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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".


Neutering dogs – Bitch spay operation: a step by step guide

Deciding whether to spay Spaying or neutering a female dog is not a small operation, so owners should think carefully about all the pros and cons before deciding. The main advantages of spaying are preventing pregnancy, preventing infection of the uterus (pyometra), preventing ovarian or uterine cancer and reducing the likelihood of mammary (breast) cancer, all of which can be life-threatening. It also prevents the inconvenience of having a bitch in season with unwanted attention from male dogs. The main disadvantages are major surgery with associated risks, an anaesthetic with associated risks and the increased likelihood of urinary incontinence in later life. Fortunately, the risks involved in anaesthesia and surgery are very small indeed compared with the risks of the other conditions which are prevented by spaying. Urinary incontinence in later life is a nuisance but not very common, and can usually be controlled by drugs. There is no medical reason to let a bitch have one litter before spay, in fact some of the benefits like protection against mammary tumours, are lost if the operation is delayed. Unless an owner is committed to having a litter, with all the work and expense that can be involved, and the bitch is also suitable in temperament and free of any hereditary problems, then breeding should not be considered. Tilly GrinSome people expect that their bitch will get fat after spay, but in fact this is entirely preventable with a healthy diet and proper exercise. My own opinion is that most bitches should be spayed because of the health benefits. My boxer bitch Tilly was recently spayed. Deciding when to spay It is not a good idea to spay when a bitch is in season or about to come into season, because the blood vessels supplying the uterus and ovaries are all larger and this will increase the risks of surgery. The other time we try to avoid is the 8 weeks after a season, when a bitch may suffer from a hormonal imbalance called a false pregnancy. If this happens, she may be acting as if she is nursing pups and the operation at this time would cause such sudden changes in hormone levels that it would be unfair to her. Also if she was producing milk, the enlargement of the milk glands would make it more difficult for the spay wound to heal. For all of these reasons, the time chosen to spay is usually either before the first season occurs, or 3-4 months after a season. A physical examination by the vet will determine whether a 5-6 month old bitch puppy is mature enough to spay before her first season. Before the operation As well as timing the operation carefully to reduce any risks, it is also important that the bitch is not overweight. Because this increases the difficulty of the operation, it may well be advised that an overweight bitch should lose weight before the operation. Another important way of spotting avoidable risks is by taking a blood test before the anaesthetic. This could be done on the day of the operation or a few days earlier. This is used to check the liver and kidney function (both vital when dealing with anaesthetic drugs) and to rule out any unsuspected illnesses. Before going to the surgery Before any anaesthetic the patient should be starved for a number of hours, according to the instructions of the surgery. This prevents any problems with vomiting which could be dangerous. It is also a good idea to allow the dog enough exercise to empty the bladder and bowels. Apart from that, it is best to stick as closely as possible to the normal routines of the day so that the dog does not feel anxious. Being admitted for surgery On arrival at the surgery, you can expect to be seen by a vet or a veterinary nurse who will check that you understand the nature of the operation and will answer any questions you may have. They will ask you to read and to sign a consent form for the procedure and ask you to supply contact phone numbers. This is very important in case anything needs to be discussed with the owner before or during the operation. Before the anaesthetic Your bitch will be weighed to help calculate the dosages of drugs and given a physical examination including checking her heart. If a pre-anaesthetic blood test has not already been done, it will be done now and the results checked before proceeding. If any abnormalities are found, these will be discussed with the owner before deciding whether the operation goes ahead or not. One possible outcome is that extra precautions such as intravenous fluids may be given. A pre-med, which is usually a combination of several drugs, will be given by injection. This begins to make the dog feel a bit sleepy and ensures that pain relief will be as effective as possible. The anaesthetic There are several ways in which this can be given, but the most common is by an injection into the vein of the front leg. The effects of the most commonly used drugs are very fast, but don’t last for very long, so a tube is placed into the windpipe to allow anaesthetic gas and oxygen to be given. The anaesthetic gas allows the right level of anaesthesia to be maintained safely for as long as necessary. Various pieces of equipment will then be connected up to monitor the anaesthetic. This is a skilled job which would usually be carried out by a qualified veterinary nurse. Apart from the operating table, the instruments and the anaesthetic machine, a lot of specialised equipment will be on “stand by” in case it is needed. The area where the surgical incision is to be made will be prepared by clipping and thorough cleaning to make it as close to sterile as possible. The site is usually in the middle of the tummy, but some vets prefer to use an incision through the side of the tummy. The operation While the bitch is being prepared for surgery as mentioned above, the surgeon will be “scrubbing up” and putting on sterile clothing (gown, gloves, hat & mask) just as in all television surgical drama programmes. The surgical instruments will have been sterilised in advance and are opened and laid out at the start of the operation. The operation involves removal of the ovaries and uterus (ovario-hysterectomy). The surgeon carefully opens the abdomen by cutting through the various layers. The first ovary is located and its blood vessels are tied off before it can be cut free at one end, then this is repeated with the second ovary. It is a delicate and fiddly job, needing great care and attention. The main body of the womb or uterus is then tied off as well before the whole thing can be cut free and removed. After checking for any bleeding, the layers of the tummy can then be sewn closed again. A dressing might be applied to the wound. Further drugs may be given now as needed. When the operation is finished, the gas anaesthetic is reduced and the bitch begins to wake up. She will be constantly monitored and the tube removed from her windpipe when she reaches the right level of wakefulness. Recovery Like humans, dogs are often a bit woozy as they come round, so she will be placed in a cage with soft warm bedding and kept under observation. Usually they will wake up uneventfully and then sleep it off for the rest of the day. After-care The bitch will not be allowed home until she is able to walk and is comfortable. Full instructions should be given by the surgery concerning after-care. The most important things would be to check the appearance of the wound, to prevent the bitch from licking it (with a plastic bucket-collar if necessary) and to limit her exercise by keeping her on the lead. Any concerns of any kind should be raised with the surgery. Any medication supplied should be given according to the instructions. Pain relief can be given by tablets or liquid on the food. Antibiotics are not always needed, but may be supplied if there is a need for them. Usually there will be stitches in the skin which need to be removed after about 10 days, but sometimes these are concealed under the surface and will dissolve by themselves.

tilly's wound with text

After a couple of weeks, if all goes according to plan, the bitch can be allowed to gradually increase her exercise levels. This is the stage that Tilly has now reached and she is thoroughly enjoying a good run again now that she is feeling back to normal.

Jack and Zac

Joe Inglis BVSc MRCVS is the vet for the One Show, This Morning and BBC Breakfast. He runs his own line of natural pet food called Pet’s Kitchen. Owning a dog is much more than simply looking after a pet to many people. To many owners dogs are literally one of the family and are involved in all aspects of family life, from everyday activities to holidays, travel and even, in some cases, work. In my case my dog Jack is not just very much at the heart of the family he’s also at the heart of my pet food business Pets’ Kitchen. Our original brand of dog food, Joe & Jack’s, was named after him and he played a significant role in developing the recipe through tasting and approving various different versions during the testing phase of development. And even now we have moved on to develop a new range of food which doesn’t bear his name, he’s still very much involved in the whole taste testing and recipe development process. Jack comes into work at Pets’ Kitchen with me when I’m not in the surgery and spends his days patrolling the warehouse hovering up stray biscuits and generally keeping an eye on his pet food empire! Having such a close relationship with my own dog definitely helps me empathise with clients at work who feel equally strongly about their own canine companions, especially when things get difficult. At times like these empathising with the owners can help me understand what they are going through and be more sensitive in how I approach their case, but it also has its downside as I can share their sadness and stress when cases don’t turn out as hoped. A recent case involving a dog called Zac really affected me deeply as the dog was very similar in many ways to Jack – a middle aged collie-cross dog with plenty of character and a slightly shaggy black and white coat. His owners, Meg and Peter, had been coming to the surgery with Zac since he was a puppy and even though I’d only started looking after Zac a year or so ago I quickly developed a close bond with both patient and owners and was always very happy to see Zac bounding into the surgery for his boosters every year. A few months ago however I had to see Zac in very different circumstances. Meg brought him in looking very worried, and after saying hello to Zac, who was his usual energetic self, I asked her what the problem was. ‘I’ve found a lump in his neck,’ she answered, her voice quavering slightly. My heart sank at this news as I immediately thought of lymphoma, a particularly unpleasant form of cancer that tends to affect collies more commonly than other breeds and typically causes lumps in the neck. And as soon as I felt under Zac’s chin my worst fears were realised as I felt two firm, golf ball sized lumps. Breaking the news that I suspected that Zac had cancer was very difficult indeed and Meg was devastated – as I would have been had it been Jack. Over the next couple of months we confirmed the diagnosis with a biopsy and then started treatment with a cocktail of chemotherapy drugs. Thankfully Zac has responded really well and the lumps in his neck have all but disappeared, which is an immense relief to all concerned – although we are all aware that this is likely to be remission rather than cure. Being a vet is always challenging and often difficult – but cases like this one which feel so close to my own pets and family are always the hardest to deal with of all. If you are worried about a lump or any other symptoms your dog may have, contact your vet or use our interactive Dog Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.
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Harvey’s Retained Testicle

Joe Inglis BVSc MRCVS is the vet for the One Show, This Morning and BBC Breakfast. He runs his own line of natural pet food called Pet’s Kitchen SpanielWhen Harvey the spaniel came in for his routine 6 month check up he looked the picture of health - tail wagging, eyes bright and full of enthusiasm – so neither his owner nor myself were expecting anything other than a straightforward check over. And for the first five minutes of the examination, I found nothing untoward whatsoever - Harvey was clearly a fit and healthy young dog with a strong heart, clear eyes, wet nose, healthy lungs and a good coat. However the final stage of my examination did show that he wasn’t quite 100% perfect and there was a problem that was likely to require treatment, as I explained to his owner, Mrs Mann; ‘Hmm,’ I started as I straightened up from the final stage of my examination at the back end of Harvey’s wriggling body, ‘I’m afraid to say Mrs Mann that there’s a bit of a problem here – Harvey’s only got one descended testicle.’ ‘Oh dear,’ exclaimed Mrs Mann, obviously taken aback by the suggestion that all was not right with her beloved dog, ‘only one testicle – is that a serious problem for him, I mean I’m not planning on breeding from him so it shouldn’t really matter should it?’ ‘Well, it’s not a major problem but if the testicle doesn’t come down in the next few months it will need to be surgically removed as there is a risk of cancer developing if it is left inside his body long term,’ I explained. ‘What I’d advise is that we check him again in 2 months time and see what’s happened. If it’s still not down then I would strongly recommend that we do operate to remove it at that stage.’ Two months later and Harvey was back, this time with less of his puppyish enthusiasm and a little more grown up dog suspicion of vets in his demeanour. And unfortunately my examination revealed that there had been no change and he still only had one testicle descended. I explained to Mrs Mann that there was a tiny chance that he did only have one testicle, but it was far more likely that there was a second testicle stuck in his abdomen – where it would be at high risk of developing cancerous growth in later life if left in place. The reason for this risk is that testicles usually sit outside the abdomen where the temperature is lower, which suits sperm production. If they are left in the abdomen the higher temperature leads to a high risk of the testicular cells turning malignant and cancer developing. After a long discussion about the risks involved and the surgical procedure that he would need, Mrs Mann agreed to book Harvey in for the operation the following week. The operation is far more complex than a straightforward neutering procedure as it involves a game of hide and seek for the missing testicle which can be anywhere in the abdomen from the kidney right down to the groin. Finding testicles in these situations can be a real challenge and I have known operations like this one take hours as the elusive organ evades the surgeon. Thankfully in Harvey’s case the missing testicle was relatively easy to find and the whole procedure was over in a little under half an hour. Despite this relatively speedy operation, it was still around three times as long as a routine castration, and Harvey’s recovery will be slower and more uncomfortable that normal. I suspect that when I see Harvey for his post op check his character will have become even more suspicious where vets are concerned – but for me saving him from a risk of cancer later in life is well worth any grudge he may bear me personally! If you are concerned about your dogs health, please contact your vet or use our interactive Dog Symptom Checker to help you decide what to do next. For more information about insurance which could ensure the cost of operations like this one are covered, please see our pet insurance pages.

The dilemma of Gizmo’s leg tumour

[caption id="attachment_429" align="alignleft" width="282" caption="Gizmo and his vet, Reg."]Gizmo and his vet, Reg.[/caption] Gizmo was a lovable cat who had been known to the practice for many years. She was one of those vocal Orientals who sounded like a baby crying. In fact she had reached the tremendous age of 21 years with no major health problems until his teeth started to loosen and she had difficulty eating. We are always extremely cautious with giving anaesthetics to aged cats so we took some blood tests for organ function which came back completely normal. She came through his dental with flying colours. A couple of months later she came back with a very painful leg, swollen around the left knee (stifle). When we X-rayed the leg our worst fears were confirmed: Gizmo had bone cancer. We took further X-rays and there was no sign of spread to any other part of her body. Bone cancer in dogs is highly malignant and has often already spread by the time the diagnosis is made. Although chemotherapy and amputation are options, survival time can be very poor. Cats are a slightly different proposition and their form of bone cancer (osteosarcoma) tends to stay more confined and is slower to spread. My instinct with Gizmo being 21 was to recommend her being put to sleep but her owner was determined that we should do everything possible for her providing that he did not suffer. Prior to the surgery we were having great trouble keeping Gizmo free of pain and at home she was on strong oral pain relief every couple of hours. I agonised over the decision to operate but was eventually persuaded to go ahead by his owner’s dedication to him and the fact that Gizmo behaved like a cat half her age. [caption id="attachment_431" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Gizmo after amputation of a hind leg."]Gizmo after amputation of a hind leg.[/caption] The surgery went well and Gizmo recovered very quickly and was much more comfortable with the leg removed and surprisingly mobile. She lived on for another seven months when unfortunately the cancer returned in his pelvis and reluctantly at this point we had to admit defeat. Looking back, my colleagues thought I had lost my reason undertaking this surgery on such an old cat but I think the extra quality of life which Gizmo went on to have justified going ahead. Anaesthetics and pain relief are so much better these days than they were twenty years ago. She was certainly one of those cats who seemed to inspire the old folklore about a cat having nine lives and she will never be forgotten by all of us who knew her. If you are concerned about pain, swelling, lumps or any other problems in your cat, please contact your vet or use our interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next. For more information about insurance which could ensure the cost of operations like this one are covered, please see our pet insurance pages.