Was I wrong to castrate my young male dog? And is it wrong to spay young female dogs?

I knew I wasn’t going to breed from my Hungarian Viszla so I made the decision to have him neutered which I did at six months old. Since then I have been told by the breeding fraternity that neutering at such an early age is a factor in dogs getting bone cancer. I cannot bear that I may have done something in good faith that could affect my beloved dog’s future health. What is the truth?

This question from a VetHelpDirect reader is an increasingly common query from pet owners responding to internet rumours and discussions that are doing the rounds. As is often the case, the truth is complicated: we still do not know everything about the impact of spay/neutering, but we do know that there are pluses and minuses to having the operations done.

In the past, it was more-or-less universally agreed that early spay/neuter was the best choice for all dogs and cats. New information from recent studies means that this one-size-fits-all advice now needs to be modified. It seems that spay/neuter of some breeds of young dogs may increase the risk of some some types of cancer. At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the operation also reduces the risk of other (common) cancers. A balanced view now may be that the decision needs to be made for an individual, after considering all factors, rather than just saying “early neutering is always best”.

It does sound to me as in your case, with a Viszla, it was the correct decision. Early neutering is still strongly recommended for nearly all dogs as the best way to ensure that a dog is a good family pet. There are many behavioural advantages, such as stopping male dogs showing sexual behaviour, urine marking etc. And there are many health benefits too – reducing prostate disease, reducing certain types of cancer etc. And bone cancer is rare in Viszlas.

For female dogs, there are also many benefits from spaying. The operation eliminates the risk of unwanted pregnancy, dystocia and the physiological and behavioural changes associated with the six-monthly reproductive cycle. It eliminates the risk of pyometra, which occurs in 23% of intact females and kills approximately 1% of intact females. Mammary tumours are the most common malignant tumours in female dogs, and spaying before 2½ years of age greatly reduces the likelihood of this cancer.

Neutering and spaying has other beneficial effects on a society-wide basis: it prevents dogs from straying and dramatically reduces the problem of unwanted pups.

What about the negative aspects? A comprehensive review paper published in 2007 provides a detailed catalogue of the potential negative risks which seem to be more in some breeds and some cancers than others (e.g. more osteosarcoma in giant breeds like Newfoundlands and St Bernards). A more recent study on Golden Retrievers found an increased risk from other cancers and some joint diseases from early neutering but the study has been criticised by statisticians and other scientists as being potentially biased and not representative of the general population of dogs. It’s likely that other studies are in the pipeline, so it’s worth keeping an eye out for these in the coming years.

When reading these studies, it needs to be remembered that a big increase in the risk of a rare cancer may not be as significant to a pet as a small decrease in the risk of a common cancer. It is not easy for pet owners, unfamiliar with judging medical data, to assess these types of situations.
What should pet owners do? Refuse to spay/neuter their pet, then blame themselves when their male dog develops anal tumours or when mammary cancer affects their female dog? Or go ahead and spay/neuter, then beat themselves up when their pet develops osteosarcoma?

The best answer is that there is no perfect choice. The take home message is that you should not ignore the subject: all pet owners should discuss this with their vet. A decision should be made after addressing all of the issues above. Only in the fullness of time will you know whether it was the right or wrong choice.

The most important issue is that you carefully consider the various implications: at least then, regardless of the outcome, you will be able to look back and say ” I did my best to do the right thing”.

  • Fran says:

    Can you comment on this article then, which has looked at the available research and suggests that castration increases the risk of urinary bladder cancer, prostrate cancer, hemangiosarcomas (particularly of the heart and spleen), osteosarcoma, and cruciate ligament injury. According to a BVA study cited on Wikipedia, castrated males had the shortest lifespan of all dogs. http://www.naiaonline.org/pdfs/LongTermHealthEffectsOfSpayNeuterInDogs.pdf
    http://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/145/22/625

    Additionally, no one tells you about the negative effects castration can have on a dog’s personality. Testosterone can help calm a dog; a friend bitterly regrets castrating her dog, because of the appalling effect it has had on his confidence. I had a dog that lost all interest in life – including his walks, which he used to love, and other dogs – to say the castration ruined his life is an understatement, despite the vet’s assurances that it would have no effect on his personality. He was only 6 and people thought he was 14! A friend’s dog also went from a puppy to an old dog overnight after being castrated.

    Dog population control is important, yes, but this can be acquired through a vasectomy instead of castration. I wish more research was being done on alternatives to spay and neuter to achieve this.

  • pete says:

    The article that you quote is exactly the same article that this blog links to: did you not read it? My point is that it is not always right to castrate a dog, but neither is it always wrong to do so. Would I recommend castrating a terrier that strays after bitches in heat, cocks his leg all over the house to urine-mark and mounts visitors’ legs? YES. WHat about a big soft Labrador boy with none of these issues? NO. The message of this blog is that every case needs to assessed on its own….
    Testosterone does not necessarily calm a dog …. It can be the source of much dog-dog aggression….

  • pete says:

    Another issue here is the fact that dogs’ personalities do change as they grow older and mature., whether or not they are neutered. It is easy to blame castration for an altered personality whereas sometimes this is something which just happens on its own. I am not trying to say that this was the case in your instance, just that it’s an area which requires more research to get some data rather than accepting anecdotes as proof of a cause-effect. I understand that this type of research is in fact underway and over the next year, we will have more information.
    I should also add that I have always had my own male dogs castrated and I have never felt that there were adverse effects on their personalities at all. Again, just anecdotes but I just want to make the point that there is a wide range of experiences out there.

  • Pat says:

    We had our great Dane/ Irish wolfhound cross neutered at 8 months he lived until he was 12.5 yrs old and basically died of old age the only time we visited the vet with a problem was after a run in with a hedgehog where he came off the worst!

  • pete says:

    Thanks for that Pat – that is one of the points – if a rare cancer is made more common, it is still rare – and these nuances are difficult to get through to people – so it’s helpful to have anecdotes like this

  • Kirsty Redshaw says:

    I think as you so rightly say there is a lot to consider when making the right choice for your pet. 2 of my longdogs (saluki x grey) both ultimatley died from rare cancers. Grace died of mesothelioma however had I not have had her neutered when I found her abandoned and injured we would not have discovered early mammary tumours and a mast cell tumour. Meg was speyed at the age of 2 under the direction of the RSPCA. She was treated with radiotherapy and chemo for histiocytic sarcoma in 2010 but passed away suddenly aged 13 due to haemangio sarcoma. I think my decision to spey them both could or could not have contributed to the incidence of their cancers but ultimatley I think they had much happier lives without seasons, phantom pregnancies and reduced off lead exercise whilst in season.

    My longdog (saluki x whippet) Teddy remains entire at the age of 4. Generally this is frowned upon by the rescue world however I have discussed as you quite rightly suggest Pete with my vet at some length. Despite friendly visits to the vet Teddy remains scared and at his check up collapsed after throwing himself sideways into the wall with a ridiculously high heart rate. In conjuntion he is a worrisome.little dog and I fear he will become more so with reduced testosterone. After Meg died in February he has grieved, refusing food and becoming subdued only perking up this last couple of weeks. He isn’t a humper, doesn’t scent and is generally a loving dog so it has never been high on my list of priorities especially with other sick dogs. However i am worried about testicular cancer and also the fact he is more at risk if being stolen as an entire dog. My vet very kindly researched chemical castration as an option to avoid a stressfull clinic admission but i felt not enough research had been done. For the moment i have chosen not to castrate but that is not a definative decision but one that could change as Teddy will change. My decision is based on what is best for him. Not what i want or the rescue states although I have to say the rescue he came from have understood my position as Teddy came here because he needed an experienced home due to his early experiences.

    In my opinion the best choice is an informed choice which I don’t think a lot of people are afforded.

  • Fran says:

    My apologies, I read your other blog post on castration and then replied to this one.

    The changes to my dog’s personality was literally overnight. I can confidently say it was linked to his castration and not a normal change as he grew older.

    I would like there to be more sterilisation options for dogs, rather than just removal of the gonads. Why isn’t tubal ligation or vasectomy more widely considered? Would it not be better to use tubal ligation or vasectomy for breeds that are say, prone to osteosarcoma, but not at high risk for mammary tumours? At the moment we have a one-size-fits-every-dog approach to dog population control, even though neutering may not be in the best interests of that individual dog.

    I also understand that it is unwise to neuter a dog until it has finished growing, as the sex hormones play an important role in bone growth/closing of the growth plates. Dogs neutered before they’re fully grown, grow taller than they otherwise would do. I was talking to a canine sports massage therapist and she didn’t recommend neutering before the dog had finished growing for this reason. I’d be interested whether a canine physiotherapist says the same thing.

  • Another interesting post on your website, keep up good work!

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