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A Closer Look At the Spay/Neuter Issue
Posted on 10/09/2010 in Your Dog, Your Rights.

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by Sara Chisnell, UKC Legal Counsel

Mandatory spay and neuter laws are being pushed, and PASSED, all over the country. Most of them are at the municipal level, but many are in major cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, and Hollister. Some are general and apply to all dogs, and some are breed specific, such as the proposed ordinance in Hollister that applies only to “pit bulls” and Chihuahuas. The majority of these laws require that dogs be spayed or neutered by 6 months of age, and make it very hard for dog owners to obtain intact dog licenses, from stringent requirements to very high license fees that basically punish owners of intact dogs. These laws have gotten me pretty fired up—why should the government decide what is medically best for MY dog, and MY property? Why is there an assumption of irresponsibility on the part of ALL dog owners? Is this really in the best interest of the dogs, or is it a crappy band-aid for owner irresponsibility?
Over the years, most of the rhetoric fed to dog owners has been pro-spay/neuter, and has only educated owners of the benefits of spay/neuter. To this day, pet owners are encouraged to spay or neuter their dogs by their veterinarians and are only informed of the positive results. In my opinion, this does not amount to informed consent as is required with humans. Informed consent is where patients are given all potential positive benefits and potential negative outcomes of a procedure in order for a patient to make a truly educated decision before consenting to a procedure. Many of the benefits claimed to result from spaying or neutering a dog are not supported by evidence. It seems many people forget that spaying and neutering are still both surgical procedures, and complications that may arise as a result are not necessarily addressed—such as a bad reaction to anesthesia, hemorrhage, inflammation, infection, etc.,---not to mention problems with post-operative care.

A lot of studies have been conducted over the years to find any connections between spay/neuter and various health issues. Some of the results are surprising, but most dog owners have no idea. In both male and female dogs, spay/neuter performed before 1 year of age increases the risk of osteosarcoma. It also increases the risk of hemangiosarcoma, hypothyroidism, obesity, orthopedic disorders, and adverse reactions to vaccines. These risks are more likely to exist in dogs spayed or neutered before maturity. The orthopedic disorders are the most interesting to me, and may have an impact on canine athletic ability. Spay/neuter of dogs before maturity delays the closure of the growth plates in bones that are still growing, which causes bones to grow significantly longer than dogs left intact or that are spayed/neutered after maturity. These dogs will often have longer limbs, lighter bone structure, narrow chests, and narrow skulls. I have proof of this myself—I have an 8 year old German Shorthaired Pointer that I neutered at 4 months (this was before I knew better). He’s VERY tall, outside of breed standard, and is very lanky and leggy. He’s also got some arthritis going on in his pastern joints. I won’t be neutering before maturity again.

One study showed that removal of the ovaries caused an increase in the remodeling of the pelvic bone, which suggests an increased risk of hip dysplasia in spayed dogs. Loss of bone mass in the spine has also been found in spayed dogs. As previously mentioned, spay/neuter increases the risk of obesity, which may be associated with a two fold increased risk of cranial cruciate ligament rupture. Spayed/neutered dogs also have a 3.1 fold higher risk of patellar luxation. Scariest is a study that showed dogs spayed/neutered prior to 5.5 months of age were associated with a 70% increased risk of hip dysplasia.

The benefits of spaying females are: reduction in risk of mammary tumors, nearly eliminates pyometra, and removes the risk of uterine, cervical, and ovarian cancers. However, in addition to the risks previously mentioned, spaying may increase the risk of persistent or recurring urinary tract infections, recessed vulva, vaginal dermatitis, vaginitis, and urinary tract tumors. The biggest risk is that spaying causes spay incontinence in 4-20% of female dogs. It does seem that the benefits of spaying are greater than the potential risks.

In male dogs, the benefits seem to be few. Neutering decreases the slight risk of testicular cancer, non-cancerous prostate disorders, perianal fistulas, and may reduce the risk of diabetes. In addition to the risks previously mentioned, neutering increases the risk of progressive geriatric cognitive impairment, prostate cancer, and urinary tract cancer.

All of these studies show that risk for many serious health issues are increased with spay/neuter before maturity. Yet the traditional age for spay/neuter has been 6-9 months! Not only that, but due to advances in anesthesia more and more pediatric spay/neuters are being performed. It’s thought that the recommendation for 6-9 months arose after WWII when Americans became more affluent and viewed animals more as household pets. More Americans wanted to control or stop the possible inconveniences (sexual behavior, heat cycles in females) that come along with being intact and therefore more people started spaying and neutering their dogs. Anesthesia at the time required animals be at least 6 months, thus the age for spay/neuter arose. Looking at the benefits and risks collectively, that standard age should be reconsidered. The time or need for a surgical procedure most definitely should NOT be mandated by law! The decision to spay or neuter must be left to the owner of the dog, and the age at which it should be done must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Not only are potential health risks increased, but other factors must be considered as well—age, breed, sex, use, household environment, temperament, lifestyle and suitability as potential breeding stock.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, although a bit wishy-washy on issues dealing with dog breeding as of late, does not support mandatory spay/neuter programs. Nor does United Kennel Club. Not only do these laws not take into account the best interest of the dogs and override the right of decision by individual owners, they also punish owners that choose to keep dogs intact through high license fees and difficult requirements that must be met in order to obtain the expensive license. Plus, these laws will not solve the issue of pet overpopulation. The fact is that most dogs end up in shelters because of owner surrender or abandonment, due to behavior, health, economic, and life changing conditions. In some European Union countries where spay/neuter is illegal unless medically necessary, there are no significant problems with pet overpopulation.

Instead of baselessly blaming intact dogs and unwanted litters for the overpopulation in shelters, perhaps data should be gathered on intake in shelters and rescues for underlying causes of relinquishment, and in turn use that data to address those issues. Public education and license enforcement is the real key here, not forcing spay/neuter. Mandatory spay/neuter may cause more animals to end up in shelters, and may cause other unintended consequences, when owners can’t afford to spay or neuter nor meet the requirements or funds necessary to keep dogs intact.

Bill Bruce, Director of Calgary Animal Services, has proven that through public education and license enforcement, overpopulation can be controlled. His program has been called the “best animal control program in North America.” They are well on their way to becoming a no-kill shelter. In 2009, they boasted a license compliance rate of 91%, a return to owner rate of 85%, and a euthanasia rate of 6%. The majority of the few animals euthanized are due to behavioral issues, poor health, or injuries. Oh, and did I mention all of this is accomplished with no dog limit laws, no mandatory spay/neuter laws, and no breed specific legislation?! To get to this point, they have implemented a program called Pet Drive Home, using modern technology in their mobile units where licensed dogs that are picked up are returned directly home for a small fee, rather than being taken to the shelter. Owners of unlicensed dogs face high fines, which not only generates revenue but is also a big deterrence and motivates compliance.

Through a high operating budget solely comprised of licensing fees and penalties (not taxpayer money), they have also been able to build a facility to provide FREE spay and neuter to low income residents. Their budget also funds, among other things, their animal adoption program, socialization programs, enforcement of Responsible Pet Ownership law, school programs, and even to help neighbors resolve animal-related conflicts. They also focus on public education, through programs such as PAWS: Dog Bite Prevention, Dogs in Our Society, Urban Coyotes, and the Junior By-Law Project. Bill Bruce’s ultimate goal is to be a no-kill city. He targets the owners, instead of trying to apply a weak band-aid such as mandatory spay/neuter. He finds that “any animal that ends up in a shelter is there because the human end of the relationship failed.”

Bill Bruce and his program are proof positive that pet populations can be controlled and maintained without mandatory spay/neuter laws, but instead through license enforcement and public education. Forcing a medical procedure on owners when it clearly should be the owner’s choice on when and if to do it will not solve the problem of unwanted animals. Cities considering mandatory spay/neuter should take a close look at all of the pros and cons of spay/neuter health wise, and most definitely need to take a look at Bill Bruce’s successful program in Calgary.