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Pros and Cons of Spaying and Neutering: A Holistic Vet’s Perspective

Deciding to spay or neuter your dog significantly impacts their health, behaviour, and quality of life. Dr. Katie Woodley, renowned vet, offers her expertise to help you make the best choice for your pet.

Dr Katie Woodley aka The Natural Pet Doctor. ProDog expert author.

Author: Dr Katie Woodley
BVSc, GDVCHM, CVMA

Edited By: Anna Bain

Pros and Cons of Spaying and Neutering: A Holistic Vet’s Perspective

A pivotal decision in pet ownership 

Choosing whether to spay or neuter your dog is more than a routine decision—it’s a significant step that impacts your pet’s health, behavior, and overall quality of life.   

Spaying (ovariohysterectomy) involves removing a female dog’s ovaries and uterus, while neutering (castration) involves removing the testicles of a male dog. These procedures are primarily aimed at preventing unwanted pregnancies but have additional implications on health and behavior. 

Historical and cultural contexts 

In the past four decades, the practice of spaying and neutering has significantly increased in North America. It’s estimated that 83% of all American dogs are neutered, with many undergoing these procedures before six months of age—a practice supported by many veterinarians and animal activists for its benefits in controlling pet populations and reducing risks of certain cancers and aggressive behaviors. 

However, this contrasts with European approaches, where such procedures are less common and not as strongly advocated by animal health authorities. 

The importance of sex hormones 

Sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone are crucial beyond reproduction; they influence growth, metabolism, behavior, and overall health. Removing these hormone-secreting tissues can have profound effects, highlighting the need for a nuanced understanding of “desexing” versus “sterilization.” The former removes the ability to produce these hormones entirely, whereas the latter merely prevents reproduction. 

In dogs that have been spayed or neutered and thus lack their natural gonads, the body’s typical hormonal feedback system is disrupted. This results in the pituitary gland continuing to produce Luteinizing Hormone (LH) in excessive amounts. 

Elevated levels of LH can lead to a variety of health issues, including obesity, urinary incontinence, the formation of urinary stones, diabetes mellitus, hypothyroidism, hip dysplasia, rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament, as well as aggressive and fearful behaviors. Additionally, high LH levels are associated with increased risks of cognitive dysfunction syndrome, prostate adenocarcinoma, and transitional cell carcinoma of the bladder. [1] [2] [3] 

This excessive production of LH is just one part of the complex metabolic challenges that can arise in dogs after these reproductive organs are removed.  

Another significant issue is estrogen dominance, which can lead to or exacerbate adrenal fatigue—a condition where the adrenal glands are overtaxed and unable to function properly. In spayed and neutered dogs, the adrenal glands are often the only remaining source that can produce sex hormones, though they are not naturally equipped to fulfill this role alone. 

If a dog has been spayed or neutered, there are ways to support their hormones and stress response naturally to help prevent these conditions from occurring in the future. 

Exploring Surgical and Non-Surgical Alternatives to Traditional Spaying and Neutering

Rethinking traditional approaches 

The decision to spay or neuter your dog remains a critical one, pivotal to your pet’s long-term health and behavior. While traditional spaying and neutering have long been the norm, recent advancements and increased awareness have brought alternative methods to the forefront [4]. These alternatives offer different benefits and risks and are worth considering if you’re looking for options that may better suit your pet’s health and your lifestyle needs. 

Understanding traditional spaying and neutering 

Traditional spaying involves removing a female dog’s ovaries, uterus, and cervix, while neutering a male dog involves removing the testicles. These procedures are effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and can reduce the risk of certain diseases and behavioral issues. However, they also eliminate the pet’s natural hormone production, which can have various long-term health effects.[5] [6] [7]

Alternative Surgical Methods 

For male dogs: 

Vasectomy: 

  • Procedure: Similar to human vasectomies, this surgery involves cutting or clamping the vas deferens, which carry sperm from the testicles. The testicles remain intact, allowing the dog to continue producing hormones. 
  • Benefits: Prevents reproduction while maintaining hormone levels, which can be important for the dog’s overall health and behavior. 
  • Drawbacks: The dog will still exhibit mating behaviors and could be prone to diseases linked to the presence of testicles, such as testicular cancer. However, these conditions can typically be treated by castration later if needed. 

Calcium Chloride Sterilant Procedure: 

  • Procedure: Involves injecting a sterilant into the epididymis to prevent sperm from maturing. It can be adjusted to reduce or stop hormone production depending on where it’s injected. 
  • Benefits: A non-surgical alternative that maintains some hormone production, useful for dogs that cannot undergo anaesthesia. 
  • Drawbacks: Requires precise ultrasound guidance, special training, and is not widely available. The long-term effects and effectiveness are less understood compared to traditional methods. 

For female dogs: 

Ovary-Sparing Spay (OSS): 

  • Procedure: The uterus and cervix are removed, but the ovaries are left intact. This must be done with great care to ensure no uterine tissue is left behind, which could lead to complications. 
  • Benefits: Prevents pregnancy and reduces the risk of pyometra while maintaining hormonal balance, as the ovaries continue to function. 
  • Drawbacks: More complex and expensive than a traditional spay. Not many UK vets perform this surgery. The dog will still experience estrus cycles without the bleeding, potentially leading to behavior typically associated with heat or even false pregnancy symptoms.  

Tubal Ligation: 

  • Procedure: The fallopian tubes are severed or blocked to prevent eggs from reaching the uterus. 
  • Benefits: A less invasive procedure that maintains the dog’s hormonal balance. 
  • Drawbacks: Does not eliminate the risk of pyometra since the uterus remains intact, and like OSS, it is not commonly performed or recommended. 

Risks and considerations 

While alternative methods can offer benefits such as retained hormone levels and less invasive procedures, they also come with their own set of risks. For example, maintaining hormone production can prolong certain behaviors related to sexuality and may not reduce the risk of all hormone-related diseases. Additionally, these alternatives often require more specialized surgical skills and can be more costly. 

Choosing between traditional spaying and neutering or opting for an alternative method involves careful consideration of your dog’s health, your management capabilities, and what you hope to achieve through the procedure. Each method has its pros and cons, and the best choice depends on individual circumstances and the advice of a trusted veterinarian. Consulting with a professional who understands both traditional and alternative methods will provide the best guidance for making an informed decision that prioritizes your pet’s health and well-being.

Key Considerations Before Making a Decision

A turning point: emerging breed-specific studies 

However, breed-specific studies began to challenge our understanding of these procedures. Research involving 2,500 Vizslas showed that dogs desexed at an early age were at a significantly increased risk for several cancers and behavioral disorders such as separation anxiety, noise phobia, and fear biting.[8]  

Another study involving Golden Retrievers highlighted a doubled rate of hip dysplasia in males neutered before 12 months, and a fourfold increase in hemangiosarcoma in early-spayed females.[9] 

These findings have been eye-opening, suggesting that the timing of these procedures can profoundly affect a dog’s overall health and behavior. The implications are especially significant given that the removal of sex hormones before a body has fully matured may lead to long-term health consequences. 

So, what now? Re-evaluating the approach

Given the mounting evidence, it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach does not serve the best interest of all dogs.

Owners and veterinarians alike must consider breed-specific risks, the dog’s age, health, and behavioral needs, as well as the owner’s lifestyle and the dog’s living environment. 

If you choose to spay or neuter your pet, consider these points: 

  • Timing: The age at which a dog is desexed can significantly impact its health. Waiting until a dog has matured may mitigate some risks associated with early desexing. It’s ideal to wait until your dog has fully matured, typically around 18-24 months, before proceeding with spaying or neutering.  
  • Breed-Specific Studies: Recent studies, such as those on Vizslas and Golden Retrievers, have shown breed-specific risks associated with early desexing, including increased risks of cancers and joint disorders. 
  • Lifestyle and Practical Considerations: Your living situation, whether you use pet daycare, or have multiple pets of different sexes, might affect your decision, since many of these services require dogs to be neutered.  

Post-procedure care and support 

If you decide that spaying or neutering is right for your pet, consider: 

  • Pre-surgical care: Discontinue blood-thinning supplements, like omega-3’s and turmeric, and ensure your pet is healthy prior to surgery. 
  • Post-surgical care: Focus on keeping your pet calm and comfortable during recovery, with adequate hydration, rest, and gentle wound care. 
  • Long-term health support: Diet adjustments, dog supplements to support the endocrine system, and regular veterinary check-ups can help manage the long-term effects of hormone removal. Using a species-appropriate, minimally processed diet, like raw dog food diets, are key to supporting your dog’s health.  Proactive support, including the use of glandular supplements, can assist in managing hormonal imbalances in desexed dogs. Additionally, providing adrenal support with adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha, and incorporating medicinal mushrooms, can also offer significant benefits to these pets. 

Discover ways to support the endocrine system in ProDog’s Dog Hormone Guide. Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more about raw dog food diets, The Benefits of Raw Dog Food and Beginners Guide to Raw Dog Food are very helpful articles.

 

An Emotive, Personal Decision

Deciding whether to spay or neuter your dog is deeply personal and varies based on numerous factors. There’s no universally “right” answer, but being well-informed can help you make a decision that best suits your pet’s health and your family’s needs.

With evolving scientific insights and a better understanding of the impacts of these procedures, pet owners are encouraged to consult with holistic veterinarians who can provide tailored advice and support, ensuring the health and happiness of their furry family members for years to come. 

If sterilization of your pet is necessary, considering the timing and method can significantly impact their long-term health. Postponing spaying or neutering until after your dog has fully matured can be beneficial, and alternative procedures like vasectomies for males or ovary-sparing spays (OSS) for females might be viable options that preserve natural hormone balances while preventing reproduction. 

For pet owners whose dogs have undergone these procedures, ongoing vigilance and proactive management are crucial. It’s important to monitor for any symptoms that could indicate hormonal imbalances or other issues. Regular bloodwork is essential to assess your pet’s health status and to adjust care protocols as needed—especially as they age. Initially, you might need to check more frequently until their condition stabilizes, but annual checks are typically sufficient once everything is balanced. 

Support and supplementation are often lifelong commitments for desexed dogs, as we cannot restore their natural hormone-producing organs. However, it’s also important not to worry unnecessarily—many desexed dogs live full and healthy lives without complications. Always be prepared to adjust care as your dog enters different stages of life, guided by thorough veterinary evaluation and tailored treatment plans.

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References

  1. Lefebvre, S. L., Yang, M., Wang, M., Elliott, D. A., Buff, P. R., & Lund, E. M. (2013, July 15). Effect of age at gonadectomy on the probability of dogs becoming overweight. AVMA. Vol 243 (2). Doi:10.2460/javma.243.2.236
  2. Sundburg, C. R., Belanger, J. M., Bannasch, D. L., Famula, T. R., & Oberbauer, A. M. (2016, December 8). Gonadectomy effects on the risk of immune disorders in the dog: A retrospective study – BMC veterinary research. BioMed Central. Doi:10.1186/s12917-016-0911-5
  3. Teske E, Naan EC, van Dijk E, Van Garderen E, Schalken JA (2002) Canine prostate carcinoma: epidemiological evidence of an increased risk in castrated dogs. Mol Cell Endocrinol 197: 251–255. Doi:10.1002/pros.20590
  4. Parsemus foundation. Hormone Sparing Sterilization. Accessed June 2024.
  5. Bryan, J. N., Keeler, M. R., Henry, C. J., Bryan, M. E., Hahn, A. W., & Caldwell, C. W. May 2007. A population study of neutering status as a risk factor for canine prostate cancer. The Prostate; 67 (11) p1174- 1181. Doi:10.1002/pros.20590
  6. Beauvais W, Cardwell JM, Brodbelt DC (2012) The effect of neutering on the risk of mammary tumours in dogs –a systematic review. J Small Anim Pract 53: 314–322. DOI:10.1111/j.1748-5827.
  7. Farhoody, P., & Zink , C. M. (2010, May). Behavioral and Physical Effects of Spaying and Neutering Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris). Accessed June 2024.
  8. Zink, M. C., Farhoody, P., Elser, S. E., Ruffini, L. D., Gibbons, T. A., & Rieger, R. H. (2014, February 1). Evaluation of the risk and age of onset of cancer and behavioral disorders in gonadectomized vizslas. AVMA. Doi: 10.2460/javma.244.3.309
  9. Riva, G. T. de la, Hart, B. L., Farver, T. B., Oberbauer, A. M., Messam, L. L. M. V., Willits, N., & Hart, L. A. (2013, February 13). Neutering dogs: Effects on joint disorders and cancers in Golden Retrievers. PLOS ONE. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0055937

 

Image credit: Photo by Catherine Heath on Unsplash 

Image credit: Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash 

Image credit: Photo by Manuel Meza on Unsplash

Dr Katie Woodley

BVSc, GDVCHM, CVMA, otherwise known as The Natural Pet Doctor, is a leading force in the world of holistic pet care and a valued consultant vet for ProDog. With a passion for canine well-being and a commitment to promoting holistic approaches, she is dedicated to enhancing the lives of our fur friends.

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