May 19, 2014 by Julia West
When I got my first Boxer, Xena, in 2003 it was “common knowledge” that responsible pet owners (who weren’t breeders) spayed or neutered their dogs at 6 months of age so there was no possible way for them to contribute to pet overpopulation. Everyone from vets to your next door neighbor wanted to tell you about the horrors of living with intact animals – aggression, dogs swarming your yard for a bitch in heat, increased chances of mammary and prostate cancer. It was very clear – spaying and neutering was good, keeping dogs intact was bad. People with intact dogs were viewed with suspicion, at minimum. At worst, they were demonized for choosing to wait or abstain from these elective surgeries. I should know. I was one of the people judging them.
By the time I acquired Dash in 2007, it wasn’t quite as cut and dried. The majority of people still believed that you should de-sex your dogs by 6 months. But there was a growing minority who questioned removing a dog’s sex organs, at least before they reached maturity. In 2005, veterinarian Chris Zink had published an article citing a handful of studies that showed a downside to “early” spay and neuter. While her article was focused on the canine athlete, the issues listed – increased knee and hip problems, as well as higher incidences of cancer – were concerning for all pet owners. A friend had showed me this article before Dash came to us and I’d was reconsidering my stance. Dash was 7 months old when we got him and still intact. Our vet, who had an orthopedic specialty, suggested that leaving him intact until he was 12-18 months would be good for his growth and joints. I hope to compete in agility with him, so we left him “as-is”.
By the time Dash was a year old, his health was such a concern that I did not dare to put him under anesthesia for an elective procedure. I caught some flack for my decision (both in-person and online) and I felt self-conscious when we were in public. Some of that was concern people would lump me into “bad pet owner” category and assume I was pimping him out to pad my pockets. Some of it was simple prudish embarrassment that his testicles were just so obvious. I spent far more time than I should have trying angle photos to keep them out of frame. And while his anatomy was obvious, all those scary behaviors I’d been warned about did not materialize. He didn’t wander, mark in the house, hump obsessively, behave aggressively, nor go nuts when he was in sniffing distance from a bitch in heat. He did have some behavior problems but I felt sure they were tied into his medical history, not his gonads.
When Delta came home in 2012, I felt there was enough research to support to keep her intact until she was at least 18 months old. I decided to neuter Dash when Delta was 9 months old to remove any risk of accidents. He was over 6 years old and fully mature so it felt like a reasonable compromise. I’ve since come to regret that decision – though there is no risk of accidents, the lack of hormones has created more problems for my genetic train wreck boy: urinary incontinence, loss of muscle tone, and an alarming increase in the number of struvite crystals in his urine (not typically thought of as hormone-related, but that’s how my boy works – always the exception).
And all those people who told me his behavior was because of his balls? They were proven wrong.
You hear horror stories about bitches in heat, especially from the pro-spay crowd. Crazy behavior, horrible messes, stray dogs banging at your front door. I knew from breeder friends that these things were possible but far from guaranteed. Our house is well away from the road and other homes, so I wasn’t too worried about errant horn dogs. I was worried about how all members of our household would handle the stress but I knew it was in her best interest. In addition to my performance plans for her, I knew her lines were slow to mature and the bitches were typically over a year old before their first heat. Delta came into heat at 18 months old. Her warning signs were a complete lack of focus during obedience work and extra enthusiasm during bitework. Oh yes, my little girl got bitchy – she was more of a threat to Dash than he was to her.
The real event started without fanfare and the early stages involved a lot of pouting and snuggling. I can only imagine what it’s like to go through these changes without a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves to explain it. I was confronted with my own prudishness again (why did it have to be so obvious?) and had the fun of being primary panty patrol, thank to a squeamish husband. Still, not much else changed and the brunt of it was over in a couple of weeks.
She had her first false pregnancy right on cue, 3 months or so after her heat ended. We were browsing a pet store, trying out different toys, when I push on a talking Underdog toy. Rather than her usual reaction of mild interest, she let out a high pitched whine, took Underdog’s little paw in her mouth, and tried to leave the store with him. Just like she did during her heat, she became needy and pouty. She also spent a lot of time grooming Underdog. Aside from scuffling with Dash over her “baby”, it was more inconvenient than dramatic.
In the past two years, I have seen articles, studies, and conversations that covered many angles of the issue. What is clear is that spaying and neutering is no longer a question with a simple answer. Dr. Zink has revised and expanded her article on spay/neuter considerations, now citing 40 sources. Dr. Karen Becker came out with a heartfelt video explaining that she had realized the 6 month spay and neuter policy was wrong, even harmful, to her patients. She pointed out that you aren’t just limited to complete de-sexing anymore. You can eliminate reproduction while keeping hormones with vasectomies or Zeuterin shots for dogs, ovariectomies or ovary-sparing spays for bitches. When you are a conscientious pet owner who wants to do the “right” thing for your dogs, it can be enough to make your head spin. When or if you opt to spay and neuter depends on your goals and whose advice you’re taking.
You need to make the right decision for your situation, and you can’t let it make you crazy. I spent the winter debating what to do with Delta. By the time I settled on my answer, biology and I had also decided that she’d also have a second heat. She’ll be starting any day now, and I’ve got her panties and my sense of humor ready.
- Why I’ve Had a Change of Heart About Neutering Pets by Dr. Karen Becker DVM
- Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete: One Veterinarian’s Opinion by Chris Zink DVM, PhD, DACVP, DACVSMR
- Risks and Benefits to Spaying and Neutering Your Dog by Denise Flaim