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Dog Neutering: Is Earlier Better?

Is early neutering good for dogs?

Have you heard the term early neuter and wondered what it means? Do you question whether it's a good idea for your dog? Are there reasons you might not want to have your dog neutered early? Let's explore the terminology, risks, and benefits associated with early neutering in dogs.

The Terminology of Dog Neutering

It's helpful to understand the common terminology that is used for surgical procedures that prevent reproduction in dogs. Here are some terms to know:

  • Neuter: This term refers to surgically rendering a male or female dog unable to reproduce. It may be more commonly used to refer to the male surgery, but it can technically refer to either.
  • Fix: People commonly use this term to mean any surgical procedure that renders an animal (either male or female) unable to reproduce.
  • Alter: This is used in the same manner as the terms fix and neuter: any procedure on either a male or female dog that surgically sterilizes them.
  • Spay: In the US, the term spay refers to surgically removing the ovaries and uterus of a female dog.
  • Castrate: This refers to the neutering of a male by completely removing the testicles.
  • Gonadectomy: This is the removal of the sex organs, or gonads, of either a male or a female.
  • Ovariohysterectomy: This term refers to the removal of the ovaries and uterus in a female. In the US, this is the most common way to neuter a female dog.
  • Pediatric neuter: While pediatric neutering refers to performing surgery prior to six months of age, in the veterinary community it has become synonymous with altering dogs around six to eight weeks of age and weighing at least two pounds. The following terms are also commonly used for performing neuter surgery on these very young dogs:

    • Early age neuter
    • Juvenile neuter

General Benefits of Neutering Dogs

Most dog owners will appreciate having their dog neutered. Some of the benefits of neutering are:

  • Neutered male dogs tend to have fewer behavioral problems such as aggression, mounting, and running away in search of a female.
  • Male dogs have a greatly decreased risk of prostatic disease and no risk of testicular disease once they are neutered.
  • Female neutered dogs will not have bloody vaginal discharge during biannual estrus, or heat, cycles. There won't be any unwanted litters of puppies.
  • If she is neutered before the occurrence of her first heat cycle, a female dog's risk of mammary cancer is the lowest possible.
  • The risk of pyometra, a severe, life-threatening bacterial infection of the uterus, is almost eliminated when a female is neutered.
  • Some people think it would be fun to see their dog have a litter of puppies. However, there are risks and expenses that may be more than initially prepared for. These include an unforeseen need for a cesarean section, injuries to the mother or the pups, prenatal care, and finding homes for the puppies. It is also a lot of work.

Benefits of Early Age (Pediatric) Neutering in Dogs

More veterinarians are performing neuter surgeries in dogs closer to eight weeks of age for several reasons, including:

  • Neutering by eight weeks of age helps ensure that the surgery is done before the dog's first heat, which can be at or before four months of age in small dog breeds.
  • With early age neutering, there are fewer surgical and post-surgical complications reported. These include excessive bleeding, seromas (serum-filled pockets under the incision), sutures falling out, excessive chewing of the sutures by the dog, internal infection, or infections of the incision line.
  • Dogs typically experience quicker recoveries when neutered early.
  • There will be no first heat when a neuter surgery is performed this early, so the future risk of mammary cancer in females is drastically reduced.
  • Anesthesia times for these early neuter surgeries are often shorter than when the surgery is performed at six months of age or later. This leads to a decrease in the associated anesthetic risks.
  • When neutered between six and eight weeks of age, most dogs will have already had the surgery when they are adopted. This decreases the chances that the surgery will be put off by a new owner until some of the benefits of early neutering are lost.
  • Pediatric neutering is endorsed by the AVMA, ASPCA, HSUS, AAHA, AKC, and multiple veterinary colleges.

What Are the Risks of Early Age Neutering in Dogs?

There are a few concerns that have been associated with pediatric neuters in the past. The main three are:

Female Dogs' Increased Risk of Incontinence Later in Life

All spayed female dogs have a 4.9-20% risk of developing urinary incontinence. One study shows a possible increased risk for the development of incontinence if dogs are spayed before three months of age. More research must be done to determine the real probability numbers. Female incontinence due to neutering can be treated with medication and usually responds well.

Hypoglycemia During Surgery

Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, can develop more easily in smaller, younger dogs than in older, bigger ones. This condition can be dangerous, especially in small dogs, and can even result in seizures and death if it is pronounced enough.

Traditionally, food has been withheld from dogs prior to surgery for about twelve hours. This is done because anesthesia sometimes causes nausea and vomiting. A dog that is under the influence of anesthesia has less ability to control his or her epiglottis and protect the airway if food is present in the vomit. Because of this, food in the vomit may be inhaled, or aspirated, into the lungs. This is a dangerous situation and the reason that food is withheld prior to anesthesia.

However, it has been found that restricting food for only four hours prior to surgery is enough to greatly reduce the risk of aspiration surrounding the anesthesia while also significantly decreasing the risk of the development of hypoglycemia present when withholding food for twelve hours. Feeding the dog a small amount of food as soon as he or she is able to stand post-operatively further reduces the risk of developing hypoglycemia.

Hypothermia During Surgery

Hypothermia, or low body temperature, is a risk during any surgery. Anesthetics can cause hypothermia, and this is an even greater concern in smaller, younger patients. Hypothermia has many negative effects on the body, and it can slow the dog's recovery from anesthesia and affect healing after the surgery. Hypothermia is easily prevented by keeping patients warm during and after surgery. The development of better ways to monitor and warm dogs during anesthesia has resulted in the ability of veterinary staff to greatly reduce or eliminate the development of hypothermia, even in very young, small surgical patients.

Additional Possible Risks of Early Age Neutering in Dogs

In addition to the above risks, which can be moderated easily with today's better anesthetic and surgical monitoring capabilities, there are some questions about long-term effects of early age neutering in dogs.

In 2013, a small study was conducted on a group of male and female Golden retrievers by researchers at the University of California-Davis. The researchers looked at the medical records of 759 Golden retrievers. They looked at males, females, those neutered early, those neutered after one year of age, and those never neutered (intact). Specifically, they were looking for the incidence of the following five diseases: hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear, lymphosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, and mast cell tumor. There was a greater rate of all five conditions in dogs that were neutered when compared to those that were not. Additionally, hip dysplasia, cranial cruciate ligament tear, and lymphosarcoma were specifically seen more often in dogs that were neutered prior to one year of age.

This study raises concerns about neutering in dogs and especially early neutering. However, most experts agree that, while risk factors for some conditions may increase due to neutering, some (such as mammary cancer and prostate cancer) decrease. Also, different dog breeds may experience an increase or decrease in the rates of differing illnesses based on the timing of their neuter surgeries. More research in other dog breeds or studies conducted on dogs regardless of breed are necessary to further clarify these issues.

Final Thoughts

Neutering (early or otherwise) seems to be effective in decreasing pet over-population. While the numbers are not known with certainty, it is estimated that, 30 years ago, more than 70 million shelter animals were euthanized every year. Today, after the widespread institution of neutering, the number is somewhere around 5 million. This impact alone means that the veterinary profession will probably be hard-pressed to give up neutering dogs (and cats) as a generally-recommended practice.

More research is necessary to determine whether there are optimal ages to neuter different dog breeds. It is likely that no across-the-board recommendation is appropriate for determining the age to neuter a dog. As with all medical decisions, discussing this with your veterinarian will enable you to make an informed decision.

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