Spay/neuter: As close to the real story as I can get it.

As I posted yesterday, the most important thing you can read about spay/neuter is the CHF report here.

I’m very happy to go through it piece by piece if anyone wants me to, but since I don’t want to give the impression that it’s somehow my genius and not Dr. Root-Kustritz’ own, I’m going to summarize in this post. I really do think the report is absolutely key for all breeders to read and understand. 

The background to the question of spay/neuter is important to take into account. It’s important because talking about spay or neuter is like stepping into a minefield, and you need to understand why.

It’s just plain fact that people will work, with their eyes shut and shoulder bent to the wheel, indefatigably, to shut down what they think is the ultimate evil. All else must bend to avoid the Grand Emergency. 

In this country, when it comes to dog and cat ownership, the Grand Emergency is seen to be dogs (and, to a lesser extent, cats) dying without homes. I can go on for forty or fifty pages about why that is, why we don’t worry about, say, cows dying without homes, but making that very long story short, our ultimate evil is dying, homeless dogs. 

There is a broad perception that the reason dogs are dying without homes is because there are too many dogs, that our country’s supply of dogs has exceeded its carrying capacity. This is a blatantly false assumption, a total lie, but it is HUGE in this country.

So the solution, it is widely believed, to the Grand Emergency is to practice universal removal of reproductive organs. 

This is VERY VERY interesting, from the point of view of human behavior. Think about it. There are a whole bunch of ways to keep animals from reproducing randomly, like fences and leashes and expectations for behavior and taxation and incentives and fines and tariffs and breed wardens and peer pressure, just to name a few, that are not the same as removing reproductive organs. Some of those solutions are unwise, for sure, but they exist. So I think we should not ignore how odd this is, the absolute conviction that the only way to control breeding is by castration and the categorical rejection of any suggestion that people should (or even could!) impose safeguards while keeping a dog intact. 

As an aside, this attitude is very much one of this country, not others. My brother-in-law comes from Italy; there virtually no dogs are sterilized and, except in the very poor areas where nobody controls much of anything, there are few if any unwanted puppies. He’s constantly appalled by the fact that every canine child has his testicles cut off practically as soon as he stops nursing. It’s not Italian machismo (as he will be quick to point out, he’s from Venice, where the men are sensitive and perfect, not from barbaric Southern Italy) – it’s more like we’d react if we heard that a country was cutting down all its trees to avoid forest fires. He sees it as a nonsensical overreaction to a simple problem. 

Be that as it may, in this country the Grand Emergency is too many dogs, and the Sole Solution is to have every dog’s reproductive organs removed. 

This truth (we have too many dogs, so every single dog should be sterilized) is pretty much beaten into every dog owner who opens a book, a webpage, watches TV, or listens to any dog “expert.” Sterilization is equated to education, so of course the more educated you are the more you believe in it, so a non-show dog who still owns his testicles is perceived to be trailer park trash or an “irresponsible” and uneducated owner. 

You know you do it. You KNOW you do. If you’re walking down the street and you see someone walking a Shepherd/Pit mix and Fido’s got his jewels swinging in the breeze, don’t you immediately assume that the owner is some form of cretin? Either someone dangerously addicted to testosterone (“maybe that’s a fighting dog!”), someone who doesn’t take care of his dog, or someone who is so dumb that they haven’t cracked a dog book in the last twenty years.

The expectation for castration or spay is so universal that many vets almost NEVER deal with intact dogs. Some are even afraid of them. MANY trainers are afraid of them – testicles and ovaries are like grenades, ready at any moment to explode, and every single behavior problem will be blamed on them. If you bring a dog in to the majority of vets for sneezing, somehow by the end of the visit you’ll feel that it must be the fault of your dog’s sperm production. Bring a bitch in to the trainer for barking at the window and you’ll be advised to cut out her uterus before you try anything else – the assumption being, somehow, that owning a uterus makes a dog dislike the mail carrier.

So let’s make a list on the blackboard. Intact dogs are behaviorally bad, risky. Intact dogs are owned by stupid people. Intact dogs are in immediate danger of exploding with homeless dogs. Intact dogs are low-class. In short, owning reproductive organs becomes a FAULT. Castration is the NORM. How many times have you heard a trainer say something like “I think you should neuter him – all that testosterone isn’t helping anything.” Those are the words you use when something is abnormal, not normal. There’s no recognition of the fact that what’s in that dog is not “all that testosterone,” it’s his NORMAL BODY. But no, we’ve so imbibed this attitude that testicles are the weird things, and uteruses are bad.

So if castration is the norm, then the quicker we can make a dog normal the better, right? So a huge amount of research has been put into exactly how early and how quickly we can spay or neuter dogs or puppies. And when concerns about that practice were raised, there were answering studies that said no, early spay/neuter is fine and everyone said “Yay! Spay them at six weeks, at four weeks, let’s see if we can get them neutered as ZYGOTES! How great would that be!”

There has been very little, for years and years, by way of a thorough investigation of the entire life of intact dogs versus sterilized dogs. The “early spay/neuter is fine” studies were based on immediate complication rates (and showed that, yes, if the baby animal can tolerate surgery it can tolerate being sterilized), on very specific things about the urinary tract (does early spay/neuter wreck the peepee? No, it doesn’t), and on some limited questions up to a few years after the surgery. They did not look at the entire life of the dog and they typically did not look at areas of the dog’s body that are not physically connected to the genitals. There was very little criticism of the practice because, after all, we MUST get people to sterilize their dogs. It’s an Emergency!

The very first time I was aware of rumblings in the other direction, and this is years ago, actually had nothing to do with dogs. A horse trainer wrote an article (that I have since lost) that said, basically, “You know, people have been riding and training horses for tens of thousands of years, and for the majority of that time they rode stallions. All the greatest methods and traditions of horsemanship are based on people riding stallions. It used to be that riding stallions was a matter of course, and it was expected that stallions could be ridden beside each other and work together and kids rode them and they went into war side by side, and yet all those people and all those horses survived, and there was no apocalypse. Maybe we shouldn’t be cutting the balls off all our horses all the time. Maybe, just maybe, we kind of suck at dealing with horses and that’s why we can’t have stallions anymore.” 

She was promptly covered with metaphorically hurled manure, of course. But that article stuck with me. And since that time I’ve seen other little indications that maybe people are beginning to question the urgency of immediate and universal spay/neuter. The working breeders were beginning to say “I want to keep him intact so he’ll work better” or “My intact bitches hunt better,” although very quietly, and they would immediately get guilty looking and talk about how OF COURSE they always made their puppy owners spay or neuter as soon as possible. 

Then Chris Zink published the article that I am sure all of you saw, and it became a tiny bit more acceptable to talk about keeping our dogs intact at least a little longer. 

For those of us in the big working breeds, the next crisis event was the widespread recognition of the implications of this study (the study was published in 2002 but the breeding world was buzzing about it a good four or five years later), which linked spay/neuter to bone cancers, with the greatest danger being sterilizations when the dog was still a puppy (under one year). I don’t know a single Dane breeder who has not lost a dog or seen a friend lose a dog to bone cancer. This study crushed us. 

And now we come up to the 2007 AKC CHF conference, which I would have given my eyeteeth to be at, where apparently an entire group of veterinarians collectively grew a giant brass pair and said a whole bunch of unpopular things. Schultz got up and said that the way we vaccinate is insane and we’ve got to stop doing it before we kill our dogs. A PURINA vet (gasp!) stood up and said that feeding a low-fat, high-grain diet is bad for dogs and we should switch to high-protein, high-fat, low-carb diets. Muir threw decades of veterinary conventional wisdom down the stairs by saying that ACL tears are caused by the dog having unhealthy joints, not the other way around (most vets were convinced that the arthritis and inflammation they were seeing in the joints was because the ACL had torn, when in fact it’s the other way around). And, hoorah, Dr. Root-Kustritz said that spay/neuter wasn’t the field of roses that we had been telling ourselves it was.

So all of that is a very long prologue to this particular paper, which is the formal release of the information Dr. Root-Kustritz gave at the conference.

To summarize:

Male dogs are not helped by neuter; they are hurt. Neutering prevents some mild and uncommon diseases and increases some very icky and deadly diseases. It also makes ligament tears more common and it makes dogs taller and thinner (the good doctor says this effect is “statistically significant but not overtly obvious,” which means she has not spent enough time with show breeders–I think most of us can spot early spayed/neutered dogs from across a football field, with their taller/thinner/weedier “gelding” look).

Female dogs share the same risks of tears and growth, but spay still wins out over don’t-spay because of two factors: pyometra (which I went over last week) and mammary tumors.

Mammary tumors are where the age of spaying comes in. As soon as the uterus is gone, pyometra isn’t a possibility, so spaying a little later in life (under the age of, and I’m just spitballing here based on when my friends have seen their earliest pyos, three or so) is fine in terms of preventing pyo. 

Mammary tumors, on the other hand, are extremely hormone-dependent. To understand this you need to realize that one of the things the body hates the most is cells beginning to change but not completing their cycles. Cells that get stuck mid-cycle are MUCH more likely to become cancerous. When a bitch goes through a season, her mammary glands begin to develop and change and get ready to lactate; the end of the cycle is a finished lactation and the natural drying-off process. If she’s not pregnant, the mammary glands arrest without going through the full lactation. Even bitches who have a really obvious false pregnancy with milk don’t finish the cycle; there is a quicker arrest to the milk production than would be the case if she was really nursing. 

So there will be a certain number of cells in that bitch’s mammary glands that are very unhappy and become cancerous; her own immune system will probably handle it. But then the next cycle comes along, and one more time she starts developing mammary tissue and one more time it stops mid-cycle. And so on. So with each heat cycle the chance of mammary cancer gets higher.

Because there is some chance of getting mammary cancer even after one heat cycle, the recommendation becomes to spay before the heat cycle.


I went looking for more in-depth information on canine mammary cancer so I would know how to interpret these recommendations. I found that there wasn’t really a ton of information that established exactly how much risk a single heat cycle gave to the bitch. The figure of 8% is used a TON in these studies, but all of them are borrowing that figure from a single study. So I am absolutely willing to say that even a single heat cycle raises the risk of mammary tumors to some extent, but I don’t think we have the volume of studies we’d need to really establish exactly how risky a single cycle is.


Mammary tumors are old-age tumors, typically showing up (if they’re going to show up) at nine or ten years old. They are problematic only if they are ignored. About half of them are benign. The other half are true cancers, according to the studies. Personally, I am not sure exactly how true that is, since in order to be diagnosed they have to be biopsied and a lot of vets will say “Oh, yeah, that’s just a little mammary tumor; don’t worry about it and we’ll just watch it”–in other words, the tumors that are showing up to be biopsied are ones that are looking bad enough that a vet was concerned. Based on knowing a heck of a lot of intact bitches with little mammary lumps, I’ve never seen a rate even close to 50%. But anyway, let’s respect the figures and say 50%. A proportion of that 50% will metastasize to the lymph nodes near the mammary glands. However, they give you lots of warning before doing so. For example, one study said that the chance of the bitch surviving a year after treatment was low if the tumor had already broken through the skin and was causing edema in the legs because the lymph flow was so blocked. Any involved owner would notice and treat a bitch LONG before that. 

The studies I found said that the cure rate for mammary tumors if they are removed before the tumors are two inches in diameter is close to 100%. 


I don’t think you have to fear mammary tumors as long as you are regularly checking your bitch. And you don’t have to CHECK her; if you’re rubbing her tummy at least every couple of months (and around here we do it every couple of hours), you’d be fine. If you see a lump, ask your vet. Watch it. If it grows, take it out. 


I think the safest compromise we can make with bitches is to spay after the first heat cycle and rub their bellies every few months. The growth plates will have come a lot closer to maturing, you’ll have fewer injuries, fewer bone cancers, less incontinence, no danger of pyometra, and the risk of genuinely dangerous mammary tumors is very low as long as you pay minimal attention to her. 

In males, we need to realize that from a lifetime-health standpoint, we shouldn’t be neutering. 

In males we’ll need to evaluate the risks associated with neutering against the ability of the owner to make good decisions. I prefer not to assume that my puppy owners are dolts, so I don’t think that they should be told that they somehow can’t handle an intact male or that intact males don’t make good pets or anything like that. I think they should be told look, it’s very simple. Your responsibility here is to keep this dog from breeding. It’s not rocket science; we breeders do it all the time. If you are not willing to put forth that effort or leash and control the dog, neuter the dog. 

I also think we need to realize another consequence of neutering: The fear of the intact dog. I know I’m heartily sick of it, and I think it bodes very ill for dog ownership in this country that we think testosterone is a disease. The question is: How do we change that?


9 thoughts on “Spay/neuter: As close to the real story as I can get it.

  1. In my part of the world, the testerone that is problematic is that of the owner. We need an ordinance that prevents stupid people from owning dogs — I’ll bet that one doesn’t get far in City Council!

  2. i think you make some great points- and I am glad that you’ve wrote about this now as i am struggling to decide what to do with Pixel. I did purchase her on a spay/neuter contract and she will be spayed but with her recent health I will be waiting another month or so. She still has not come into season though- and I am expecting her to soon. So we’ll see.

    I agree that it would be best not to be shoving- “you MUST spay/neuter or your dog is going to die, or eat someone, or be a horrible pet” down pet owners throats- BUT. Joe Blow dog owner is not the responsible pet owner that is going to have the brains to keep their in season dog at home, and keep their intact male from mounting their children. Joe Blow pet owner isn’t going to know how to prevent accidents from happening, and then how to take proper care in screening proper homes for said accidents. And the cycle continues.

    I live in a small city- and volunteered with dog rescue for 6 years. In my small city the shelter is full, and the rescue is kept busy. Craigslist, Kijiji, and local papers are FULL of ads for people looking to get rid of puppies and dogs. Part of doing rescue is educating pet owners- but there are a lot of stupid people out there, and if the only way we can convince them to spay/neuter is to scare them then so be it. I have no guilt about it at all.

    That being said I think that the RESPONSIBLE pet owners should be able to make their own choices- and I don’t judge the people who haven’t spayed/neutered if it appears they’ve made the choice for the right reason!!!

    I know of a man with a pitbull- he is an AMAZING dog- loves people, other dogs, and is a great example of what the breed can be like- even with balls. He chose not to get his dog neutered- not because it is healthier for the dog- but in his own words “I wanted him to be a man.” No kidding. Despite the bad reason he does have a great dog and has done a fabulous job with the dog.

    On the other end of the spectrum I see a lot of unaltered pets at my work, and at the dog park. I once met a woman at the dogpark whose dog was in season!!!! Happily breeding with anything that was interested. The woman had no clue.

    At the daycare I work at we allow intact dogs- just of course when they aren’t in season. I check. People don’t know if their dog is in season- or even what it means!!!

    Education is the key- i do get that- but who is going to do that, and how? Most people don’t want to know and frankly I would rather tell people the horrors that COULD happen if they don’t spay/neuter than the slight benefits of not.

  3. like Amanda, I agree with you intellectually but then think in practical terms about the only somewhat responsible dog owners, and the big problem with feral dogs in certain areas. I know you’ve worked with PRican Sato rescue, and where I live I see a lot of dogs brought up from Mexico and placed with rescue groups to be adopted. When we go down to Mexico, we see *tons* of feral, flea-ridden mangy dogs that are definitely a public health hazard. I guess my bottom-line — looking at it from the rescue perspective — is that I wouldn’t automatically neuter males if they were my personal dogs, or if they were dogs that I thought would appeal to a certain [better educated and responsible] population of dog owners. But if we’re talking terriers, chihuahuas, etc. I think I’d still be inclined to neuter them. And by better educated, I’m not talking booksmart, my uncle is a Constitutional scholar and brilliant but he often lost control of his unaltered male ShepherdX, and I can’t tell you how many times that dog was gone for days probably contributing to the Sato population growth in San Juan…

    Obviously, right now I feel the takeaway lesson in this for breeders is different than it is for animal rescue people. I think it’s like raw-feeding, you can’t recommend it as a universal practice because too many people won’t take the time to do it right.

    Will you post more on the subject of vaccinations? That’s something else I’ve been wanting to read up on. And thanks for providing reference links above.

  4. Great post (as ALWAYS, I love your blog so much).

    I am fostering an intact boy right now (his owner is in the hospital indefinitely) and it’s interesting to note the differences between him and a neuter. What’s really cracking me up right now is that he is emphatically ‘straight’ (only mounts female dogs) in contrast to my neutered dog who is ‘gay’ (only has ever mounted male dogs, the younger the better, and will use them to masturbate to completion).

    I second the request for an overview of your position on vaccination.

  5. Four years ago, more or less, we brought home a male poodle puppy, who we neutered at 8 months. You can tell physically. I wish we hadn’t, but at the time, it was what was expected.

    Two years ago, more or less, we brought home a female doberman pinscher puppy. She was spayed at 15 months, after her second heat cycle. I am very happy with this decision. She is a beautifully made dog, she looks female, and she was done growing (more or less) before her hormones were removed.

    In the future, I may end up bucking the trend and not neutering any more male dogs, though I will always spay females. And, interestingly enough? My partner, and the owner of said doberman, is Italian. 🙂

  6. The more I’ve read of this issue, the more I’m convinced that I won’t ever neuter another dog I get until their growth plates are closed. Even from a completely layperson perspective, just the thought of denying a growing pup the hormones it needs to develop properly is uncomfortable to me.

  7. Pingback: Cropping and docking illegal in New York - Page 27

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s