Spay/Neuter Awareness Month: A Veterinarian’s Perspective

February is the Humane Society’s Spay/Neuter Awareness Month (its annual World Spay Day is officially February 28).

If you’re reading Pets Adviser, you’re probably in love with your pets and are fully aware that spaying/neutering is the best thing for them. Unfortunately, I still get a good bit of resistance from some owners. Culture and ignorance dictate what people think about “fixing” their pets.

Celebrate Spay Neuter Awareness Month

Celebrate Spay/Neuter Awareness Month

One thing is certain: Cost should not be a factor. I try to keep spay/neuter affordable even at my “full service” hospital. But if your regular veterinarian has a fee that presents a hardship for you, there is plenty of assistance from many organizations and quite a few low-cost spay/neuter clinics around. Ask your veterinarian or check out the Humane Society or the ASPCA. You can find spay/neuter programs in your area by typing in your zip code.

If you are contemplating acquiring an animal, many reputable shelters will not adopt a pet without it being spayed/neutered. This includes puppies and kittens because of safe early spay/neuter programs. If you are buying an animal, then you should be able to afford to spay or neuter it yourself.

Don’t buy a breed! Adopt a pet in need.

Health Benefits: There are many health benefits to spay/neuter. Females are at less risk for infections of the reproductive tract (pyometra) and mammary tumors (breast cancer). Males will not develop testicular tumors and will be less prone to prostate and associated urinary problems.

Cats, in particular, will have less exposure to fatal diseases such as feline leukemia and the feline AIDS virus if they are spayed/neutered. They will fight less and will not be mating, which means they will be avoiding the most common ways these feline diseases are spread.

Behavioral Benefits: Behavior problems are lessened when a pet is spayed or neutered. Males tend to exhibit fewer testosterone-driven behaviors, such as urine marking, aggression and roaming. Females are less likely to fight as well.

Animal Welfare: Obviously, your pet will not be able to reproduce, helping to control the ever growing and unwanted pet population. That said, the animal welfare community has been unable to convince everyone of the benefits of spay/neuter.

Here are some sad stories from personal experience:

The Oldschools

Mr. and Mrs. Oldschool brought in their 7-year-old little dog, Candy, intact (not spayed). Candy was in good health, and I asked why she wasn’t spayed. They were new clients.

“He never wanted to,” said Mrs. O.

“Why not?” I asked them.

“Because,” Mrs. Oldschool answered, as if Mr. O wasn’t in the room, “he just never wanted to.”

I told them about the risks of Candy not being spayed. At her age, she might develop a bad pyometra (infection) or mammary tumors because she wasn’t spayed. Either of these conditions could threaten her life. I explained that she was still considered a good surgical candidate and that the spay surgery should be straightforward. Better to spay her now when she is in good health than wait until she is very sick or has cancer.

One year later, when Candy was 8, Mrs. Oldschool brought her back. Mrs. O had “felt something.” Candy had a small mammary tumor. I explained that it was important to remove the tumor and spay the dog. I didn’t want to overwhelm her, talking about chest X-rays and biopsies at this point. Explaining that not being spayed and mammary cancer were linked was enough information to communicate.

Seven months later, the couple came in together. Mr. O was carrying Candy. The dog’s little abdomen was covered with hard, painful mammary tumors. The tumors had ulcerated and were dragging on the floor. “What’s wrong with her?” Mr. O asked.

I considered the tumors to be almost inoperable at this point. “She has cancerous tumors,” I said.

“What can you do for her?”

My face conveyed what he already knew. I spoke quietly about drastic surgery, and I was honest that it would be very hard or impossible at this point. I talked about pain medicine. They sat. They left without speaking to me or to one another.

Two weeks later, at closing time, they brought Candy in. They didn’t have an appointment. They wouldn’t stay with her. He handed her to me, the crying muffled in his scarf.

I presume that Mr. Oldschool had always had dogs on the farm and they were never spayed or neutered. They lived, probably without health care, until they died. I believe he couldn’t imagine that something bad would happen to Candy and he couldn’t acknowledge the depth of his attachment until it was too late.

When a dog is not spayed, her body continues to make estrogen. The estrogen can cause mammary and reproductive tract tumors and uterine infections. Spaying a dog early in life removes this risk.

Mr. T

Mr. T is the rural New England version of Jersey Shore’s “The Situation.” Mr. T’s chest is exposed, and I really wish it wasn’t. I believe there’s a piercing or two, but I’m really not looking. He stands with a pelvic thrust. Of course he owns a pit bull.

Put on your seat belts. Explaining Bruno’s testosterone-dependent behaviors to Mr. T is going to be a wild ride.

“So Bruno’s more than a year now, T. You thinking about that neuter? I told you I thought he should be neutered at 6 months.” (Bruno joyfully walks to the corner of my exam room and lifts his leg on the door.) A snarl is heard. It’s not from the dog.

“Neuter,” Mr. T mutters. “Whafore?

“Well, you know after about a year and a half, dogs start to feel their hormones!” I decide to describe testosterone-dependent behaviors in the vernacular. “He’s going to piss on everything in sight (urine mark), cruise for bitches (roaming behavior) and maybe bite the living daylights out of someone or something (aggression).

“Nah, I like him the way he is. Look at that dog. He listens to me. He could have nice puppies or something.”

Or something, I think.

My chances are slim, but I talk to T about the responsibilities of owning a dog that has a tendency toward aggression and reiterate that Bruno may be great now but after 2 years of age, he just might not be that easy-going. The longer Bruno remains intact, the greater the possibility of testosterone wreaking havoc.

Should I tell Mr. T that the kill shelters in this country kill more pit bulls than any other breed? These poor dogs are frequently owned by irresponsible people; they’re abandoned, untrained, not neutered and nobody wants them.

Should I tell Mr. T that a great client of mine was a highly responsible pit bull owner but his wife forgot to latch the screen door only once, and Tintin burst out the door and killed his neighbor’s pomeranian in less than a minute — with both owners looking on, helpless? Tintin was wagging his tail on my exam table when his owner told me I had to put him down. It was a sad day.

I told Mr. T all that and more. Then I told him that if he didn’t neuter the dog, he shouldn’t come back to me.

Ms. Vague

Last week a nice enough lady brought my associate a very sick little foo-foo of a dog for an exam. (“Foo-foo” is a term of endearment we use at my hospital for any cute, furry little dog of some “lhasa-shee-poo-pom” extraction.) Angel hadn’t eaten for a week, and her vaginal area was putrid from draining pus. The dog was extremely ill. This was Friday and Ms. Vague was leaving for the weekend. My associate explained the gravity of Angel’s situation, that the dog had a pyometra (uterus filled with pus) and that if the uterus ruptured (broke open), Angel would become septic and could die. Angel should stay for surgery (an emergency spay).

Ms. Vague took this under consideration and left the hospital against medical advice. She took Angel with her to Cape Cod for the weekend and brought her to another vet on the Cape who told her the same thing about Angel’s condition. Monday was a holiday, so Ms. Vague called us on Monday, having stayed at the Cape the extra day, saying she could have Angel back at our hospital around 4 p.m. for the surgery. My wonderful associate was apparently more worried about Angel than her owner (who had never had her spayed) and performed emergency surgery at 5. What is wrong with some owners?!

Five days after surgery, IV fluids, tons of antibiotics, drugs to control vomiting and pain, Angel is doing well. She’s all fixed now. The suffering Angel endured, the possible risk and the cost to the owner could have been avoided if the dog had been spayed at an early age.

In these cases I’ve outlined, the decision to spay or neuter wasn’t about the money. Was it cultural in the case of the Oldschools? Stupidity or “machismo” in Mr. T’s case? Benign neglect with Ms. Vague? In any case, the animal welfare and veterinary community did not get through to these owners, and their pets suffered or died.

Cats!

Cats have similar problems to dogs when not spayed/neutered. Over-population, however, is even more extreme of a problem in cats than in dogs. That is why you should never let your cat “have kittens” just for the cuteness factor in it. Think about healthy kittens and cats being euthanized because there’s no one to adopt them. Then think again about letting your cat get pregnant just so you can give kittens away to your friends and neighbors. Let Aunt Sophie adopt at her local shelter so some shelter worker doesn’t have to euthanize another perfectly healthy kitten.

When I graduated from vet school (back in 1899), my very first job was with a hospital that did the work for our local rural animal shelter. Once in a while, when there was absolutely no more room at “the Inn,” I was required to euthanize healthy cats or kittens. I felt it was unfair to my fellow veterinarians to decline to do this, so I euthanized cats for the shelter once. Then I quit and found another job that didn’t require me to euthanize any animal I didn’t want to. But I vowed to do whatever I could in the future to cut down on euthanasias to save animal lives and to help animal welfare workers.

I leave you with my philosophy and soapbox thought for the week:

If you have a pet at home not spayed or neutered yet, either because of laziness on your part, financial reasons or some other ill-conceived notion, get off the couch and make plans to schedule the surgery soon.

  1. Find out where you can get financial assistance in your community if you qualify.
  2. Go on the Humane Society’s website if this article hasn’t convinced you it’s the right thing to do.
  3. Know that you are saving your pet from future health complications and you are saving yourself some big vet bills in the future if you spay/neuter NOW!

Have a nice February. Look forward to a spring where there are fewer stray kittens left in dumpsters and fewer puppies in shelters living a miserable life. And if you have a little extra, donate to an animal welfare organization this month. It can be your Valentine’s present to somebody’s next big love of their life: a cat or a dog!

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From Around the Web

  • http://www.cardinalanimalhospital.com/home.html Joanne V. Baldwin, DVM

    I’m also a veterinarian and I no longer blanketly recommend spay/neuter for dogs. There is increasing, current information that indicates that spay/neuter, especially early spay/neuter, may not be in the best interest of the animal. There is evidence that unbalancing the endocrine system of young animals, by removing the sex organs, may lead to increased incidence of both physical and behavioral abnormalities including, but not limited to, anxieties, hypothyroidism, certain cancers, incontinence, etc.

    I currently recommend to my clients that if they wish to neuter their dogs, they at least wait until the animals are finished growing.

    Yes, we wish to limit the population of unwanted dogs. No question. But shelters in many areas are now importing “unwanted” dogs from other countries and states to meet the demand for “rescue” dogs, bringing along with them, in one recent case, parvo outbreaks (from Puerto Rico) and who knows what other diseases. In my area, shelters engaging in early spay/neuter assault these babies’ immune systems by neuters, vaccinating for everything under the sun on the same day, then adopting out the pup three days later. In one recent case the pup got spayed, distemper, adeno, lepto, parvo, rabies at the same time, was adopted out three days later, then the next day the shelter called the new owners to advise them that the littermate was just diagnosed with parvo and they should “watch” the pups for signs of parvo. How is this in the best interest of the animal?

    • Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

      There is always discussion in the veterinary world about what is best for the animals entrusted to us. My recent search shows an overwhelming number of veterinarians, including specialists, think the benefits of spaying/neutering far outweigh any unproven risks.

      Unfortunately, there have not been high-quality, scientific, controlled studies addressing this subject. No studies have been done successfully comparing say, 6-week, 6-month and 6-year-old dogs, their medical and/or behavioral problems, and their spay/neuter status. One study of 1,400 performance dogs suggested the spayed females had bodies not as fit for performance as the intact dogs, but the study was very flawed. More work should and will be done. If you want to wait until 14 months of age to spay your agility golden retriever, by all means do so!

      Most reproduction, endocrine and behavioral experts still believe that the benefits of a young spay/neuter program outweigh the risks.

      In the exotics world, we have learned that Marshall Farms ferrets suffer a boatload of medical issues because of their early spay/neuter. Most ferret breeders are adopting different protocols. (Female ferrets must be spayed or bred, however, or they suffer fatally from estrogen toxicity.) There is more to learn about cats/dogs.

      Early spay/neuter (7-8 weeks of age!) is something that should be left to the shelters, and more studies should be done. I agree that it’s a shame to put these little things through a surgery and all their vaccines just for the convenience of the shelters, but this does ensure that these animals won’t leave the shelter and reproduce. Also, there is a greater risk that adopters from shelters may not be responsible enough to follow up with the spay/neuter on their own, particularly if not financially covered.

      Some breeders want their pups spayed before they go to their new homes (8 weeks!) to make sure their line isn’t bred or to corner the market in their area. I don’t think this is advantageous to the pup. Sell the puppy to a good home and insist on a spay/neuter contract.

      Personally, this is still a no-brainer for me. Prevent the cancers, the behaviors, and the over-population. I am thrilled that the Northeast is importing Dixie dogs. Say Long Island stops spaying/neutering and stops bringing the dogs destined for the gas truck up from Louisiana. What happens then? There are more dogs in the total equation, so more dogs are killed. We have the problem somewhat curbed in certain regions. Now we have to go to work on the rest.

      And yes, some dogs are brought in from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, but what a great thing! If you’ve ever seen the condition of the stray dogs living right alongside the fancy resorts in the Caribbean, you’d want to rent a plane and bring them all home! I, personally, adhere to an open immigration policy. I recently had a client bring home a flea-infested, mange-ridden, heartworm- and ehrlichia-positive, unspayed dog from Martinique. She’s all better now! I guess you could say she’s fixed.