Behaviour ProblemsLiving with dogsPuppies

Neutering – the pros and cons of if, when, and how.

As a pet owner, there are lots of decisions you have to make that are not easy or straight forward. From whether you should crate train your puppy, to what food you feed, kennels vs home boarders, to that ultimate decision at the end, you will never find the decisions involved in dog ownership easy to make.

Many of these decisions even divide experts, including if/when you should neuter (that is to castrate/spay) your dog.

As  I write this, I can see men across the country crossing their legs at the idea of castrating their little buddy whilst fewer, but still plenty of women gaze on their pet and then at their children thinking how unfair it would be should Daisy never experience motherhood. It’s a touchy subject!

6 Months?

As a behaviour consultant and a trainer who works with a lot of puppies, I spend a lot of time advising people to wait and not to neuter their pet as soon as they hit 6 months as is the seemingly blanket advice of many vets in my area.

The reason for this is because a puppy becomes fertile around this time and careless owners can put them at risk of pregnancy when they’re simply too young to deal with it or lose male dogs who start to roam. However, this advice is still given to those owners who are more than capable of keeping their bitch from getting pregnant or keeping their dog from disappearing off after the smell of a bitch on heat.

At 6 months, a dog is still just a puppy. They have not developed physically or emotionally from puppyhood and to neuter at this age can cause changes in growth rates, spay incontinence, and even cause issues with maturing emotionally as the hormones are stripped away and become imbalanced.

Of course, some dogs do just fine neutered at this age, and some don’t, and you’ll never really know how things may have been different because each dog is different and you can’t go back and change it. However, the research coming out of studies suggests there’s a lot of benefits, both physically and emotionally, from waiting that little bit longer.

Each case is different of course, but as a rule, if there was no particular reason for wanting to go ahead with the surgery sooner, I would personally want to wait until a dog had matured and was fully grown before opting to castrate or spay. Equally, the reasons for sometimes opting to go for the surgery are misguided.

Behaviour problems

Much of the time, we are told that dogs will calm down if they’re neutered. An aggressive dog will become better with other dogs, for example, or a very hyperactive dog will become easier to live with.

This is often a fallacy. A hyperactive dog is usually just an active dog that people weren’t prepared for, acting as young active dogs do. The calming down comes with age and education, but can be falsely attributed to a neutering operation that happened around the same time.

If a dog is experiencing serious behaviour issues, I’m reluctant to advise neutering, though sometimes a chemical alternative such as Suprelorin can give a fair idea of whether the suppression or removal of hormones would help. It’s important to note that an implant or ‘chemical castration’ whilst not permanent, is not a short term alternative either. It cannot be removed if the effects are not as desired. The effects of the implant last for a year from insertion and cannot be reversed once they have started to work. The implant dissolves and therefore cannot be removed.

There are certain hormones that are responsible for, or contribute to certain behaviours and altering the hormones may help, but it may also worsen behaviour problems. Neutering can also halt the process of hormonal changes in a dog and therefore keep the dog in what may have otherwise been a passing ‘phase’ related to hormonal changes.

A litter first? Or spay before the first season for health?

There has been so much contrasting advice out there with regards to spaying early to avoid health problems related to the reproductive system/hormones, or that letting the bitch have a litter first is better for her health. There is of course also the idea that you should let a male dog have a mating first before castration – though the reasoning behind this just seems to be so he isn’t missing out entirely!

The truth is, according to studies, neutering early doesn’t give better protection against related health risks. Of course neutering late can increase the chances of health risks associated with the reproductive system, but waiting until the dog is fully grown is not neutering late. There are even studies that claim neutering brings its own related health problems and some people opt to not neuter at all as a result.

As mentioned before, spay incontinence and growth changes (not growing how they would have, with castrated males often turning out to be larger than they should be due to growing slower and for longer, and with both males and females turning out to be out of proportion) can be a result of early neutering. However, my first bitch was spayed aged 2 and still developed spay incontinence so you can never be sure! For me, this is not a big deal, medication has controlled this for 11 years with no ill effects.

Castrating a male after allowing him to ‘do the deed’ is also an interesting choice. It will do nothing for his health, and whilst it may seem nice to let him do it just the once, he will then know what he’s doing and what he’s missing. Many castrated males will still become interested in a bitch on heat, regardless of when they were castrated, but those who have mated before will be more likely to know where they’re going and how this works!

Alternatives to full spay/castration

There are now even alternatives to the full spay/castration traditionally offered. Some people opt for a vasectomy for the male dogs, which renders them infertile but doesn’t mess around with hormones – just as with humans.

Bitches can now have the ovaries removed (ovariectomy) without the full spay (ovariohysterectomy). It is a much less invasive procedure, with much the same health benefits of a full ovariohysterectomy but a quicker healing period and fewer risks.

I am not a vet, and I am in no way qualified to explain either of the above procedures, but I have included them so that you can do your research and speak to your vet regarding them if you wish to. Be aware that the ovariectomy in particular is not such a commonly practiced procedure and your own vet may not have a lot of experience with it so you may wish to speak with someone with more experience in that particular surgery to help you make a decision.

My Conclusion

It’s entirely upto you and it’s necessary to do your own research and make a decision you’re comfortable with as to whether you neuter at all, and when you do that.. However, I’d almost always strongly suggest waiting until physical maturity before neutering and, if behaviour problems (specifically aggression) are an issue to contact a veterinary behaviourist before going ahead with neutering.

For me, unless there are extenuating circumstances, I would wait until around 2 years of age before neutering and would most likely opt for ovariectomy over ovariohysterectomy for bitches.
I have opted to get it done earlier in the past, but this is what I’ve learned and feel more comfortable with. It’s my personal preference and circumstances may change that.

Bearded collie in buster collar / elizabethan collar / lampshade post surgery.

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