The Spay Neuter Quandary

Spaying and neutering has recently become a hot topic throughout the dog world once again. The last time I remember this much interest in alteration is when news began to circulate about the success of early (meaning pre 10 weeks of age) spay and neuters. This time, the discussion is whether spaying and neutering should be done at all.

On one of my natural rearing lists, there’s discussion about whether or not it’s ‘holistic’ to alter your puppies. Putting aside the faulty logic in trying to equate reproductive function with holistic medicine, we’re left with the dilemma in question – is it ethical for a breeder to insist that owners spay or neuter their puppies, knowing what we do about the health implications that can result from it?

I’m on the fence when it comes to this topic, which is fraught with a lot of rhetoric and littered with confusing and often contradictory statistics. I do agree that dogs of either sex seem to develop into smarter and more alert adults when either left intact or altered later in life, and it’s almost undeniable that late altered or intact dogs develop signifigantly different phsyiques than their altered young counterparts. In French Bulldogs, puppies altered young retain a more puppyish demeanor, with lighter bone, higher legs, and less ‘blocky’ heads.

There are worrisome statistics which suggest that neutered dogs are more at risk for prostatic cancers, spayed bitches more at risk for spleen tumors, and both altered sexes at greater risk of osteosarcoma. These can balanced with countering statistics showing both sexes to have a reduced risk of mammary tumors when they are altered (and yes, boys get them as well).Obviously testicular and ovarian cancer are no longer a risk when the parts in question have been removed – but then we read that these cancers aren’t common in dogs anyways.

Reading the literature becomes a balancing act – testicular cancer versus prostate cancer, mammary tumors versus osteosarcoma? Read and re read, and still we come to the conclusion that there’s just no easy answer – no blatant scale tipping in one direction or the other, at least when weighing the pure science of the issue. Even the veterinarians and researchers can’t seem to agree on which is more beneficial to over all health.

All of us, however, can agree on at least one fact – that altered animals are unable to reproduce. As a breeder, my reasoning is as simple as this: knowing that my pets are altered gives me one less thing to worry about, on a long list of worrisome things – I know they aren’t out there someplace, pumping out puppies.

There’s an argument to be made there, of course – that we shouldn’t place pets into homes where we can’t trust the owners. The rationale is that if you can’t trust the new owners to care for an intact pet, you shouldn’t be able to trust them at all.

That’s a fallacy, in my opinion. We’re long past the time when the average person knows anything about animal husbandry, much less the myriad ways that two amorous pets can find to mate. Securely fenced yard? Nice try, but intact pets can jump a surprising distance when inspired to do so, and matings have taken place through chain link (just ask the Golden owner who found her bitch tied with a stray dog – with the chain link in between them). Dogs dash out doors, jump over fences, and in general can be more inventive than you’d believe possible when pursuing their biological imperative. The other consideration here is that things change. Today’s ideal and loving home is tomorrow’s home broken by bitter divorce.

Almost ten years ago, Barb placed a lovely little bitch into a very nice pet home. Great couple, cute kids, solid references, and they lived close by, which is always a plus. They sent updates for a few years, which petered off over time. Nothing new there – that’s the typical pattern with new families. The bitch was placed with a contract requiring her to be spayed, but no AKC limited registration. It wasn’t commonly done at the time, and besides which the new owners seemed so nice.

Flash forward a few years later, and we get an inquiry from someone in Northern Europe doing pedigree research on her new puppy. Who’s this dog in her pedigree with our kennel name on it? I’ve only sold three dogs to Europe, and was stunned it wasn’t one of them. It was the little pet bitch I mentioned above, who had been sold, intact, to a breeder in Russia. How did this happen? The usual, route, apparently. Bad break up, angry parties, and a petty bit of revenge involving the family pet, and the next thing you know, she’s on a plane to Russia. Her story has a relatively happy ending – her Russian owner is respectable, showed her extensively, bred her lightly, and kept her forever. It could have been worse – she could have ended up in the midwest, locked in a backyard pen and bred over and over again until she was used up and put to death.

There was no way of knowing this family would self destruct in this manner, but we can be sure that this bitch would never have gone to Russia if she had been spayed.  Oh, she still might have been ditched, but experience has shown that owners are much more likely to offer dogs back to breeders if they can’t see any profit in selling them on themselves.

And so, we balance – peace of mind versus health of puppies. For example, I have a pretty iron tight clause in my contract insisting on alteration, but I also ask that my pups get a chance to develop naturally for as long as possible before being altered. In most cases, six months is minimum, or after their first heat for girls. In a few cases, when dealing with undersized puppies, I’ve suggested waiting until a full year has passed. I also have safegaurds in place for the times when I want to waive my alteration clause. Other breeders might consider that irresponsible – they don’t let any puppy leave their house unless it’s been altered. I just don’t think the health risks of putting a ten week old puppy through surgery can be justified, but I can see the appeal in doing it, from the breeder’s perspective.

I’ve lifted my insistance on spaying and neutering for obedience, agility and other sport dog owners, if I feel they have enough experience and dedication to follow through. I can’t deny that intact dogs just seem to make better competitors, and who doesn’t want to see their dogs become succesful? I’ve waived it when I thought altering wasn’t in the best health interest of the dog, like Nell’s brother Pete, who was undersized and temperamentally timid and immature, and in need of all the testosterone he could get. In each of these cases, I’ve put checks and balances into place that help to ensure that, intact or not, this dog won’t be bred (or if it does happen, it won’t be without penalties). Again, some breeder’s do not lift their restriction for any dog, at any time, for any reason – a position I can also sympathise with, even if I don’t share it. Yes, I’m gambling on my obedience homes, but sometimes you have to take a risk if it seems it might be for the greater good.

Weighing the pros and cons of what’s right for our dogs is never easy, no matter how much rhetoric gets tossed around (like the exchange where one anti altering breeder called another pro altering breeder “Dr. Mengele with a kennel licence”). There’s no simple answer to the question of ‘what is the best thing to do?’. In the end, we have to do what makes us, as dog breeders, feel that we’ve done what is in the best interest for our individual dogs, their new families, and our integrity as breeders as a whole.