnancy. What's not to like?

However, I remember when the first, now famous, study on the effects of early altering (before a year of age) in Golden Retrievers. The findings were in short: altering a Golden Retriever before a year of age increased their chances of hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament (CCL in the knee) tear, and two different types of cancer.

Following that study a study on Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers, a study on German Shepherds, a study on the correlation between sexual alteration and cognitive function in older dogs, and more have created a larger body of work all asserting that sexually altering your dog, particularly early (before growth plates have closed) creates a wide variety of health problems for the dogs down the line. I watched as the veterinary profession slowly began to shift to advising owners to wait until at least a year, ideally 18-24 months before altering their dogs and I'm pleased to see the shift.

Additionally, within the dog world (purebred dogs, sport dogs, working dogs, etc) it is well understood that when you cut off a dog's hormones by altering them before they go through puberty, you permanently alter their structure. Typically dogs that are altered before puberty/their first heat cycle are weedy/leggy, they lack depth and width of chest, often they will even lack width of body in general. Those are all traits that develop with an influx hormones.

This is Ash the smooth Saluki at seven months (he was neutered a bit over a month before that) on the left and at six years on the right. Note his proportions never truly changed. His chest never dropped, he never got proportionally longer (or wider though you can't tell that from the picture). He mostly filled out with weight and gained some muscle.

Next compare to Anubi who is a year, just shy of two years, and three years old (left to right) in these pictures. Ignore that he's actually stacking like a show dog. His proportions changed as he got older. He's now shorter bodied and longer legged (which is correct for the breed) than he was at a year old. His chest has dropped significantly (it actually should be above the level of his elbow, unlike Salukis where the chest should drop to elbow level (note Ash's doesn't)). He also carries substantially more muscle than he did at a year old. All of these slight differences, but differences nonetheless are because he is still intact.

More dramatic are my girls who both tend to go through huge spurts of physical maturity around their heat cycles. On the left Amalu is eight months, a few month before her first heat cycle. On the right she is just under a year, less than a week after finishing her first heat cycle. Not the huge change in muscle development. In the picture to the right, her chest has dropped, her topline has solidified, her neck has thickened, she's gained overall solidity.

With Amidi I expected a huge change after her first heat cycle but there was another big physical change around her second cycle as well. In the first picture she's eight months old (two months before she went into heat the first time). It's not just the picture and lighting that makes her look soft in that picture. Everything about her was soft and floppy. She carried little muscle and extra skin, the angle makes it hard to tell but her chest was very very high above her elbow, she had a soft topline, and she was almost barrel chested. In the second picture she is 13 months old and had come out of her first heat cycle less than a month beforehand. Note a substantial change in muscle, her entire chest shape changed from round and puppy-ish to less barrel shaped and lean. Her topline strengthened with the addition of muscle and her chest also widened. Though she was still toeing out (east-west) it became less dramatic. It was after her second head cycle that she changed most significantly though. The last picture she's just slightly shy of two years old and about two months after her second heat cycle. Note her chest has dropped more, her chest widened even more so she's not really east-west at all, she has even better muscle development, and in general looks like an adult. The biggest change however was that she grew 2.5" right before that heat cycle when she hadn't grown since she was 7 months. A very good example of her growth plates seeming to be closed when they were in fact not.

Here's a nice article from the Washington Post on the benefits and risks inherent with neutering or spaying your dog. And another from the Atlantic.

Having an intact dog means your dog will end up pregnant (or impregnating someone else's dog).

Like with intact dogs roaming the neighborhood this again all comes down to management. I have three intact dogs (presently). None of them roam. None of them have allowed to impregnate another dog or become pregnant. Honestly this is all common sense and very easy management on a day to day basis (it gets a bit trickier when my girls are in heat). I would argue that this can be a bit of a cop out, an unwillingness to expend the effort managing intact dogs. It is done successfully in other areas of the world. It could be done successfully in the United States (but again, dog culture has to change which is a topic to be explored at a later date).

You can't have an intact mixed pack without Oops litters.

Honestly, I don't typically reccommend an intact mixed (both males and females) household to the average pet owner. It is more work adequately separating your male from your females while they are in heat. However, there are some straightforward steps that can be taken to make it work successfully. 1. If you keep everyone under the same roof then always have a minimum of two degrees of separation (crate and baby gate, baby gate and door, two doors, etc). 2. Board your male. I've done both and found them easy enough to manage as long as I make a plan and stick to it.

Yes, breeders with intact mixed packs have had Oops litters. But a large number never have and it can be done extremely successfully.

Male dogs are out of control when there's a bitch in heat near.

Male dogs show near bitches in season All. The. Time. Anubi has to work out in public when bitches are in heat. It's just a matter of life. You need to train for distractions. You need to not excuse your dog's bad behavior without doing a thing to modify it.

Was I surprised that Anubi, who rarely even marks trees and bushes when we're outside marked in the house the first time Amidi went into heat? Absolutely, but management (belly bands, crating, separating) and redirection (holding a place behavior, recall, etc) made a big difference. There is a difference when a male dog is in working mode near a girl in season versus a housemate. At this point, I do choose to have Anubi stay with a friend while the girls are in heat, because he does tend to be whiny, restless, and go off his food. Is he out of control? Absolutely not. But it is more comfortable for everyone if he stays with someone else and that's an easy change to make (my friend and I watch each other's boy dogs when girls are in heat which makes for a convenient arrangement).

To be a responsible owner you have to spay or neuter.

You're welcome to call me irresponsible I guess. That's up to you. But I don't think removing your dog's organs inherently makes you a good owner.

Are there people who are going to struggle to manage an intact dog? Yes, absolutely and I'm not at all implying those people shouldn't have the joy of a dog. Do I think that dogs should be adopted from shelters still intact? No, definitely not. Do I think, for the health of their dogs, owners should delay until a dog is fully mature before altering? Yes, yes please. Do I understand that's not always possible for a wide variety of reason? Of course, each case is different.

I'm not saying no one should alter their dogs. I am, however, saying that it shouldn't be done without understanding and knowledge over what exactly you're are doing. It is still surgery. It is still removing an organ and I want dog owners to realize that. And if you are interested in a less invasive option that still leaves dogs some of their hormones but leaves them sterile, some vets will perform Ovary Sparing Spays on females and Vasectomies on boys and hopefully these will become more commonplace.

Honestly, I pass no judgement here, but please be informed before making the decision on if or when to alter your dog.

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