Does early neutering make fools of us all?

Does early neutering make fools of us all?
October 11, 2010 by Steve Duno
pup pics 008.jpg

A few years ago, after coming to terms with the passing of my great dog Lou, I decided to look around for a puppy.  Pity the dog who follows a legend, yes?  But it was time; the house just wasn't they same. 

I looked around for a mixed breed puppy; a shepherd mix, maybe, something big but not too big.  I checked the local Northwest shelters, and used online sites in an effort to find the right new friend.  What I found was interesting, and surprising. 

Contrary to what I had thought, there was no oversupply of needy pups, at least not in the Northwest.  In fact, unlike the eternal glut of kittens, the demand for healthy pups far exceeded the supply; over and over, before I could even get to a shelter, the pup in question would be scooped up by some happy new owner.  It almost seemed as if buying a purebred pup would become a necessity if I were to succeed.

There was of course an oversupply of adult dogs up for adoption, sweet-faced galoots just waiting, waiting hard, hoping.  They don't get taken home as readily as do the cute little empty slates, for obvious reasons.  Though it broke my heart to pass them by, I had rescued more than my share, and really wanted to bring home a fresh new face.  So I kept looking. 

During my search, I discovered something interesting.  It is nearly impossible today to adopt a shelter puppy without it first being neutered- castration for the male, spay for the female.  As virtually all of these pups get adopted by the age of ten weeks, it means that neutering, or "gonadectomy," would be performed on all of them at around eight or nine weeks of age.  The main given reason is simple- to prevent an explosion of unwanted dogs, and the resulting tragedy of mass euthanization.

Okay.  A noble cause, I thought, putting aside the fact that every pup listed in my area got scooped up fast as nuggets of gold lying in the Sacramento River.  But I digress. 

As I searched far and wide for that perfect shelter pup, it became apparent to me that a tradition of early spay/castration had firmly taken hold, not only in my region, but all over the country.  Thousands of eight week-old pups were being routinely neutered, apparently without objection from well-meaning potential owners, or from the dog-loving public.   

Honestly, I hadn't given it much thought up to that point.  I'd always supported the drive to prevent unwanted births, thereby reducing unnecessary euthanization.  But as I looked for my own new friend, I began to ask myself; is neutering at this early stage really the cure-all we build it up to be? 

Let's take a look at the claimed benefits of early neutering, or "pre-pubertal gonadectomy."  Besides preventing these dogs from breeding, removal of a puppy's gonads reduces the incidence of some cancers, particularly testicular, uterine, mammary, and prostate (though the prostate claim is currently in dispute).  Neutering also eliminates pyometra, or uterine infections, and may reduce the incidence of urinary tract infections.  Roaming associated with the drive of intact males and females to mate is also reduced, and mental focus (vis-à-vis the distraction of amour) increased.  Aggression is arguably reduced as well.  All true, though as a trainer of twenty years, I can tell you that many dogs, particularly scenthounds, arctic breeds, shepherds and those with acute noses will roam no matter what you do to them.  And plenty of neutered dogs fight like tigers.

We rarely get to hear about the well-researched and scientifically documented drawbacks of puppy neutering.  They include:

·         A higher incidence of obesity

·         Measurably reduced bone mass and density

·         A significant increase in vascular tumors and bone cancers

·         An increase in hypothyroidism, especially in larger breeds such as golden retrievers

·         A delay in the closure of growth plates, resulting in taller, thinner dogs.  Tibia-to-femur length ratios are often changed, resulting in ligament stress that can lead to possible rupture.

·         Thinner chests, and smaller heads

·         A higher incidence of incontinence in females

·         A higher incidence of adverse reaction to vaccines

·         An increase in the occurrence of hip dysplasia

·         A marked increase in canine geriatric dementia

These are observed and proven phenomena, documented by veterinary researchers (here is a taste: ).  My question is- why hasn't the pro-puppy neutering crowd mentioned any of these profound drawbacks?

But there is more.  Research also indicates adverse behavioral issues associated with early neuter, including increased rates of noise phobias, fear aggression, and reduced intelligence.  As a behaviorist for two decades, I can tell you that fear aggression, particularly the on-leash, dog-on-dog variety, has skyrocketed in the last ten years or so; whether caused by the rampant humanization of dogs by well-meaning but poorly-informed "fur kid" owners, I don't know; perhaps that one is anecdotal at best.  But I can tell you that an abiding professional observation of mine, after working with thousands of dogs, is that those undergoing early neutering often become either bubble-brained, slow-learning goofballs, or nervous, insecure handfuls.   

Reproductive hormones do much more than simply allow a mammal to develop its reproductive system, and to breed.  In fact, testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and other sex hormones affect many functions of the body, including metabolism, growth, mood, immune system regulation, heart development and regulation, and even brain and nervous system development and regulation.  During early stages of development, mammals rely on the presence of these hormones for optimal growth.  If this is the case, then, can anyone tell me with a straight face that puppy neutering is beneficial? 

I have always frowned upon those who insist on treating dogs like humans.  But if you are in that camp, fine; let's accept that construct.  If your dogs are like children to you, then why on earth would you consider neutering them at eight weeks of age?  Would any human parent seriously consider removing his or her infant's testicles, or ovaries and uterus, even if it meant better health and behavior?  An abhorrent, ghoulish thought, yes?  But why?  Wouldn't those children be more tractable, more healthy, more focused?  And wouldn't it relieve the human overpopulation problem? 

And what of the plethora of health problems elderly citizens suffer because of menopause and andropause?  Dementia, mood swings, osteoporosis, weight gain, increased allergic response, lethargy, and decreased muscle strength?  All because the body's natural hormonal balance is being distorted.  Are other mammals not subject to these changes?

My interest lies firmly in the production of physically and psychologically sound dogs.  I cannot tell you how many pets I've trained who suffered from either physical or psychological issues, completely unrelated to owner competence.  What if the complete removal of reproductive hormones at eight weeks of age contributes to this? 

The old claim that the owner is always responsible for all of a dog's bad behaviors is poppycock, especially today, when kind-hearted people are adopting problematic shelter or puppy mill dogs.  Sure, most owners could be better trainers.  But on the whole, people do their best.  Often an owner gets saddled with a hard dog- one with either tough medical or behavioral issues, poor lineage, or simply a breed or personality at odds with "normal" dog ownership.  Aside from other determining factors, every dog comes with a unique personality and history; sometimes these can overwhelm the average owner. 

But what I am addressing here today is the effects of puppy neutering on long term behavior and health, which I believe are significant.  Why does the pet rights movement on one hand strive for a more "humane" and ethical approach for dogs and cats, and yet at the same time support a surgical procedure that so violates an animal's right to develop naturally?   

The argument can be given that puppies must be spayed or castrated before adoption, because either the new owners cannot be trusted to have the procedure done at the appropriate time, or because they will actively choose to breed their dogs, contributing to the overpopulation problem.  My opinion is that, if people can't be trusted to neuter at the appropriate time, then they are not responsible enough to be pet owners in the first place. 

So, how can we allow puppies to develop properly, vis-à-vis the natural actions of reproductive hormones, while at the same time preventing unwanted breeding?  How about, instead of vets performing thousands of gonadectomies on eight or ten week-old puppies, they instead simply perform vasectomies or tubal ligations?  The glib response is often that these procedures are so rarely done, that most vets don't yet have the skill set.  Well; so what?  Learn!  I've spoken to vets about it, and confidentially they say almost to a person that it would be no harder to do, and, on some level even less involved.  Certainly tying a pup's tubes is less traumatic than performing an ovario-hysterectomy, yes?  And if funding for wholesale neutering exists, why not vasectomies or tubal ligations? 

Once the dog has developed to its full physical and psychological potential, a vet can go in at the owner's request to perform a neuter.  This might be a smart decision, particularly if said dog has developed behavioral problems related to the effects of sex hormones (roaming, aggression, marking, etc.).  But if the owner decides not to, the dog is still unable to breed.  Is this not a viable compromise?  And if for some reason the owner does decide to breed the dog, the animal still has sperm and/or eggs available.

There is one other issue.  Most of these early puppy neuters are performed on mixed breed dogs.  Pure bred pups often escape this mandatory sterilization, at least until six or eight months of age.  And if they are of good breeding stock, then they never get neutered.  My opinion is that this is blatantly prejudicial toward mixed breed dogs, who are on the whole statistically healthier, and at least as smart.  Why should this wholesale prohibition on the breeding of mutts exist?  I can tell you that some of the smartest dogs I have ever known were mutts, including the smartest, bravest and most kindhearted of them all, my old super dog Lou, star of Last Dog On The Hill.  I had him neutered at the age of about three; in retrospect, I regret that decision every day of my life.  If any dog deserved to pass his genes and spirit on, it was Lou, and not some inbred nightmare who's sole claim to fame is its physical closeness to some arbitrary confirmation.  Lou could outrun, out-think, out-fight, and out-love any dog I have ever known.  But right now, thousands of potential Lou puppies are being taken out of the gene pool forever.  One must ask; is the goal here total extinction of the mixed-breed dog?

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Comments (2)

I consider myself an amateur at best when it comes to dogs. I got my very first 12 years ago, a Schipperke, Bizzy, and she became my world, well, herself and my husband. He felt the same about her. I'd never known that type of unconditional love before. Yes, I suppose you could call me a bleeding heart, and an ignorant one at that. I didn't do much research before getting her, I'd been a cat person all my life. After the last one died, I was so upset my husband said "get any type of pet you'd like" We never had children, so pets were our children. Looking back, I was so stupid not to do any reading up of any kind. I was driving by this place that said "pups for sale" Mistake #1 of many. The place was very clean, and neat. The birth parents were not on site. I later found out the woman drove to a puppy mill in PA. every couple of weeks and got a few of whatever type was popular at the moment. I thought I'd always wanted a Yorkie, or other type of small dog. As soon as I walked in, she and her brother were in the first cage. I'd never even heard of a Schip before, let alone seen one, she looked like a little bear cub. It was love at first sight. So I asked the guy there about the breed, etc. We looked it up in the current AKC book. One of the interesting things about this breed is they don't have a "dog" smell. And she never did. When I gave her a bath, she never smelled like a dog. However knowing that she came from a puppy mill made me livid, at myself, the man that sold her to me, the (deleted) who bread (sp?) her..and so on. The things I discovered about puppy mills actually made me sick. I could not concieve how someone could keep a female in a crate the size of a mailbox, and just keep her pregnant, having litter after litter til she died. Then again, I was glad that I was the one who saved her, she was spoiled rotten, it was her home not ours, yes, I realize now that was a mistake also. But this particular dog changed my life...literaly. Last year Aug. 8th,2011 we had to have her put down. She got diabetes at 11 and 1/2 years old and it was very aggresive. Before we knew what was going on, it was too late. Our vet was one of the best, and has been for 20+ years, so I had total confidence in him, he keeps up on all the latest news for animals, about vaccines and neutering/spaying. But when I first got her, the #$%&*# that I bought her from insisted that she be spayed, she was about 9 weeks old. I wish I had known about just getting her tubes tied. She didn't have very many vet visits for illnesses, but she did have a very high anxiety level. Being a Schip, she was extremely loyal, and territoral, and very curious. But there were times that not only I but others noticed how shaky..anxious she would become. I finally had to get her meds. I'm thinking if I could have waited til she was a bit older, I could've had her tubes tied, and it would'nt have changed the natural progression of her hormones, and how benefical they would have been to her overall health. The natural lifespan for Schips is about 12 to 15 yrs. with good health, so I had her about along as nature would allow. I was with her on that day, and the Dr. gave her a sedative before "the injection". She had gone from a healthy 25 lbs. to about 14 lbs. I"m just thankful she didn't suffer more than she had to. I think the sedative did the deed..she was just lying there, closed her beautiful brown eyes and went to sleep. It's been over a year now and I still hear her nails clicking over the hardwood floor as she would prance acoss it. I realize this isn't the forum for my kind of comment, but reading all of this information has been really informative. I will put it to great use when I get another Schip. I'm thankful there are sites like this one and others to keep animal lovers up to date on whats really going on out there. I can hardly pass a shelter without feeling bad.....I mean..really feeling BAD. I'll never understand people who get a puppy, then it becomes older, they have to be responsible, and they drop it at a shelter, or worse, on the side of the road. I just wish I would catch someone in the act of dropping an animal on the side of the road.....I'd have to bailed out of jail, I know it. Thank you all for reading my sob story about a life changing experience. I'm a soft hearted person who never knew the real meaning of unconditional love til Bizzy came in my life, now that she's gone there is a void that will never be quite filled, even when I get another. Its hard to follow a legend..I think Ocsar Wilde said that. I say thanks to all of you who know so much about this's overwhelming to try and comprehend at times, but I truly appreciate all of you who take the time to put this out for others to become more informed. Thats what we more informed people making more informed decisions. And less #&%*)$# trying to make a few dollars breeding a dog to death.
Fri, 10/12/2012 - 16:22
I don't usually read long stories on the internet. Especially replies. But I read your story and I'm sorry for your loss. Bizzy sounded like a lucky dog. You sound like a very warm hearted person. The more I read I realize there are more good people than bad raising animals. Thank god! I do have children but animals are my life. I think about them everyday. All of them. Everywhere. I worry. So much sometimes I cry. I'm not sure its normal. Anyway your story touched me. I hope you find another pooch who makes you just as happy as Bizzy did. I'm sure they will be as happy as Bizzy was.
Rachael C.
Nova Scotia, Canada.
Thu, 06/19/2014 - 20:30

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